Your First Checker
Everything you wish you had known before buying it!
Copyright 2016 - Checker Car Club of America
We’ve all done it. Fell in love with a car, bought it, and then discovered we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. Maybe this article will help those who haven’t bought a Checker yet.
Checker Motors built cars from 1922 to 1982. Very few examples, only about 25, exist of anything before 1962. The classic taxi body Checkers are known for was used from 1961 through 1982. For the purposes of this discussion we will stick to the A-11 Taxicab and the A-12 Marathon, built on a 120 inch wheelbase. The differences between the two models were mostly a matter of trim and finish.
Checker built a number of variations using the A-11 and A-12 as the starting platform. There were the elongated or “E” models that were built on a 129-inch wheelbase; these are commonly referred to as A-11E and A-12E.
The 4 door station wagon, 6-door station wagon, and 8-door station wagon were all built from the A-12. An 8-door sedan back was a variation of the A-12E. All the 6 and 8 door units were referred to as Aerobus models and identified with extra letters / numbers after the A-12 designation such as A-12W8. There was a raised roof model designed for wheelchair use called the Medicar. Finally, a Florida Checker dealer used the A-11 models as the basis for building custom limousines; the converted cars are referred to as Winkoff after the owner’s of the Florida dealership.
NO, IT’S NOT A CHEVY / PARTS AVAILABILITY
While Checker Motors did buy a lot of GM parts, the car is not exactly a Chevy under the skin. The frame, suspension, most steering components, body, dash, glass and interior are unique to Checker. You aren’t going to find those pieces at your local parts store or junk yard unless your neighbor is Erich Lachmann Jr. (Turnpike Checker), Ben Merkel (Twilight Taxi), Joe Pollard (Checker Parts) or Steve Contarino (Checker Motor Cars). Joe Pollard and/or Steve Contarino have a lot of the no longer "normally available" parts custom made, especially in the suspension, steering and glass categories. Steve is actually developing a modern second generation Checker using parts that can be retro-fitted to the A-11 / A-12 models. More information on parts suppliers can be found under "Parts and Service".
One part that is not currently available new at any price is the one piece rubber gasket around the vent window. Steve Contarino does have a multi-piece kit to replace that gasket. Any not currently available new part and hard to find used is the plastic speedometer gear for the Borg-Warner 3 speed automatic used from 1957 – 1973. I keep thinking someone should do a 3-D print of it, but that hasn’t happened yet. If needed, steel rockers and fiberglas fenders are available. Tall and short windshields are also available new. Used metal (and a dwindling supply of NOS) is available from Joe Pollard and/or Steve Contarino. Also some new trim pieces, etc. Erich Lachmann Jr. has the remaining stock from the last factory authorized parts depot and may have some of the obscure little parts still available. For the normal GM running gear, there are interchange lists available in the manuals section of the Checker World club web site for parts readily available through the major auto parts chains.
THE DIVIDING LINES
Like VW, Checker pretty much kept the body the same and made changes only when required by federal law or parts availability. There is a Checker Spotter’s Guide that shows the different visual cues. Almost all the changes were “running” changes specified by engineering bulletins. So any attempt to exactly nail down a date for a change is iffy. Use the following information about major landmarks as a general guideline.
1959 – first appearance of four headlights
1961 - first use of Marathon name
1964 - early - last use of Continental motor
1964 – first use of Chevy motors
1968 – mid year – switch to “tall” windshield, first use of Perkins diesel
1969 – side reflectors, start of Medicar production
1969 – mid year – last use of Studebaker brakes & wheels
1969 - First use of various Chevy drum brakes & wheels, also rare Pontiac disc brake setup
1970 - side marker lights, four red tail lights
1971 – first use of standard Chevy front disc / rear drum brakes, end of Medicar
1972 - first use of aluminum I beam bumpers on steel tube / rubber block "crash absorbing"
5 MPH mounts, intermixed with chrome bumpers
1973 – switch to “two gauge” idiot light dash
1973 – mid year - first use of TH-400 transmission
1974 – Standardized on aluminum I beam bumpers, pre-1975 had plastic end caps
1974 - Last of the station wagons
1976 - 1977 - only years with 8 door “sedan back” production
1978 – first use of “front steer” design (tie rod linkage in front of wheels)
1978 - First use of Olds diesel (per Joe Pollard some 1977's were front steer and rear steer
was used on some models thru 1982 ... personally, I've never seen one but with Checker you never know)
1980 – switch to standard VIN numbering (A=80, B=81, C=82); also late November started use of galvanized body
1982 – only production run of LPG cars
THE CARS ARE NOT INDESTRUCTIBLE
Everyone has heard stories about Checkers running forever. That simply isn’t true; they wear out just like any other car. The big difference is how the cars were designed and built using heavy duty and / or truck components in all parts of the drive train. With proper care, the cars can last 500,000 or more miles. I am personally aware of a couple of cars easily exceeding that mark. The biggest threat to the cars is frame rot.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR – RUST!
To say Checkers rust is to put it mildly. Most cars were built using thick mild steel, which was susceptible to rusting from the minute the car was built. But that didn’t matter in the taxi trade since the cars would be run 500,000 miles in 5 years and thrown away. In general, the private owner cars were better treated and you can find nice examples of both early and late cars. Most Checkers have rust; you just need to be sure it isn’t fatal.
CHECKING THE FRAME
The most important component to check is the frame; everything else can be fixed. Actually, the frame can be also be fixed by boxing it but doing so is usually cost prohibitive. (My 81 A-12 has had the entire frame boxed by the previous owner but it was a major undertaking.)
The frame is a twin rail and X cross member design. Start by checking behind the front wheels where the X cross member joins the side rails. Look for big rust out holes or heavily rusted spots. Try to poke a pencil or small screwdriver through the rust; it should not penetrate. Second, check the entire section forward where the frame bends up over the wheel and back down to join the front cross member tube. Finally, check the rear section of the frame where the front and rear spring shackles attach. Holes are not necessarily fatal. You can always weld small patches if needed. If the car is a very rare specimen, you can always rebuild the frame but it will be expensive if you have to pay someone to do the labor.
CHECKING THE SUSPENSION
Checker used a traditional front coil spring and rear leaf spring design. Worn bushings are not an issue; Checker used bushings from various mid-1950’s models and those parts are still available. Age and wear can lead to either spring sagging or breakage. Also, some cars have had the front coils heated and cooled to "lower" the car. To check for damage, park the car on a flat surface and visually look for one or more corners of the car to be "low". New factory style and/or upgraded suspension components are available (see Equipment Upgrades below).
CHECKING THE STEERING COMPONENTS
Checker used a traditional A-frame, ball joint and tie rod linkage design. Checking the steering is mostly looking for loose ball joints or tie rods. The A-frames are unique but don’t normally wear out. The center link is unique (6 different designs in total, 5 rear steer with different drops and 1 front steer); rear steer units must be rebuilt, front steer units are available new. The idler arms (2 designs) are also unique but can be replaced or repaired. The front steer design uses replaceable bearings and can be rebuilt but ... metal fatigue and component wear should also be considered. Generally speaking, the front steer idler arm will last indefinitely if it is properly greased (until grease comes out the top) as part of regular maintenance. All of the steering components are available new (except rear steer center link which is rebuilt using your core) from Joe Pollard, Steve Contarino, or, in some cases, your local auto parts store.
CHECKING THE BODY UNDERCARRIAGE
While under the car checking the frame, look for signs of rust on the bottom of the body. The common rust out locations are the rocker panels, the rocker panel braces (often missing if the rockers have been replaced), the floor about 6 inches in from the rocker panels, the outer front edges of the front floorboards, the body sub-frame to frame mounting brackets, the spare tire well, and under the rear seat. On station wagons, be sure to check underneath below the rear tailgate.
CHECKING THE VISIBLE BODY
If you didn’t inspect the rocker panels while under the car, look for rust there now. Check along the upper fender lines next to the chrome. Check around the rear window, especially on later models, for lifting of the plastic filler used to cover the weld seams. The exact areas are (a) the line from the top of the rain gutter to the top corner of the rear window and (b) a straight line from the bottom of the rear window about 4 inches in from the corner to the trunk deck lid opening. If you have a vinyl top, you can assume there is rust under it unless it has been removed, treated, and replaced. Look for bumps under the vinyl. Finally, if the car has the third window delete option, check the entire C pillar under the vinyl for indications of plastic lifting. Signs of plastic lifting or paint cracking in the above areas are clues that rust is lurking below.
TAKING A TEST DRIVE
Assuming you have completed the above inspections and performed the normal checks for any used car (tires, brakes, motor, etc.), now it is time to take the car for a test drive. It’s not a sports car. It will handle like any traditional 1960’s softly sprung frame / body design. Don’t expect a lot of power; most were equipped with 6 cylinders that were barely adequate although the V-8’s can move pretty good when properly geared. The big thing to check is the same as any used car; does it track straight and drive well?
AFTER YOU”VE BOUGHT THE CAR: SOME RANDOM INFORMATION
Checkers, like other brands, have their particular quirks. Here is some of the information you will need to be able to live with your car.
FILLING THE GAS TANK
The only way I know to fill a Checker gas tank without spilling gas is to park the car downhill on a 45 degree slope. Since that isn't feasible, resign yourself to spilling some gas and just try to minimize it. Late model Checkers with the fill tube located several inches higher aren't quite so bad but they spill also. Try to park at a pump with a slight downhill slope and wrap the nozzle with a paper towel to catch the gas that will bubble out right as the pump kicks off.
FUEL GAUGE / GAS TANK SENDING UNIT
Gas gauges in Checkers are only advisory in nature ... most of them were not real accurate even when new. And the LPG units only provided a guess at best. Part of the problem was the original sending unit and the old style gas tank with no internal baffles, so the gas tends to move around quite a bit inside the tank. You may notice the gas gauge will drop when accelerating and rise when braking or move up or down when driving up- or down-hill.
As noted below, new gauges are available but the problem is often the sending unit or the wiring. Articles in the newsletter or elsewhere on the web site contain information on testing the gauges and sending units. Several different style units were used over the years. New sending units are available from Joe Pollard, Steve Contarino and some other parts sources.
6 VOLT DASH
Newer Checkers (1973 on) use a 12 volt GM type “two gauge” setup (gas, speedometer) with idiot lights. Older Checkers use the 6-volt system described below.
If you are not familiar with the old S-W gauges used in the "5 gauge" setup, you or whoever works on the car MUST be aware that some of the small gauges are 6 volt. There is a 12V line into the temp gauge, which then uses an internal "points" system to reduce it to 6V for the gas and oil gauges. This is NOT clearly marked on the wiring diagrams. (I actually have it added in red ink in my 64 manual to remind me.)
You don't want to fry those gauges by putting 12V to them. They are expensive to replace (about $100 each rebuilt and you have to supply the old ones as a core). In fact, you should seriously consider ordering a 12V to 6V solid state voltage reduction unit to use in place of the internal points (which may someday freeze and fry the gauges). Joe Pollard can supply the reduction unit and keeps new gauges in stock. 12V to 6V reducers are also common in the street rod market. For more details on the 6 volt gauge system see the Summer 2006 newsletter for the write up there.
LATE MODEL TWO GAUGE SYSTEM
This is a typical 12-volt, idiot light, GM style (not GM manufactured) dash design. The backsides of both plastic gauge housings have a mylar type printed circuit piece of plastic used for connections. The metal traces can be easily damaged. With a light touch and a low temperature pencil point soldering iron, it is possible to repair the traces by bridging any gaps with a small copper wire. Joe Pollard can supply new or used speedometer and gas gauge assemblies.
WIRING IN GENERAL
It has been my experience that the factory wiring holds up well on Checkers. Cars from the 60's still have decent wiring. The biggest threat to wiring is insulation cracking, usually from excessive heat. The most likely location to have cracked / baked insulation is under the hood on the engine wiring.
One wiring design fault that Checkers share with Chevrolet is the use of fusible links where the power is fed to the rest of the car from the starter solenoid. These can fail due to heat exposure (since most people don't replace the heat shield when changing starters) and / or flexing of the wiring. NEVER replace one of the fusible links with just a heavy plain piece of wire (it can start a fire!) except in an emergency to limp the car to the nearest service station. Better to tow the car if you can. If you want to repair it yourself, replacement fusible links are available from major auto parts stores; just tell them it's for a Chevy the same year / motor.
If the car does need to be rewired for some reason (fire damage, for example) a number of companies make generic wiring harnesses that can be modified for use. Joe Pollard sells custom wiring harnesses from a local manufacturer located near him.
FIBER OPTIC DASH
The newer Checkers use a single bulb in housing and a plastic fiber optic type ribbon to illuminate most of the heater dash labeling (but not the two big gauges). The housing is usually clipped to a dash brace below the heater controls. Be careful when working under the dash to not cut the ribbon.
The Summer 2006 newsletter had an article by Byron Babbish on retrofitting the round jump seats into a Checker. The Fall 2006 newsletter had an article by Byron Babbish on retrofitting the square jump seats into an "E" model Checker. As a member, you can download from the web site or purchase a back issue if available.
INSTABILITY AT EXCESSIVE SPEED
Driving the car for the first time, if you're not familiar with Checkers, they can get a LOT of air under them ... most owners agree they start to feel a bit unstable at 80+ and only a couple of insane owners push them to 100+. This can be partially or totally fixed by correcting suspension problems and upgrading to bigger sway bars (see Equipment Upgrades below).
The cloth/vinyl headliners for some reason (people have speculated C pillar vacuum related causes), will tend to tear out / sag / droop in the C pillar area from driving the car at highway speeds with all four windows completely down. My personal experience on the highway, you can crack the rear windows about 1/2 inch or so for an exhaust vent, leave the front windows closed (so it's quieter), open the dash air vents (left is clearly marked AIR, right is the air control in the heater system) and be fine on a spring / fall day. In the summer you can drop the front windows fully and open the vent windows (wings to us old guys) leaving the rear cracked and get a lot of cooling also. Or just leave everything up, close BOTH vents and run the A/C.
AC CONTROLS / HEATER CONTROLS
When running the A/C, you use the fan / control on the A/C unit, NOT the fan controlled by the dash switch over the ashtray. The dash switch controls the heater fan which can't draw any air once the right side vent is closed and you will burn out either the motor or the switch if you try to do so. Switches and temp controls are available through normal parts sources.
Converting the old R-12 A/C systems to R-134 is no big deal. The cars used the standard GM / Harrison compressor. Any qualified A/C service shop can evacuate, flush and refill the system with R-134.
TAIL LIGHTS NOT WORKING OR WORKING INTERMITTENTLY
One or more tail lights not working ... the ground circuit is by a spring contact on the snap in socket (should be plastic on later models, older models have a solid metal socket) and then the bezel is grounded to the body by the two metal straps holding it in. Bad ground / corrosion problems are common. Any time a taillight doesn't work, the first step is to just wiggle the socket in the bezel. Second thing is to check the mounting bars for tightness. Then check the bulb. Some owners have attached a ground wire directly from one of the mounting bolts to a screw in the trunk body area.
HEAD LIGHTS / FRONT TURN SIGNALS NOT WORKING OR WORKING INTERMITTENTLY
Headlight / front turn signal problems ... on each side of the radiator bracket there is a gray connector block with four / five wires going into / out of it. Moisture / corrosion can cause problems here. It is also very easy to accidentally get pulled loose when working under the hood. Check here first before checking the bulbs. A lot of owners take them apart one wire at a time, coat with dielectric grease, and reinsert as a preventative measure, then fill each socket.
CHANGING REAR TIRES
Jack car up with frame until axle has dropped fully, then it takes some wiggling around to get the tire out.
Speaking of the rear fenders being close, hard cornering on Interstate ramps can cause enough body sway that the rear tire may rub on the inner fender lip. If you hear a weird noise taking an exit ramp fast, get out and look but that is probably it. For the California street racer fanatics, there is a bigger front sway bar and a custom rear sway bar (Checker has none in the rear) to solve this problem.
Front fender interference ... this may not apply to the rear steer cars but I know the front steer cars (78 on) with optional 225R75/15 tires at full lock and full suspension compression can rub against the passenger compartment floor / firewall.
There were a number of factory options including custom "one off" builds at a customer's request (the Medicar is one example of that). Some of these options are shown on the factory price sheets that can be found in the Checker World library. Some of the options can have unexpected results; the front seat's rearward travel is limited by either jump seat installation or by the safety divider. Wagon models tend to have less front seat travel / leg room than sedan models.
While the standard equipment was adequate when the cars were built, technology has improved since then. Radial tires have replaced bias ply. Gas shocks are available for most applications. Bigger custom front sway bar and an optional rear bar, both with urethane bushings, are available from Joe Pollard as are custom springs to lower the car. The engine cooling system can be upgraded if needed. Modern engines and transmissions can be installed if you have enough skill and / or money. Information on various upgrades can be found elsewhere on the Checker World site, either in a separate article or in the 1981 parts cross-reference. Most technical documentation requires being logged in as a club member on the web site.
FINDING OUT MORE ABOUT YOUR CHECKER
The manufacturing plates on your car can tell you a lot about it. The plate on the driver's side A pillar will contain the serial or VIN number plus the build date. The plate under the hood on the firewall above the steering column contains a wealth of information about original equipment, interior color, and exterior color. Club members can find out more about 1960 - 1982 cars by using the SERIAL NUMBER & VIN DECODER or emailing me with questions. You can also get the original build sheet for your car if you submit the VIN number to the librarian at the Gilmore Car Museum.
Comments, suggestions, corrections, etc. can be sent to the Checker World webmaster.
Version 2, updated July, 2016