Beyond Cabs: Checker Motors After the Taxi Line
Copyright 2017 - Checker Car Club of America, Inc.
Editor's Note: For those who do not know him, CCCoA immediate past President, Jim Garrison worked at CMC for 32 years, mostly as a Tool & Die Maker.
It is a common misconception, even in the Kalamazoo community, that Checker Motors went out of business when they stopped making taxicabs. In fact, the case is quite the opposite. Checker remained a world-class automotive parts supplier for twenty seven years after the last taxi was produced in July of 1982. It is a testament to skilled management and its workforce, that Checker persevered in a fiercely competitive market, until being brought down by economic forces mostly beyond its control.
I will note here, that this article is drawn from my memory, and is limited to that extent. So, here is the story as I know it.
Checker Plant Circa 1990
Until the 1970’s, Checker Motors maintained itself in the auto market as a manufacturer of dependable
taxicabs. There were occasional side jobs for stamped parts, or assemblies, but that was not the
mainstay of production. While Checker had large, medium, small, and automatic presses, the equipment was
underutilized. This was recognized by top management and others in automotive supply, and during the
mid-seventies it was seen as an opportunity to expand into the automotive supply market. In addition there
was a ready workforce in the local community. David Markin would set a new course for Checker.
In 1975, former President of General Motors, Ed Cole, was looking for another automotive endeavor when he came to Checker. Two ideas came together, automotive parts production, and making a new design of a car or taxicab at Checker. Tragically, on May 2, 1977, Ed Cole died in a plane crash, and the likelihood of a new Checker car was also lost. Yet, the idea of automotive supply for Checker’s future was already underway -- and looking forward to bigger and better enterprise.
Part of Checker’s niche in automotive supply was taking jobs that the big auto companies didn’t want. Several factors such as small or medium production numbers, difficult-to-run parts (such as deep draw operations), poor quality of dies and/or parts, lack of performance by other suppliers, and other considerations, played into Checker receiving various jobs.
By 1976 Checker started running several contracts for General Motors. These were major jobs that allowed Checker to hire hundreds of additional employees to fill every aspect of the production operations. Office personnel, engineers, factory management, skilled trades, machine operators, inspectors, material handlers, custodial staff, and outside contractors were all needed to gear up and deliver. This was, of course, all initiated while the taxi line was still in full operation.
Checker was very busy in all three plants. While the dies and assembly-line equipment were usually owned by the customer (General Motors, or others), the maintenance and adjustment was performed by Checker.
Camaro and Firebird F-Frames
Some of the contract jobs started during that time included:
1976 – 1988 F-frames for Camaro and Firebird
1976 – 1992 Chevy Blazer and Suburban tailgates
1976 – 1996 Chevy Suburban sills (below the doors)
1976 – 1988 Chevy Stepside box (front and side panels, tailgates, fenders)
1978 - 1990 GM bus frames, fenders, & hoods
1976 – 1990 Chevy & GMC large truck fenders
Chevy & GMC car, truck & bus fenders
Chevy Stepside truck rear fender
Again, these were large jobs, which kept the Press Room pounding out parts on three shifts, six days a week, with Assembly running two shifts. At peak, Checker employed about 1,300 people.
In 1982, the Checker car line ceased operations. Several factors are generally recognized for this, such as: government regulations for fuel economy, emissions, and crash tests; the Checker dies and tooling were getting worn out; GM was reluctant to continue selling engines and transmissions for Checker vehicles; plus it had become economically unreasonable to produce Checker cars when other mass produced models were more affordable.
It’s interesting to note that six months after the car line went down, the Peoples Republic of China called Checker wanting to order 5,000 units per year, indefinitely. But, it was too late. The tooling had been removed, the dies were outside with weeds growing around them, and the floor space cleared and utilized for storage. With the car line gone, there was space available for other assembly operations. Checker was able to plan for more contract assembly work.
GM G-Van Rear Doors
Having proven their capacity to produce quality parts and assemblies, Checker was able to bid on, and was awarded, several new jobs. These included:
1984 – 1996 GM, G-van rear doors, large and small
1984 – 1996 G-van hoods, and cowls
1984 – 1996 G-van roof rails
1984 – 1994 J-car steering outrigger assemblies
1986 – 1998 S-10 Blazer tailgates, and cowls
1988 – 1998 Chevy CK truck tailgates
1984 – 1992 M-van sliding doors
Chevy S-10 cowl, S-10 Blazer, full size Blazer and Suburban tailgtates
M-van sliding door
Checker was booming. Foreign competition had entered the American market, which brought new challenges and needs for better standards. As automotive technology advanced, Checker was always able to adapt to new changes and regulations. Improvements in die design, production practices, quality requirements, parts inspection techniques, and robotics drove Checker to constantly improve. Checker promptly embraced the new QS 9000 standards in 1996. It proved itself again to be a world class supplier of automotive body parts and assemblies.
As new models of cars and trucks were introduced, Checker was awarded new work. Many of these were assemblies incorporating dozens of people over the course of several years. Checker made:
1994 – 1996 S-10 boxes (stamp and ship)
1996 – 2004 Chevy Suburban and truck crew-cab rear doors
1996 – 2004 Dodge truck tailgates
1998 – 2004 Saturn L-series deck lids and lift-gates
1998 – 2004 Saturn sunroofs
1998 – 2009 Cadillac CTS & SRX frame rails, air plenums
1998 – 2009 Cadillac and Chevy roof rails, foam-filled
1998 – 2009 S-10 shock towers
2000 – 2007 Hummer sunroofs
2000 – 2006 Ford E-van bumpers, front and rear
Top two: GM & Chevy CK tailgates. Bottom: Dodge truck tailgate
Saturn S-series deck lid
Cadillac CTS & SRX frame rails
S-10 Shock Towers
Various Bumpers and Reinforcements
These were very productive and challenging years. As competition in the automotive market, from both foreign and domestic manufactures, increased, the need for cost control became paramount. Automotive part suppliers, everywhere, were pressed to keep costs down. While many manufacturing costs were going up, suppliers were contractually bound to supply parts at a specified low price. This put the squeeze on profits.
An additional part of the problem was the automakers 3-2-1 policy of “cost reduction goals,” which essentially amounted to paying less in successive years for the parts made by suppliers – “give backs.” When a supplier bids on a job, several factors such as capability, quality performance, and lowest bid are considered. Once a job is awarded, the supplier must provide the parts on demand. On some jobs, the auto companies required that suppliers accept less for the parts if they wanted to continue to bid on future jobs. The difference, or loss of revenue, was to be made up by “streamlining.” This worked in some measure, yet after a few years, the streamlining that could be done had been done, and the repeated reduction of revenue eliminated profit, or created loss.
On some smaller incidental stamping jobs, Checker was given dies that were poorly maintained and barely able to make parts. They were able to repair these die lines as needed, to again produce acceptable parts in good production time and at a profit. Though, so often, once they had achieved good quality and production
numbers, the lines would be taken back. Checker seemed to accept this as industry practice. Still, Checker continued to run existing jobs and seek new work. It bid on, and got, a few good contracts.
2006 – 2009 Buick Enclave sub-assemblies, fender, body, etc.
2007 – 2009 Chevy ? Sunroofs
2008 – 2009 3 model GM sunroof cell (set up and try out, no production)
These were good jobs for Checker, but the industry was facing new challenges. During the last four years of operation Checker developed two fully automated robotic press lines. The blanks were put in place at the front of the line, and five presses later finished panels were set in racks, having been touched by only one human.
All through the busy years Checker was able to serve other forms of production as well.
Service runs were low-number jobs for cars that were no longer in production, but needed parts for aftermarket. Checker successfully ran many service jobs.
Factory assist, was sometimes a crunch situation where a break-down in some other plant required that parts be made immediately to keep assembly plants going. Many times, Checker would receive die lines on a Friday, work feverishly through the weekend adapting the dies to our presses, and have quality parts ready and delivered by Monday morning.
Stamp and ship, was when parts were simply stamped and then sent out to other assembly plants. Checker was very good at this.
Die tryout and modification, was interesting. The auto manufacturers would bring new dies and die lines to Checker for initial parts production. Working the bugs out of new dies was enjoyable.
Starting in 2005, some economic forecasts were seeing a slowdown in the American and global economies. While some factors such as housing and banking were robust, other segments of the economy were slowing. In the Spring of 2008, economic concerns sent the stock market into wild gyrations, culminating in the September stock market crash which led into the banking crisis, and to automakers filing for bankruptcy. At that time credit was frozen, making it impossible for many Americans to buy cars. Sales plummeted. Those of us who followed these trends recognized that as General Motors faltered, Checker might fall. In spite of good effort, Checker had been
losing money slowly for years.
While several smaller concerns played into Checker’s problems, it was, in this writer’s opinion, the larger issues beyond Checker’s influence that led to the end. Factors such as the changes brought about by the global shift in automotive production and sales, “cost reduction goals,” and ever increasing business costs for energy, steel, and health care, were too great to be overcome.
In 2008, Checker had already sought concessions from the workforce which was reluctant to step back any further. Additional concessions were rejected. In January of 2009, Checker filed for bankruptcy. The judge ordered both sides to come up with a solution which would keep the business alive for the betterment of all, and it was nearly, though not, achieved. All of the contracts that had been running for years, and those that were being set up, were sold to another firm. Parts banks were built up, robots were turned off, production lines were disassembled and removed, employees were laid off, the presses fell silent, and on June 25, 2009, the last part came off a production line at Checker Motors.
The building and grounds were sold to a holding company, the equipment was auctioned off, salvage operations stripped away anything of value, and the buildings have all been demolished. Sadly, on October 30, 2010, the Checker office building where business was conducted, cars were designed, and problems resolved, was set ablaze by an arsonist. The twisted metal and burnt bricks have been removed leaving only the memory of what was. The grounds have recently been purchased by a local company.
Checker remained in business for twenty-seven years after the cab line ceased production. They were a world-class supplier, able to meet the new demands of the always improving auto industry. Yet, no business can operate in deficit for long, nor easily overcome economic forces that bring global economies to their knees.
Checker’s automotive parts production legacy, along with the remarkable Checker cars, will live on as part of
our American automotive history.
Photos supplied by Jim Garrison.