That embarrassing, cigar-box Checker Marathon -- I miss it

Jacques Kelly

January 25, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

There was no other car like it in Baltimore, my father's 1964 metallic blue Checker Marathon.

It could hold 14 children -- plus parents. It was devoid of style. I was embarrassed to be picked up in it. Imagine the shame of being delivered to college in a car that by all rights should have been a taxi. I never mastered its stubborn clutch. And, some 27 years later, I miss it. Old friends still inquire about it.

My father, Joe Kelly, was a man faced by a transportation dilemma. What was the best way to transport his wife, six children and plus two grandmothers, great aunts and a large Labrador Retriever?

We'd had two station wagons -- Rambler Classics, each with a third seat whose novelty faded in less time than it took to drive home from the automobile showroom. There were fights over who would sit in the purgatory of that rumble seat.

Being a man who believes in peace, Joe found some literature about the Checker Motor Car Co. of Kalamazoo, Mich. There was a dealership in Baltimore, Weil & Scott, in the 1100 block of Cathedral St. On Sept. 9, 1964, for $2,853.70 (including tax and title), and less Rambler trade-in, he drove away in the homeliest new vehicle that ever rolled off an assembly line.

Most Checker bodies were constructed of what seemed like cast iron for taxi cabs. But, in that era, some were made for regular consumer trade. The Ford Mustang and the Chevvy Impala did not exactly flinch in competitive worry.

The Checker was fat and high. In fact, it looked like a rolling blue cigar box. If it had any style, it was the style associated with parochial school uniforms and Socialist architecture.

For $80 of the purchase price, my father had two jump seats included. These were not at all like the low jump seats in a limousine. A checker's auxiliary seating sat high, rounded -- almost like miniature ice cream parlor chairs. Almost immediately there were wars about who got to occupy the jump seat.

It was nearly impossible to fill the Checker. Its sheer volume was tremendous. My father liked to say you could open a card table between the front and back seats. One of the reasons this was possible was that the Checker had no well -- it was flat-bottom car. When you opened a door, there was no depression.

This very sensible car was the bane of my high school and college career. I prayed no classmates would spot it. Of course they did. I became linked with the Checker. It was real torture when my father chauffeured for high school mixers and dances. To keep him company in the large front seat, he often arrived as the last song (invariably 'Misty") in the Checker with Rocky, our faithful black Lab pooch as company. I think Rocky liked the car better than anyone.

Older people loved the Checker. I'll never forget the afternoon I spotted my formidable Aunt Agnes Bossie being ferried north on Calvert Street. To her, it was a B&O parlor car. And, one summer, we carried 14 children and adults a distance of seven miles until someone spotted a yellow jacket inside the car. The car stopped and the Checker's four doors swung open for mass evacuation.

The Checker's arrival was always announced by a peculiar metal sound traced to its obstinate gears. No automatic -- it was shift on the column, with a clutch pedal worthy of the gears on an 18-wheeler. I never mastered it. No one could drive it except my father.

The Checker hit 154,000 miles with an engine rebuild. My father investigated trading it in and was offered $100. Then the salesman got behind the wheel and got a first-hand dose of the gears and clutch pedal. "Make that $50," he said. And so the blue Checker passed.

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