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Newly released document details proposal for Checker and International Harvester merger

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Photos by the author and Mike McNessor.

Though both Checker Motor and International Harvester operated in entirely different segments of the auto market, a newly discovered document from the Sixties suggested that a merger of the two would prove beneficial to the two bulwarks of utilitarianism.

“There seems to be little doubt that IH is completely committed to expansion in the automotive area,” wrote Bob Eppler, vice president of Foote, Cone & Belding, to longtime International Harvester executive Bill Maxwell. “It seems to us that this particular company (Checker) could tie in very well with International Harvester’s Motor Truck Division.”

Among its many clients, including Monsanto, Merrill-Lynch, and Ralston-Purina, the Chicago-based advertising firm Foote, Cone & Belding could count fellow Windy City resident International Harvester.

As Eppler outlined in the May 1964 letter – recently published by the Checker Cab Club out of the factory document archive donated to the club earlier this year – a purchase of Checker could have carried several benefits, the most obvious of them parts and resource sharing. However, Eppler also pointed out that the vast differences between the two – with Checker operating primarily in urban areas and International Harvester operating primarily in rural areas – could prove advantageous.

“With International Harvester’s large rural dealer population, this highly practical passenger car line with local parts and service might be offered to rural families for the first time,” he wrote. “(And) the core of existing Checker dealers could handle the light truck line profitably and help increase International’s market penetration in this competitive arena, particularly in urban areas where the Division now must battle Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge dealerships.”

At the time, Checker sold roughly 8,000 cars per year, less than any other automaker and an amount that totaled less than 0.1 percent of the domestic auto market. International Harvester’s light truck production totaled about 60,000 in 1963, good for about 4.7 percent of the domestic light truck market (better only than Studebaker, at 1 percent). However, as Eppler pointed out, Checker had over the few years prior divested itself of its investments in cab companies in order to expand its production lines with the goal of tripling its output.

That move on Checker’s part, however, ended up triggering an aggressive move into the taxi market by Chrysler, which in turn led Checker to file a $45 million antitrust lawsuit against Chrysler, alleging that the latter dumped taxis on urban cab companies and that Chrysler disseminated rumors that Checker would soon exit the taxi business altogether.

In an analysis of the document posted to the Checker Cab Club’s website, club members noted that it’s not entirely unfeasible to believe that Morris Markin at Checker had been behind the proposal. While Checker and Foote, Cone & Belding appeared to have no prior working relationship, “a significant amount of content in the proposal is clearly from Checker promotional material,” and given the lawsuit and Chrysler’s encroachment on the taxi market, the timing was right for Markin to cash out. Indeed, the mere presence of correspondence marked confidential between two other companies in Checker’s archives suggests Checker’s involvement with the proposal at some fundamental level.

Whether the proposed buyout of Checker would have actually benefited International Harvester is left to speculation. While Eppler included a brief study on Checker’s history, product line, and operations, he didn’t include more detailed forecasts on expected costs or profits. And as the Checker Cab Club’s members remarked, “Perhaps the merger of the two companies would have been comparable to the Studebaker and Packard merger of 1954 once described as being comparable to ‘two drunks helping each other cross the street.'”

No followup document exists in the Checker archive, which likely means that the proposal never had a chance, particularly after Checker lost its lawsuit against Chrysler. No timeline was ever mentioned, nor terms of a purchase or a price.

Both International Harvester and Checker continued in their respective markets for similar lengths of time: Checker discontinued auto production in 1982 while International Harvester discontinued light-truck production altogether after 1980.