The cabs in New York are still yellow, but they are no longer the bluff, tough, boxy Checker Marathons of fond memory.
Checker, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, stopped building them in 1982, the dated 1956 design yielding to modern competition in the form of Ford's Crown Victoria sedan. The last New York Checker, owned by Earl Johnson, retired in 1999. It says something for the iconic status of the Checker that Johnson's car sold at auction for $135,000 (£80,000). They're part of the city's mythology, and an image perpetuated in television shows such as Taxi.
Even the police used them. Three Checkers were used by New York drug enforcement squads in the Seventies. They were painted up as New York cabs, and the off-duty sign was always on.
There were also "civilian" versions. The Superba, or, in higher-spec form, the Superba Special, were available as sedans or wagons. They had a no-nonsense image that appealed to buyers. But essentially, Checkers were always built for work, not pleasure.
The Medicar, with its raised roofline and 129-inch wheelbase, was built to take wheelchairs (100 of these were made), and there was even a proposal to build a Checker-based prison bus.
Much more successful, however, was the Aerobus. Between 1962 and 1974, 3,341 were built for the hotel trade. This eight-door, 25ft station wagon, at one time listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's longest production car, was ideal for wafting two large families from airport to hotel. While Marathons had an economy, straight-six option (later a V6) or a diesel, the 5,000lb Aerobus had a 5.7-litre Chevy V8. It had a beefed-up GM400 automatic gearbox out of a van, and eight-stud lorry wheels and a reinforced chassis to take the weight.
Between 1976 and 1977, Checker also made 77 (or 107, depending on whose figures you believe) "sedan back" Aerobuses. These failed because, with only an ordinary-sized boot, they didn't have enough luggage capacity. Even in the US, you'd struggle to locate an Aerobus sedan - there are thought to be only 10 left in existence.
In the UK, there's only one. It's owned by Martin Hall of Streetly Limousines in Birmingham. It's insured for £40,000 but, such is Martin's love affair with Checker, I doubt he'd part with it for £50,000.
He first saw it advertised in Auto Trader for £10,000. A week later, the price had dropped to £5,995. Martin took a couple of people to look at it - a bodywork man and a mechanic - and both advised him against buying it. "But I wanted it," he says, "so I gave £5,250 for it."
The car came to the UK as a Budweiser promotional car. "The more paint we took off, the worse it got. We had all the seats out and found some 2ft rot holes in the floor, although the chassis was good."
Checkers were not actually durable. The Marathons had to have special bracing on the chassis to withstand New York's potholes. They had little rust-protection and were not designed to last much beyond five years.
In the US, Checker specialist Joe Pollard is the man to contact for parts. But he's not cheap. "He gave me a price for eight doors, wings, and bonnet and boot lid. It came to about £10,000," says Martin. Eventually, a friend in the US located two back wings for £800, including shipping.
Having spent £23,000 restoring it, Martin had to put the Aerobus to work. "I had a booking for Ladies' Day at Ascot on 17 June last year. We finished working on it at 11.30pm on 16 June."
On the street, it's a sensation: "I've had people in vans pulling over and taking pictures, people taking pictures as I'm driving down the motorway."
Parked on the pavement on Birmingham's Broad Street, passers-by hoot and wave and pedestrians want their pictures taken with it. It sits high on its huge wheels. The bumpers are not chrome, but assertive sheets of aluminium Armco.
Outside, the Aerobus is standard, with a Toblerone hoarding on the roof and the full taxi livery. Inside, Martin has fitted a ceiling with a fibre-optic show on a magic wheel; dots in the roof change colour. There are two 10in DVD screens, neon lights and yellow-and-black leather seats. It's air-conditioned and has a bar, and Martin is willing to wear themed outfits to cater for particular occasions.
The Checker does eight miles to the gallon. But, Martin says, it's not as sluggish as you might expect. "It picks its legs up when you pull away. "With eight lads in the back, at 40 to 50mph it'll throw everyone back in their seats. It would go to more than 100mph if you had a fuel tanker behind you keeping it topped up!
"Nobody looks twice now at a white stretch limo," he says. "But this is a one-off. I do school proms in Birmingham and all the kids turn up in Hummers and stretched Lincolns, but nobody will turn up in a stretched Checker cab. If this car was in London, I would clean up by doing film openings.
"I'm getting a lot of work taking people to the airport, especially if they are off to New York. It starts the experience off."Reuse content