by mia Hinkle
I read somewhere that a car is not just a car. It’s how we define ourselves. Car ownership celebrates our agency, emboldens our self-worth, and empowers growth. A car provides a shelter on wheels, a badge of identity, and a means to determine your own path. There was a time when Americans had a love affair with automobiles; the ones we drive and the ones we wish we could drive.
Back in the day, cars were more distinctive looking, one make and model from another, even identifiable from year to year.
However, in the interest of aerodynamics and safety, cars have become more and more homogenous looking. Physics would love it if all cars were shaped like sideways teardrops.
This was clearly not the case the year Karl and I were married over 40 years ago. Here is a photo of the two cars we owned in 1982. Not many sleek design elements OR safety features involved here!
Karl drove a 1978 Checker Marathon. It was a great big beautiful tank! I drove a 1976 Ford F150 pick-up truck with a 120-gallon propane tank fastened inside the bed. The truck had been modified to run on propane, not on gasoline or diesel. At the time, propane was 50 cents less per gallon than unleaded gas. It cost around $80 to fill the tank and I could practically drive forever! It also burned cleaner, there was no fuel pump, spark plugs lasted five times longer, and the engine could last three times longer than with conventional fuel. I owned horses at the time and drove it to horse shows. This truck had NO strain pulling a fully loaded horse trailer with a tower of hay in the bed. This truck could pass everyone else on a steep incline like they were standing still! In fact, Karl (in my pickup) raced John McDowell (in his fast little sports car) leaving the Vogue Night Club one night after a concert. He beat him off the line and left him in the dust. John made Karl promise to never tell anyone his Fiat Spider (or some such) was outdone by a boxy-looking pickup truck. (Oops.)
To this day I have never known anyone else to drive a propane-powered vehicle. Granted my truck was pretty unique, but Karl’s car would turn heads wherever he went!
When Karl was 26 years old, he ordered his first (and only ever) brand-new car. It was a 1978 Checker Marathon with a custom shiny black paint job and a black vinyl top. The band was playing in South Bend and a couple of the guys drove him an hour and a half north to Kalamazoo, Michigan, so he could pick it up directly from the Checker assembly line.
It was love at first sight! Big, fat, and wide was this automobile! Karl immediately dubbed it Chubby Checker and started shopping for a front license plate with the word CHUBBY. Roomy on the inside was definitely an understatement! There was a good three feet of legroom in the back seat. An entire sound system could fit back there. Two adults could stretch out and sleep comfortably in the back seat: there was more room on the floor than on the bench seat. In the front seat, there was plenty of headroom; no need to take off your Stetson before getting in. It was the kind of car that would make other drivers point and wave and smile at Karl. He just loved that car!
It featured a Chevrolet Turbo-Thrift engine which is a straight-six, 230 cubic inch, and had plenty of power. Its body was pretty much unchanged for the 22 years (1960 to 1982) it was in production. It was a virtual workhorse! The Checker Marathon was distinctive as Yellow Cabs found in New York and other big cities, but it was also used for a couple of years in the late 60s in Pope Saint Paul VI’s entourage motorcade — painted black of course.
Between 1978 and 1991, Karl cherished that car. It was the only one like it in Indy. Just like its owner, it was one of a kind. One of his first acts of ownership was to place a WTLC sticker in the back window. He could often be heard pulling up to a gig, windows rolled down, rhythm ‘n blues blaring into the streets!
When we were first married, we lived at Tudor Lake Apartments at 86th & Ditch. There was a huge snowstorm and it turned bitter cold. Not one car in the lot would turn over … except that old Checker. Some of us shoveled people out and Karl made the rounds with his jumper cables. I remember AAA was estimating a wait time of six days to come to jump a battery, so Karl and his Checker were the heroes of the day!
Even now as old men, still young at heart, his buddy Michael Clark and Karl laugh hysterically every time they talk about pranking middle-of-the-night gas station attendants. Karl would drive the Checker into the gas station knowing everyone would be looking as he got out. He would emerge wearing dark glasses and carrying a white cane. Michael would get out of the passenger door, walk around to the driver’s door and guide Karl into the convenience store. Inevitably the attendant would whisper, “Is he really blind?” And Michael would answer, “Yes, but it’s okay, I tell him where to turn.” They would load up on junk food and Michael would lead Karl back to the driver’s seat and hop in on the passenger side. With windows rolled down, Michael could be heard shouting directions at Karl, “Turn right! Now left! Stop! Now go!”
Karl’s bandmate Tom Wright recalls, “I only know one boy who could pull off buying a Checker Cab and have it seem normal. We were all stunned for lack of a better word. Karl sat proudly at the wheel and smiled at onlookers, “Yeah, go ahead. Take your best shot.” He loved that black behemoth. His choice simply made us love him all the more for being who he was as a young man.”
Those big silver 5-mile-bumpers could push anything on the road and Karl often came to the rescue of stranded motorists. Since 1971, Federal law stipulates that a bumper needs to withstand a slow collision without damage to the car. To dodge this requirement, the auto industry eliminated bumpers altogether, and the result is consumers and insurance companies pay thousands more to repair simple fender benders. But many a broken-down or out-of-gas motorist was saved by Karl and his Checker.
We kept that dear old Checker until the early 90s. I remember the fateful day. Our oldest son was a toddler and one day I remember thinking, “This suddenly doesn’t feel safe anymore.” I was driving on Ditch Road, looked down, and saw the street beneath my feet. The rocker panels and floorboards had completely rusted through, held only together by worn-out carpet! Sadly, we had to make a decision. In the end, we gave it to a friend who worked in auto body repair; we knew he’d appreciate its novelty and maybe restore it.
If you knew Karl during the 70s and 80s, you remember his Checker Marathon. It was a part of his public identity, part of his Indiana celebrity. Fans loved it. Friends loved it. Bandmates loved it. Family loved it. In fact, one time when Karl was out of town, his 17-year-old little brother fondly remembers kissing a pretty girl in the back seat of that Checker. Now there’s something you never forget! How old was Karl when he learned this little bit of information? He was today years old!
It’s funny how some things stick in your mind like yesterday, standing against the passage of time and the fading of memory. For Karl, owning that Checker was one of those benchmarks and it drove with him in tandem through the 80s, Karl’s most hopeful decade. In those days, all things seemed new. His career seemed promising with the 1978 reunion of the Wright Brothers and their second run at fame and fortune. He found new love when we married in 1981. He found renewed faith when we stumbled into a great new church, and he began his music ministry in 1985. He found fatherhood when our oldest son was born in 1989.
And all this sitting tall behind the wheel of that 1978 Checker Marathon.