For at least one hundred years America has been an
automobile obsessed culture. So, it should come as no surprise to learn that some automobile and custom body manufacturers would go to great lengths to provide stylish and ornate hearses. A few companies, however, focused on meeting the needs of a niche market in the funeral industry, the funeral director that needed utility as well as economy in their hearse, rather than flourish. In the latter category few companies were as as successful as Checker, the famous manufacturer of tax cabs.
Shortly before the end of 1930, just as the Great Depression was gaining momentum and decimating the American auto industry, the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company introduced the Model M as a replacement for the Model T. As with predecessor models, the new Checker was engineered for durability. However, setting this vehicle apart was the styling which gave the car a modern, luxurious look.
The Model M was also a milestone for the company in that it marked the beginning of a relatively successful history of providing niche market vehicles. In June 1931, the company introduced the MU6 Suburban Utility, a vehicle that could be sold through a diverse array of commercial markets. Available on two wheelbases, the vehicle blended the attributes of the taxi with those of a limousine and station wagon. In the long wheelbase configuration, the vehicle would seat nine people plus the driver. Through the use of folding and easily removed seats, the Suburban Utility transformed from a people carrier into a delivery vehicle. With the addition an accessory kit that included side curtains, the funeral director could quickly convert the vehicle into a hearse.
An advertisement from 1931 begins with the heading “A Checker Product – The Utility Car.” It continues with, “All the fine appearance and riding qualities of a nine passenger car – quickly convertible into a ton-plus station wagon, package delivery vehicle, or hearse.”
In the years before production ceased in 1982, Checker would create an array of interesting niche market vehicles, many with funeral or medical company applications. One of these was the Medicar introduced in 1969 on the extended “E” chasis generally used for the manufacture of limousines. The most noticeable modification from standard Checker sedans was the roof which had been raised ten inches. This provided a full 54-inches of interior height and the wide rear doors opened 180-degrees. Additional modifications included a flat floor fitted with wheel chair locks, the removal of the rear seat, and the addition of a passenger side front bucket seat. It could carry three wheel chair bound passengers.
As with the Model M Suburban Utility, the Medicar was designed as a multipurpose vehicle suitable for use is several different commercial applications. In a feature article published March 16, 1969 in the Kalamazoo Gazette, it was noted that, “The unit converts into an ambulance with little effort, leading Markin to note that such conversion possibilities make the Medicar available as low cost emergency service vehicles for police, fire, civil defense, and other governmental agencies. In the ambulance configuration, the car can accommodate one stretcher and one wheel chair, while it can can be converted into an eight passenger family car when not needed as a wheelchair car or ambulance.”
Specialty cars such as the Model M Suburban Utility, and the Medicar, had very finite markets. As a result, even company’s such as Checker that specialized in small market manufacturing had difficulty in producing vehicles such as this profitably. In 1970, after manufacturing just 100 Medicar’s, production was suspended.
Niche market cars for funeral and medical businesses were not just the domain of automobile manufacturers. Today these vehicles are prized by a small corner of the collector car hobby. If you would like more information about the Suburban Utility, the Medicar, or any of the other fascinating specialty vehicle produced over the years, I suggest that you look into the Professional Car Society.