Welcome to Little Car in the Big City, where I highlight fascinating cars I found walking around a town that is known for being bigger than everything else, but where every car is fighting to stand out: New York, New York.
It's hard to overstate the iconic status of the Checker Marathon, which for decades held the title of "New York City's Taxicab." It's also hard to overstate the degree to which these old tanks have sadly vanished from New York City streets. More rare a sight than any random Ferrari California or Lamborghini Gallardo, it's difficult to even spot one that hasn't been turned into some sort of HSBC marketing gimmick or something like that. Which is why it's such a rare treat to see a real one, live, in the flesh, and completely unsullied.
There's been a lot of argument and back-and-forth about the Nissan NV200, which is tentatively set to take over from the Ford Crown Victoria as New York City's next generation of taxi. Some of the criticism is that it's not Crown-Vic enough, with none of the ridiculous rear legroom, none of the big V8 that can be repaired with a brick and some string, and none of the ultimate durability that the rear-wheel drive Ford provided. But to be honest, it's not even about the Crown Vic.
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It's about this, the Checker Marathon. The Marathon is the archetype for the New York City cab. It originated the concept of a ridiculously big V8 for a city car, it originated the concept of rear-wheel drive in a city that sees snow, and it originated the concept of more legroom and trunk space than a normal person ever knew what to do with – and it was loved.
Part of the reason why Checker Cabs were loved was not because of the passenger experience, but the driver experience. I'm not talking about XM Satellite Radio on which to play your bad music in the ultimate pursuit of annoying every tourist you pick up, but repairability. Parts were always available, thanks to a Ford front suspension, a Chevrolet steering assembly, and interior parts from Studebaker. In many ways, the Checker was iconic not because it was representative of one of the major offerings of the Big Three manufacturers, but because it was an amalgam of all of them.
And that's maybe what led to this cab's demise. Though it was iconic, when the Checker Motors Corporation (that's the CMC seen above) decided to get out of the car assembly business in 1982, there were no other Checker cars being built to take up the slack, leading to their replacement and eventual demise. Taxis lead hard lives, and their everyday abuse can lead to high turnover.
Even still, when the Checker Cab met its demise, so did a little piece of old New York. The New York that had its own accent, the New York that had character (read: looting), the New York that was a little bit gritty and a little bit grimy that kids in Ohio still dream of and then they move to Williamsburg and they call it "Billyburg" and then everyone hates them for raising everyone's rents while they still manage to have no real job.
Apropos of nothing, my girlfriend once went to jury duty in Brooklyn and a potential juror in her pool had the occupation of "Freelance Puppeteer." I've both been a freelancer and met freelancers in my day, but never one in the puppeting business.
Anyways. Part of the reason the Marathon was so iconic was its big, bullish looks. And now that those big, bullish looks are a rare sight on New York City streets, so are the big, bullish people.
But maybe that's a good thing. New York and its taxicabs are safer and cleaner, just like the city. Though maybe a little something was lost.
Photos credit Olga Oksman