The dirt-crusted Volkswagen Rabbit that Jamie Orr picked up earlier this month has decayed so much it won’t even roll off his trailer. He suspects fist-sized rust holes lurk in its crevices. Plenty of other people passed over it before him, and the seller had warned him that it would head to the crusher if nobody bought it soon. Still, he drove nearly 1,500 miles to buy the car that was supposed to save Checker Motor Company.
“It’s in this worthless to priceless category,” he said. “To most people, this car is not worth the price of scrap metal, but to the rest of us, it’s a part of this weird moment of auto history, so it couldn’t be more up my alley.”
That weird moment began in the mid-Seventies when Ed Cole, who had retired as president of General Motors, bought a controlling interest in Checker with the help of Manhattan-based Cadillac dealer Victor Potamkin. Checker’s only products, the tank-like A11 taxi and A12 passenger sedan (and the A9/A10 before them), had gone largely unchanged since their introduction in 1960, and the company appeared ill-equipped to develop vehicles for a changing passenger-car market.
Before Cole’s arrival, the company had discussed developing an up-to-date replacement for the Marathon with Autodynamics, but that effort didn’t get off the drawing board, according to Ben Merkel and Joe Fay’s “Checker: The All-American Taxi.” Instead, it took Cole’s leadership to get the company to first start stamping sheetmetal panels for other carmakers and then to explore a partnership with another carmaker to develop the A11/A12’s replacement.
That other carmaker, Volkswagen, had a rather exciting new car, the Rabbit, a fuel-efficient front-wheel-drive commuter that came in four-door versions. In addition, the company was looking to develop an unfinished Chrysler assembly plant south of Pittsburgh to assemble the Rabbit in the States and it had chosen a former Chevrolet manufacturing man, James McLernon, to oversee the conversion of the Westmoreland plant.
The Rabbit, with its 94.5-inch pre-stretch wheelbase and 1,750-pound starting curb weight, seemed worlds apart from the A11/A12, with its 120-inch wheelbase and enough mass to pull small moons into its orbit. However, the company needed to downsize, and both Cole and Potamkin envisioned a Rabbit – stretched by 21 inches or so – would do the job.
Likely via McLernon, Cole convinced Volkswagen to ship at least one – more likely two – Rabbits to Kalamazoo for Checker’s engineers to stretch, poke, and prod. According to Orr, it appears Checker cut a two-door Rabbit behind the B-pillar and then mated that Rabbit’s front half to the back half of a four-door Rabbit with elongated doors. Both Rabbits, he observed, were of the early production “swallowtail” variety. The finished product, naturally, was painted taxicab yellow.
While Merkel and Fay note that Checker considered powering the Rabbits with Perkins, Mitsubishi, or Oldsmobile diesel engines, Orr said the prototype retains the Volkswagen 1.5-liter gasoline four-cylinder, another early production Rabbit feature, though one that is little sought after today due to its poor performance.
Cole anticipated selling 50,000 Rabbit-based Checkers a year, and as Merkel and Fay wrote, “it was an exciting time – expectations were high that the new partners would revitalize Checker’s future, new models would be introduced and the company would grow. the hoopla was significant and the U.S. automotive world was watching.” But in May 1977, Cole died in a plane crash, leaving Checker gut-punched and wondering what to do next.
The Checker engineers finished the Rabbit prototype and sent it off for a field test in Chicago, following another Checker on its rounds. Even with 500 pounds of sandbags in the rear passenger compartment, the stretched Rabbit reportedly returned 45 miles per gallon, but nobody appreciated its sluggish performance. Checker CEO David Markin, who’d already reduced forecasts for the new vehicle to 30,000 a year after Cole’s death, canceled the project, and later changed focus to a Chevrolet Citation-based prototype, built in conjunction with Autodynamics. It too failed to pass muster.
However, while the company ended up crushing the Citation-based prototype, the Rabbit-based prototype lived on, spending some time as a personal car for the Markin family, according to Orr. At some point, the Checker company or the Markin family had a sunroof and vinyl top installed and re-painted the car, then sold it off. Eventually, a used car dealer in Kalamazoo took it in on a trade and decided to hold on to it, but never got around to fixing it up as he intended, Orr said.
“It looks like it was put away well used,” Orr said. “The best estimate is that it’s been sitting for a couple of decades, maybe three.”
Orr, a collector of unusual water-cooled Volkswagens, had heard of the vehicle in passing once or twice over the years but hadn’t ever given it much thought. Still, when his friends and Instagram followers pointed it out to him after the son of the used car dealer posted it for sale online, he decided it was worth investigating.
“I feel like these vehicles find me,” he said. “And I’m not one to shy away from a silly rescue mission.”
Though evidence of “several generations of mice” littered the car, the engine was seized, the brakes were seized, and the automatic transmission wouldn’t allow the car to roll in reverse without disconnecting the halfshafts, the Rabbit wasn’t as bad as he expected. “By no means is it pristine, but I expected the fenders to be rotting off and the interior to be destroyed,” he said. Most importantly, he saw no evidence of rust where the Checker engineers cut and extended the car(s).
The vinyl and rubber floormat interior, he notes, appears to use a blend of Volkswagen and Checker touches. Only a handful of early U.S. market Rabbits got the rubber floormat, Orr said, and the door panels appear to use Checker-sourced vinyl with Rabbit-style stitching. While in Kalamazoo, he had Checker historian Jim Garrison look it over and confirm that it was indeed the Checker-built prototype.
Though he only just picked it up, Orr has shown photos of it to Volkswagen’s classics division (“They’re very excited about this,” he said) and intends to work with them to document the car prior to its time in Kalamazoo. He also plans to get it running and driving, likely with a later Rabbit engine instead of the 1.5L (“If somebody wants me to preserve the 1.5L, then I’ll just ask them whether they have any parts for that engine,” he said), and to return it to its original taxi yellow paint scheme.
After that, he intends to share it as much as possible, he said.
(h/t to the Internet Checker Taxi Association)