"I've loved Checkers ever since I was a little kid," Joe Fay says. The Naperville resident isn't referring to the board game.
Fay has a passion for the Kalamazoo, Michigan, taxi-building company. One fond adolescent memory involves writing a letter to the company after seeing an ad in the back of a National Geographic magazine.
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"I was shocked I received a handwritten response from a local sales manager. He even threw in a stack of brochures," Fay says. "I couldn't believe a big corporation would respond to a kid like me."
That memory stayed with the enthusiast until he didn't just have pictures of taxis, but a full-size example parked in his garage. In 2000 he purchased a 1957 Model A8 from a collector in Ohio.
The cab had been specially ordered by one of Checker's executives as a test vehicle for Yellow Cab of San Francisco. This unique, "one of one" hauler was designated as a Drivermatic Special and was equipped with such options as power brakes, steering and seats; and an automatic transmission.
"It was all about making the (cab) driver comfortable and happy. The thought was, they'd work longer shifts."
This particular vehicle never went into cab service but the years had still taken their toll. Fay says when he bought it, the taxi's out-of-place navy blue paint was well worn. Fay opted to restore it as a period Chicago cab and took inspiration from a Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece.
"In 'North by Northwest,' Cary Grant steps out of a cab on Michigan Avenue. That car was the color template," he says.
With it looking right, the next step was rectifying the powerplant. A Chevrolet V-8 engine lay where a Continental 231-cubic-inch inline six-cylinder should have resided. "They're industrial engines that require very little maintenance. They were used in tractors, forklifts and even some airplanes."
Fay located one that had been sitting for 20 years under a tarp in an Ohio cornfield.
It wasn't just under hood where Checker wanted to ensure reliability and extreme durability. The cabin is shod with aluminum, linoleum and heavy-duty vinyl. Trim pieces are painted in a hammer gray finish and the flat floor was designed to be hosed out.
"I call it a 'personal subway car.' It's so austere and rock-solid," Fay says.
Other traits that suit it for its intended passenger-ferrying duties include a tight turning radius and flip-up jump seats. Even their construction reflects for optimum simplicity. The front suspension utilizes Ford components, the brakes and steering parts are Studebaker, the headlights are from Willys and the taillights came from Pontiac.
"These cars were nicknamed the 'Iron Bastard.' They literally used a variety of off-the-shelf components, which were applied to a Checker body."
All that ruggedness shows when Fay uses the vehicle outside of its intended bumper-to-bumper downtown driving purpose.
"It just whines and screams on the freeway. It's similar to hand-to-hand combat; when you arrive you feel like you've won a battle."
In his years of ownership, Fay has accumulated his share of motoring medals, having driven the taxi all over the country to such places as Atlanta and most recently to Brooklyn, New York, for the 30th Checker Convention.
"It's a chore to go long distances," Fay says, "but well-worth it when you arrive."
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