Checker redesigns its 1956-style taxis in favor of the fuel-efficient hatchback

"Hey, taxi!" the dampened pedestrian shouts as he waits for a ride in the rain. What finally pulls up in the next few years could be far different than the cab he was used to riding up to now.

In 1976 the Museum of Modern Art in New York held an international design competition for the "cab of tomorrow." Among the entries was a futuristic idea by Giorgetto Giugiaro of Ital Design, who also gave shape to the Volkswagen Rabbit and has had a major impact on numerous cars now on the road.

The Giugiaro cab looks something like an ultramodern van with a sliding door, an abundance of glass, and sharply raked windshield. Like the VW Rabbit and most of his car designs today, it is angular in design.

While the Giugiaro cab may never hit the road, Checker Motors Corporation, a major builder of taxicabs as well as a few hundred cars a year for the motorist, will produce a new smaller, front-wheel-drive cab with higher mileage than the current body style, which has been in production since 1956.

The first of four new Checker cabs (109-inch wheelbase) should reach the road by the fall of 1982, according to C. M. Hickok, Checker sales manager.

Wheelbases of the four new models, all hatchbacks, will stretch from 109 inches up to 128 in contrast with the current 120-inch wheelbase. Capacity will run from five passengers up to eight, plus a paratransit model with raised roof and special facilities for wheelchairs.

Weight will be sharply less -- down from the present two tons to about 2,800 pounds.

The fuel saving to the cab owner will be significant. Instead of using a large-displacement engine, the company can switch to a V-6 or smaller engine for a major increase in fuel mileage.

That's money in the bank to a taxicab fleet owner.

Also, the switch to front-wheel-drive allows the company to retain the required inside space but in a much smaller, lighter package. US carmakers, for example, have actually increased the inside volume of their new, smaller cars by using fwd. Thus, a car may be subcompact size in measurement, yet be classified as a compact because of passenger-space volume inside.

A taxicab by definition has to be road-tough. Like a truck or a jet plane, a cab being repaired is not making money. Thus, the vehicle has to stand up to rough roads, bad treatment, and hundreds of thousands of miles. Too, the design has to stand up for many years.

"We want our new line to have at least a 10-year lifespan," Saburo Hori, Checker's vice-president of engineering told Automotive News, the trade weekly.

Checker Motors of Kalamazoo, Mich., has been talking about a new-model cab for years. When Edward N. Cole retired as president of General Motors in the mid-1970s, he became president of Checker Motors for a brief time before he was lost in a two-engine plane he was piloting.

The taxicab company is working with Autodynamics Corporation of America, Madison Heights, Mich., in designing the body for the new vehicle, which will use a GM power train -- a 173-cubic-inch V-6 engine built by Chevrolet.

Unlike most vehicles built today, the new Checker will continue to have a full frame for safety as well as long life.

Checker production now ranges from 3,000 to 5,000 cars a year.

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