Anybody who sees John Bell’s four taxis lined up in their yellow paint and chequered decals might recognise them from the 1970s sit-com Taxi and the 1976 Robert De Niro film Taxi Driver. A New York taxi is not just recognisable, its iconic colour and silhouette evokes Times Square, Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty.
Yet not one of John Bell’s New York cabs has ever carried a passenger across Manhattan, or anywhere else in the Big Apple.
While John’s cars were made by the Checker Motors Corporation of Kalamazoo, Michigan, they were delivered straight to private owners in the US. Plenty of everyday motorists were keen to get their hands on a Checker, possibly because they figured that if the car could withstand years of pummelling by New York’s uncaring cabbies, they would last.
“A lot of people bought them as family cars,” John said. “They were never that popular, though; they were too big and bulky. They even tried them as police cars, but the police hated them. But privately owned ones were the only option for me because any that were cabs originally (the Marathon model was built by Checker from 1958 until 1982) have all been driven into the ground.”
Once John had started buying the Checkers, he began converting them to taxi specification, starting with the yellow paint and ending with the authentic taxi meters, stripes and even the light on the roof.
Online auction sites have been his saviour. Nowadays, John’s New York taxis are used as wedding cars, so don’t be surprised if you see one or two around Melbourne.
For John, the For Hire light was switched on inside his head about three years ago. Within a few days of the idea forming, he owned his first Checker, a 1964 model he bought from the original owner in Texas.
The collection soon grew, with a 1978 model and then a pair of 1981 versions, including a one-owner model that had been the company car for Sun Records in Tennessee. Sun Records discovered and first recorded greats such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis.
But for John, it’s not just about the income from a flourishing car-hire business. “Nobody else here had one,” is his first explanation. But scratch deeper and it’s clear that John simply likes the feel-good factor these cars bring.
“I parked one in town a while back and before you knew it, it had a crowd around it. I just stood back and watched. I got a real buzz out of that.”