19 artifacts in this set
Horse-drawn carriages for hire appeared on city streets in Europe by the early 1600s. In Great Britain they came to be known as hackney carriages, for the Hackney area of London where many harness horses were sourced. Our modern term “hack” -- slang for a taxi or its driver -- originates from this name.
British architect James Hansom patented the two-wheel hansom cab design in 1846. His small, lightweight vehicle was easy to maneuver through crowded urban streets, and the style spread quickly through Europe and North America. Hansom's design is a modification of a two-wheel carriage type known as a cabriolet -- readily shortened to "cab."
Motorized taxis began to replace horse-drawn cabs in the 1890s. Operators initially favored clean, quiet electric cars for taxicab service. Entrepreneurs formed the Electric Vehicle Company in 1897, intent on monopolizing American taxicab manufacture and operation. But their "Lead Cab Trust" scheme failed. Although this particular Columbia Victoria was privately owned, it is similar to Electric Vehicle Company's taxis.
Some horse-drawn taxis remained in New York City into the 20th century. This article from Ford Times, Ford Motor Company's magazine, profiles Manhattan taxi driver Max Eller. In 1908 he replaced his horse with a Model T. With no animal to stable or feed, Eller's income soared more than 200 percent. Not surprisingly, other horse-driving hacks followed his lead.
As horse-drawn taxis gave way to motorized cabs, wise livery stable operators changed with the times. This livery and feed barn converted into a taxi operator and automobile service garage. The sign out front advertises "Day & Night Service."
John D. Hertz founded Chicago's Yellow Cab Manufacturing Company in 1915. While taxi operators could order their cabs in any color, yellow was popular because it so easily caught the attention of potential customers. General Motors bought Yellow Cab in 1925 and discontinued taxicab production in 1929. Hertz went on to form the rental car company that bore his name.
Morris Markin merged his taxi body company with a chassis manufacturer in 1922 and established Checker Motors Corporation in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The city was conveniently located halfway between Chicago, where Markin operated a cab fleet, and Detroit, home to most of America's automotive industry.
Taxicabs weren't always automobiles. These motorcycle taxis, based in Newark, New Jersey, offered convenient point-to-point transportation in the mid-1920s. Banners advertised the motorcycle cabs' low rate. Typically, customers paid a base fee for use of a cab and then a per-mile rate on top of that. In some cities, fares were based on zone systems rather than mileage.
Checker Motors billed itself as the "Builders of America's Finest Taxicabs." This image featured taxi models produced during the company's first 30 years in business. Checker's cabs were spacious, durable, and found everywhere in the United States. At the company's peak, Checker produced some 5,000 taxicabs each year.
Checker announced its first postwar model, the A-2, in December 1946. The Model A-6, introduced for 1953, featured additional headroom for rear-seat passengers. Checker also offered a longer limousine version, the Model A-7. With the Model A-8, introduced for 1956, Checker arrived at a basic design that would remain in production for 25 years.
This brochure spotlights Checker's Model A-9 taxicab of 1959. The following model year brought bigger news from the company. Checker made a serious play for the consumer market with a passenger car for private owners: the 1960 Checker Superba. Though based on the company's taxicabs, the Superba featured extra trim and a more refined interior. Prices started around $2500.
Checker's cabs were built to last. Frames were heavily reinforced, body panels were easily removed and replaced, and front and rear bumpers were interchangeable. Likewise, the company's styling was conservative and practical. Checker did not implement the annual appearance changes favored by other automakers.
Checker acknowledged its cabs' unchanging appearance in this 1980 catalog, stating that "Only Checker looks like a taxicab." But the next year's "straight talk" was disheartening -- for the first time in nearly 50 years, Checker lost money. Two oil crises, increased competition from Detroit automakers, and a growing market for used taxis all cut into Checker's sales.
Checker ended taxicab production in 1982. The company continued to build parts in Kalamazoo -- primarily as a supplier to General Motors -- until the Great Recession shuttered it permanently in 2009. But Checker's legacy was secure. Its cabs were preserved in popular culture through movies and television series, and "Checker" remained synonymous with "taxi" in the American popular imagination.
In the 2010s, the taxi industry faced a serious challenge with the arrival of ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft. These companies use mobile apps to connect passengers with drivers. Generally, the drivers are independent contractors using their own vehicles, and the services are not licensed or regulated as closely as traditional taxicabs.