Checker Centurion Richard Heseltine uncovers another remarkable creation from the annals of American car design, this time a very upscale Checker that hit the car show circuit in the late Sixties: Behold the Checker Centurion!
From here to obscurity / Richard Heseltine’s weird and wonderful American cars from the past.
These days, if you step into a taxi cab in New York, chances are it will be a minivan or, worse still, a Toyota Prius. Scroll back half a century and Kalamazoo’s own Checker ruled the roost. And how. This marque did make cars for public consumption, but overwhelmingly it sold them for use as taxis or hotel/airport shuttles. What they lacked in style, they more than made up for in rugged reliability. There simply was no need to perform endless makeovers. Checkers never went out of style because they were never in style. All of which begs the question: why did Turin design house Ghia build this car, the Checker Centurion?
Ghia had enjoyed a near two decadeslong relationship with two of Detroit’s Big Three, not least as a subcontractor on the many Chrysler ‘ Dream Cars’ and also Crown Imperial limousines. It also constructed a batch of 50 turbine-powered prototypes on Chrysler’s behalf, while also working officially and unofficially on various Cadillacs, many for royalty and tin-pot dictators. However, the firm faced a major crisis in 1963, when its hot-tempered, but dedicated principal Luigi Segre died unexpectedly. Ghia was then sold to Rafael Trujillo, the much-despised son of the recently ousted Dominican Republic despot Leonidas Ramades Trujillo. The new keeper had little interest in coachbuilding and he ‘sold’ the business in 1967 to Argentinian émigré Alejandro de Tomaso. Trujillo Jr found himself on the wrong side of the law and in need of bail money in a hurry. A lot of it. De Tomaso sensed an opportunity and obliged, with backing from the American conglomerate Rowan Industries.
It was against this backdrop that de Tomaso purportedly did a deal with Checker to build a prototype based on an A-12-E chassis, the extended version of the usual taxi chassis with a 129-inch wheelbase. The great Giorgetto Giugiaro was tasked with shaping it, but ‘Il Maestro’ fell out with de Tomaso and the design was subcontracted to American-born artiste Tom Tjaarda instead. The likeable design legend discussed the car with Hemmings Classic Car in 2008, and recalled: “I had no design brief.
Giugiaro just said that it was a Checker cab. Funny thing is, he had difficulty pronouncing the name ‘Checker’ and it came out ‘cake-care’… Knowing de Tomaso, I can say that he would not just go out and select a dumb chassis, like the Checker, and do up a huge cab to showcase his new Ghia company to the automotive world.’
However, historians from the Checker Car Club of America say otherwise, and claim they have been unable to find any evidence to suggest the prototype was commissioned by Checker directly. In the Hemmings article, Tjaarda conceded that he did not speak with anyone from Checker during the five-month build. The car broke cover in 1968 and toured the show circuit, and it generated plenty of ink in the media, even if it was no beauty. The 327cu in Chevy V8-engined prototype wasn’t on the basic side, either. In the back there was a drinks cabinet with crystal decanter and glasses along with a telephone, 12in television and other luxury items that screamed limousine rather than taxi cab.
Construction of the Checker Centurion reputedly cost $125,000, and following its appearance at the 1969 New York Auto Show, it was pressed into use by one of Rowan Industries’ board members who died in a plane crash a year later. It was in derelict condition around the mid-2000s, but has since been restored by a Checker enthusiast from Massachusetts. The mystery over who ordered construction of the Centurion will probably remain a mystery, however.