Get ready for the return of the venerable Checker nameplate of taxi fame.
Adamson Industries Corp., a Haverhill, Mass., installer of racks, sirens and other specialty equipment for police and public safety vehicles, plans to launch production of two vehicles under the iconic marque, including a pickup truck that mashes Checker’s famous taxi design into a Chevrolet El Camino-style vehicle.
Under its Checker Motor Cars division, the company previously restored the old cabs. Now it will assemble new vehicles in small numbers thanks to the wide availability of automotive components that can be used in low-volume production and a change in federal regulations, said Steve Contranio, vice president of Checker Motor Cars.
Contranio got the idea to launch development of new Checkers after a recent visit to the sprawling Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association show in Las Vegas, where he saw multiple vendors pitching small volume auto bodies, frames, suspensions and other automotive components. The selection of third-party parts was wide enough that he could restart small-scale production of Checker vehicles.
“We aren’t looking to mass produce thousands of these,” Contranio told Trucks.com. “We are looking for niche markets for someone who would want something unique for a promotional type item. It would be for someone like a carpenter or delivery service that wants a unique look and could turn this vehicle into a moving billboard.”
The company’s renderings of the Checker Sport pickup depict styling inspired by the front of an early Checker cab mated to a 1980s-like El Camino rear. Such a design allows Checker to merge its own styling with custom-ordered body composites that channel the old El Camino rear end and truck bed.
The truck will carry on the Checker tradition of sturdy vehicles by featuring a fully boxed steel frame, but with composite plastic body panels, Contranio said. Other specifications of the rear-wheel-drive truck include modern rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel disc brakes.
Checker plans to use General Motors engines in the vehicle, either a flex-fuel V8 or the new 2.8-liter Duramax diesel found in the Chevrolet Colorado midsize pickup. Such a move would match Checker’s heritage. In the late 1960s, Checker offered a diesel model for a year.
The company also plans a second six-door, three-row seating sedan based on the old Checker Aerobus designs. This sedan will target buyers such as hotels and sightseeing-bus companies looking for unique transport, Contranio said.
The original Checker started out as a taxi service in Chicago nearly 100 years ago. The company went through several ownerships and was eventually acquired by a small automobile body company and moved to Kalamazoo, Mich. It produced an iconic model – 1958–82 Checker A series sedans – that for decades was seen by passengers as the gold standard for taxis in the U.S.
Through the years, the company produced cabs and truck bodies for Ford, Hudson, REO Motor Car and General Motors.
But the company could not survive the last recession and then-owner David Markin falling victim to the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. Its assets were sold off in bankruptcy court. Adamson discovered that the trademark was available and gained control of the Checker name.
People mostly likely to remember the Checker brand will have lived in big cities such as New York and Chicago where the distinctive boxy vehicles were most frequently in service, said Leslie Kendall, an automotive historian and chief curator at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
Contranio said he is eager to start assembling sections of the trucks so they can be readily modified to fit customer requests. He expects pricing will range from the upper $40,000s to the upper $50,000s. Checker plans to assemble the vehicles in Haverhill.
But he’s not assured a commercial success.
“It’s not sexy. It is like reintroducing the Rambler,” Kendall said. “But a Checker would be a counterpoint to what is out there now. But people think retro is cool. People look to the past for designs all the time.”
Checker, along with at least 30 kit car companies such as a new DeLorean, is waiting on new government guidelines to begin assembling its vehicles.
Recent changes in regulations governing the low-volume production of automobiles have paved the way for Checker to attempt its production relaunch.
The Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, or FAST, directs the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to craft regulations that would allow companies to build up to 325 kit or replica vehicles annually.
Pushed by the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association, the legislation also directed the Environmental Protection Agency to allow the manufactures to use engines from vehicles that have also been issued certificates of conformity for emissions regulations.
NHTSA and the EPA were expected to have completed the regulatory framework for low-volume manufacturers by the end of last year but didn’t. Checker is awaiting the rules to be issued before launching production, Contranio said.
The rules have been delayed as the federal agencies have focused on other tasks, said Eric Snyder, SEMA’s congressional affairs manager.
“Add in the recent change in government with many people transitioning, and it is just going to take more time,” Snyder said.
The new regulation, he said, is designed for a small company producing a limited number of replica vehicles — a completely different business model than the major car manufacturers. But once the regulations are completed, companies like Checker will jump in quickly, he said.
“It’s unrealistic to subject companies producing replicas of classic vehicles to the same requirements as companies mass producing vehicles used for daily driving,” he said.
Contranio is hoping to have the new Checkers on the road in 2018. But for now, he’s in a holding pattern.
“Nobody wants to assemble a vehicle and then have the regulations come down and realize they needed to change the design to meet them,” he said. “Especially with us, we are going to build this like the original Checker for years to come.”