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Postwar Chrysler Cabs (With Competitors)

1949 was a year of transition not only for Chrysler but for the cab business as well. Numerous cities, including San Francisco, gave lucrative taxi licenses (aka "medallions") to returning WWII veterans. San Francisco's Veterans' Cab Company traces itself back to this.

On a larger scale, many cities that had up until that time decreed that a cab carry five passengers behind the driver changed this requirement so that normal passenger cars could qualify. By this time Chrysler was the only major manufacturer still building long-wheelbase sedans in its medium-priced ranges. Webmaster note: even in the early 1950s, taxis were expected to be large in many cities, and DeSoto did very well with its eight-passenger models. 1954 was the last year for the DeSoto eight-passenger sedan, and most taxi business reverted to Checker, the only company still making such vehicles; when normal sedans became acceptable, Plymouth picked up a lot of business.

New York City continued to require a long wheelbase for a few more years. There the two dominant variety of cabs were the LWB (long wheelbase) DeSoto and the Checker, which at the time looked much like a stripped LWB version of the 1946-'47 Cadillac, but was powered by the Continental 226 ci (3.7L) L-head six.

There was also a LWB Packard taxi, built with their Henney limousine body but powered by the six-cylinder engine last seen in the prewar Packard 110/DeLuxe. This engine was only available after WWII in taxicabs and cars built for export. After WWII, Packard made the baffling decision to pursue the medium-price class more heavily and give less attention to the luxury models they had made their name and reputation on. A medium-priced Packard made sense in the Depression, and the Packard 120 and later 110 probably saved the company at the time, but the decision to pursue the medium-price market in the immediate post-WWII years, at a time when automakers could sell anything they could build at whatever price they could name, essentially ceded leadership in the luxury class to Cadillac, and ultimately probably killed the company. (Even with their strong efforts to market a medium-priced car, and even considering the usual very high standards of Packard reliability, their taxicab package proved too expensive for most fleets.) The Packard taxi appears to have been dropped about 1949 or 1950.

Getting back to Chrysler, there were actually two separate series of 1949 models, although the first series '49s are considered late 1948s by most people today. In the cab market these would have been a continuation of the DeSoto S11 and Plymouth P15 series. The second-series 1949s, which are considered the "real" 1949s today, did not appear until February of 1949. Other than previous generations of coupe or convertible, and to a lesser extent "brougham" sedan styles as seen just before the war (and after the war in the case of the 4dr Town and Country), these cars were the first sedan-styled examples of "three-box" styling from Chrysler in which the trunk area was as well-defined as the front of the car. The long-wheelbase models had a definite "limousine" look as a result; one of these painted as a taxi simply looked too long to do its job. (I don't have the stats in front of me, but I believe the trunk overhang actually did make these about two feet longer than the generation they replaced.) Nevertheless, these LWB cars remained in production as taxis through 1954; and in 1953, around 70% of New York City cabs were DeSotos.

Bill Watson added: It should be pointed out, too, that the 1949-54 LWB models all used the same basic body. In 1951 they received the new larger windshield plus new front doors to match the higher front fender line. And in 1953 they all received the new one-piece curved windshield. Rear fenders were changed in 1950 and 1953 while taillights were changed for 1950, 1952, 1953 and 1954. (Note from Mike: the 1953 LWB fender change continued using a separate rear fender as had been the practice in all models in previous years, rather than an integral rear fender and quarter panel as used on conventional wheelbase models. This was the case with the DeSoto and Chrysler station wagon bodies for '53 and '54 as well.)

Chrysler continued serial number sequences according to model / series / engine in a number of cases. That the DeSoto LWB taxi kept the 7-digit serial number when the rest of the DeSoto line went to the new 8-digit sequence is not surprising. Given the low production of the model, there would be plenty of numbers available for future production. The rest of the line changed, as did all six-cylinder Mopar lines, as their 7-digit sequences were running out. The Saratoga, New Yorker, Imperial and Crown Imperial all used the 7-digit serial number through 1954 (although LA built New Yorkers got the 8-digit numbers as did the 1953-54 New Yorker as it replaced the Saratoga).

Even Chrysler seemed uncertain about the future of the LWB models at this point; while a LWB 1949 Dodge appeared in the catalog, some sources say none were built. But Bill Watson wrote:

Dodge did offer a LWB model in 1949, Coronet in the U.S. and Custom in Canada. Unfortunately, most production figures quoted are from the same source. So the errors made in the original quote get repeated time after time. The figures were taken from a Chrysler Corporation book printed in 1962 that listed production by body style back into the early 1930s. I have never seen this book, but anytime that book is mentioned as a source the Dodge listings are missing the 1949 LWB models and the 1939 D11S (Luxury Liner DeLuxe / Custom Six) series. The list also shows production for the D13, which was a Canada-only Plymouth-based model (DeLuxe Six).

I was able to come across a back issue of WPC's publication on the 1939 Dodge, written by Sherwood Kahlenberg, and it lists production figures for the D11 (Luxury Liner Special), D11S (Luxury Liner DeLuxe / Custom Six), D13 (DeLuxe Six), and the D12, which was the export Dodge and in Canada the Six.

But getting back to 1949, by serial number 267,694 D34 models (Meadowbrook / Coronet / Custom) were built, but the published totals by body style come to 266,394. Granted serial number totals do not always jive with body style totals, but the differences are usually from one to a few dozen and not 1,300. Also, there is a yard in Lavoy, Alberta that has (or had) a Canadian-built 1949 Dodge Custom LWB sedan.

Also, the last Dodge long wheelbase model was in 1951. The model was not listed in 1952 and was absent from the 1952 brochure.

Derham Custom Body of Rosemont, Pennsylvania, an old-time coachbuilder with Cadillacs and Duesenbergs on its resume but with more recent ties to Chrysler (including a DeSoto-Plymouth dealer franchise) tried addressing this issue by building a short-wheelbase prototype of a 2nd series 1949 S13 DeSoto that nonetheless met the NYC requirements. This vehicle looked like a cross between a conventional '49 DeSoto and the legendary London taxi, and had no trunk area beyond a spare tire compartment (luggage was to be carried up front with the driver). It was determined that this conversion could not be done at a price that taxi fleets would buy, and only the one prototype was built.

The 1946-48 DeSoto LWB body style remained in production as the taxi package model through 1954, despite using the model designation of the actual model year. (Grant Geyer and Bill Watson both affirmed this, and a 1953 issue of DeSoto Retailer shows production of a 1953 S-18 DeSoto Powermaster long wheelbase taxi). It would have been no more outdated than the competing Checker, which continued with its 1940s styling until the introduction of the A-series in 1956 - the first incarnation of what would become the Checker Marathon, which would amazingly remain in production until 1982. A DeSoto Retailer article stated that seven out of every ten cabs in NYC were DeSotos, a figure much like those achieved by MoPar police cars in later years, and a strong testimony to Chrysler reliability.

A comparison of taxi serial numbers with regular passenger car serial numbers after 1949 shows taxi numbers to be more or less an ongoing continuation of S11 taxi serial numbers, which in my opinion lends at least a little weight to the continuation of the S11 body style in later model years. (In fact, taxi serial numbers seem to have tried to follow this pattern from their introduction as a separate tally in 1936.)

Detroit-built DeSoto taxicab VIN numbers seem to have always been a 7-digit number starting with 5, with the exception of 99 1936 S1 Airstreams which had VINs starting with 6, apparently after the taxi VIN numbers in use at the time, which started with "5999xxx", reached "6000000". (The '37 taxi serial numbers are interesting in that they seem to continue where the '36 Airflow serial numbers left off! Taxi serial numbers in later years are a continuation of the previous year's numbers, with some rounding at the beginning of the next model year to start new production with a number that ends in "01".) A Detroit-built civilian DeSoto had a 7-digit VIN starting with either a 5 or 6 up through the postwar S11 series, and starting in 1948 there were Los Angeles-built DeSotos with 8-digit VINs starting with 6. From 1949 on, all DeSotos had 8-digit VINs except taxis (7-digit starting with 5) and Detroit-built DeSoto DeLuxe models (the bottom-line model, 7-digit starting with 6). After 1953, all civilian DeSotos had 8-digit VINs while '53-'55 taxis are shown still using the 7-digit VIN. I have no info on VIN numbers for the '57 Firesweeps built as taxis.

The MoPar parts books at my disposal have not been particularly helpful in resolving questions about taxi production prior to 1956. The oldest book I have was issued in 1955 and covers models going back to 1935, but the older the model the less detail. This book superceded a number of earlier publications, which the dealership I got the set from probably tossed when the factory sent this one. Possibly the books in use at the time would have had more information. It also seems very possible that there was a separate parts book for taxis, as there later was for police models. The 1935-54 book makes absolutely no mention of taxi-specific parts, and does not even include serial numbers for DeSoto taxicabs. A later supplement on replacement clutch packages makes it clear that taxi-specific equipment did exist during these years, showing MoPar part #1879 660 as the clutch package kit for 1949-54 DeSoto taxicabs, 1953-54 Chrysler Windsor 8-passenger sedans, and 1955 Firedomes with the heavy-duty 3-speed (wow, they offered 2 different sticks that year?).

Meanwhile, there were undoubtedly Plymouth and Dodge taxis available as well despite lack of documentation. The 1949 and 1950 Plymouth and Dodge continued using a dashboard design with a radio speaker in the middle of the dash, covered by an easily removable grille. This style of dashboard was popular among taxi operators as it allowed in-dash placement of a meter. Rockwell/Ohmer, Viking and Cabometer all made mechanical meters which fit neatly in the speaker cavity. The virtues of a Plymouth of this era as a taxi - reliable, durable, inexpensive to purchase and similarly inexpensive to operate - are so obvious that one might wonder what could have prompted a fleet operator to spend the extra money to purchase Dodges or DeSotos, especially in areas that allowed use of conventional sedans. Two words: "Fluid Drive". There was a school of thought that believed the longer clutch life and related relief from downtime that accompanied the Fluid Drive transmission more than offset the additional cost of one of the senior makes that offered it. In a city such as San Francisco, noted not just for hills but for stop signs at the top of hills, there is no doubt that Fluid Drive would have paid for itself.

It was somewhere about this time that Chrysler started making reference to "California-type" taxicabs in some of its production records. This appears to refer to conventional short-wheelbase sedans with cab packages from the factory.

A 1953 article in DeSoto Retailer reprinted in the National DeSoto Club's magazine noted that 2,000 DeSotos were built for Waters Manufacturing Company [details] each year, to be sold as New York cabs; they were made without trim, upholstery, seats, or even window glass, using the eight-passenger sedan body with a six cylinder engine and manual transmission. The NYC cabs averaged over 100,000 miles per year. (Thanks, Dave Duricy.)

The 1955-58 MoPar Parts and Accessories Book makes reference to 1956 and 1957 Plymouth and Dodge taxicab models. These appear to have been the reappearance of the factory taxi package for these makes, although as mentioned before they were used as taxicabs before the cab package reappeared. These are referred to as "Plaza Taxicab" or "Coronet Taxicab", both offered either with a 6 or a V8, and with production numbers buried within the respective totals for those models with whichever number of cylinders. No mention is made of 1958 taxicab models although they are known to have existed; it is unclear at the moment whether the change in model designation codes that came in with the '58 models was accompanied by the introduction of the "Fleet Special" designation that was known to exist in later years.

In addition to these models, there were an estimated 138 Dodge-based DeSoto Firesweep S27 taxis built as a fleet order for an unknown taxi operator and equipped with the 230 ci (3.8L) flathead six, which was not an officially catalogued option for the Firesweep. Indeed, use of the "S27" model designation is a little surprising, since Chrysler practice up to that point was to assign different model numbers to otherwise similar cars based on number of cylinders, e. g. the 1957 Plymouth P30 and P31. Had Chrysler continued established practice, the 6-cylinder Firesweep would have received the unissued "S28" model designation; instead, the parts book has references to S27s with both 6 and 8 cylinder power. This was probably a combination of the knowledge that new model IDs were in the works for 1958 (in fact, the '57 Imperial got model IDs that predicted the '58 change somewhat) and the 6-cylinder's status as a non-catalogued special order.

All Chrysler factory taxi packages came only from Detroit assembly plants, at least up to 1957. For Plymouths, this would probably have been Lynch Road Assembly, while for Dodges and DeSoto Firesweeps this would have been Hamtramck/Dodge Main. Pre-'54 DeSotos with the factory taxi package also came only from Detroit, presumably the DeSoto plant at the corner of Wyoming and Warren Avenues.

Other competing taxicabs

During the 1940s and 1950s, Chrysler, Checker and Packard were nowhere near the only players in the cab market. So much effort, in fact, was put out by other manufacturers that Chrysler's dominance can only be ascribed to their making a superior product.

Ford may have taken the conventional-wheelbase cab market the most seriously of the competing manufacturers, offering a cab package with separate sales brochure at least as far back as 1955 (a year before the return of official Plymouth cab packages), and probably earlier. At the time, Ford was by far the dominant name in police car sales, largely by virtue of their longtime offering of V8 power, and a cab package needed little more than substitution of a less powerful engine. It's easy to forget with all the attention paid to Ford V8s that they also had a very good six-cylinder engine, which (believe it or not) came out in an overhead valve version two years before the OHV V8, and was said by testers at the time to outaccelerate the V8 from a standing stop up to about 35 mph (this owed to its low-end torque). A larger manufacturer after 1952, with a solid up-to-date product specially designed for heavy-duty service... and yet Plymouth outsold them in the cab market even when not offering an official cab package!

Chevrolet built a solid car during this era as well, and got a large number of cab sales by virtue of their general popularity. Cab operators would have considered the pre-1954 torque tube a service liability, as it required pulling the rear end for clutch changes, but from '55 on this was no longer an issue. Then, as now, many small operators bought year-old rental cars for cab use, the theory being that Hertz could eat the first year's depreciation, and I suspect most of the Chevies that wound up as cabs went into service as used cars. The most popular car in America, in an era where a Chevy franchise was considered a gold mine in markets of any size, and a reliable and economical product... and yet Plymouth outsold them in the cab market as well.

Pontiac made a solid car in this era, with a choice of 6 or 8 cylinder power (before 1955, at least) in a body closely related to Chevrolet but with an open driveshaft (I can't overemphasize how big a deal that was to cab fleets). Catalog art exists showing Pontiacs done up as cabs, but it's hard to say whether the division offered a full cab package or not. A good car that probably would have sold in big numbers as a cab were it not for the perceived superiority of the Chrysler Corporation offerings.

Oldsmobile might have seen even more success in the cab market had they ever gone after it, as it was somewhat commonly known among motorheads that Olds engine blocks used a higher nickel content than other GM divisions, making for a stronger block. (This practice seems to have traveled to Hudson as well, whose founders and early engineering staff all had Olds experience on their resumes. Hudson blocks were said to be so strong due to their high nickel content that an engine rebuilder could ruin a boring bar on one if not extremely careful.)

I'm told Oldsmobile taxicabs were very popular in Havana, Cuba in the 1930s and '40s, but like most everything else they played second fiddle to Chrysler products in the US. The last real "natural" Olds for taxi service was the 1950 Olds 76, which was also the last Olds-built inline six (although years later, F-85, Cutlass and Omega models were offered with the Chevy inline six). The V8-powered Olds 88 would've been considered too thirsty, and probably too powerful as well, for most cab fleets, while the 98 was a luxury model and much larger.

Olds used an open driveshaft before Chevrolet and Buick did, and it turns out they also had this feature earlier than Pontiac. (Not sure Olds ever used a torque tube, and would not be surprised to hear they never did.)

Buicks were generally considered too large and expensive for use as cabs, but were seen in smaller markets, usually put into cab service as a used car. Buick had the positives of being a well-built car, and the most popular of GM's medium-price makes during this era, which probably translated into more popularity as a cab than might otherwise have been the case. They also had the negatives of torque tube drive and relatively low gas mileage, especially with the Dynaflow automatic which did not shift gears in the usual sense - an uncommonly smooth-driving car, but one which accomplished that smoothness at a fuel cost penalty. Their lack of a six-cylinder engine would have been considered a disadvantage as well.

Bill Watson wrote: Buick did attempt to enter the taxi market in 1939 and 1940. They were based on the series 40 Special sedan. Do not know how many were built in 1939, but 48 were built in 1940 with taxi interiors with model number 41T. These were built on the New York specifications with two jump seats in the rear, a glass partition between front and rear plus the space beside the driver for luggage. These can be seen in B grade movies of the 1939-41 era.

Although Mercury cabs did exist (I even have a picture of a '48 Merc owned by San Francisco's Veterans' Cab) they were unusual and when they went into cab service at all it was almost always as a used car. Ford kept its six-cylinder to itself in the US until '59, when they offered it in Edsel Rangers. Mercury didn't get a six even as a delete option until '61. I've never seen an Edsel cab but would imagine some '59s probably became cabs as used cars, since a cab operator would see low resale value on a 3-year-old car as an opportunity to get more car for the money, knowing that after use as a taxicab resale value would be next to nothing no matter what he bought. But again, we're dealing with used cars here as opposed to cars bought new for cab use, which is where Chrysler dominated.

Studebaker built a cab variation of the Champion called the "Econ-O-Miler", offered at least as far back as 1950. These were considered slightly underpowered, but the "Hill Holder", which held the brake as long as the clutch pedal was down (this of course only when brake and clutch were stepped on at the same time), made these somewhat popular in hilly cities, as did their fuel economy. San Francisco's Luxor Cab experimented with Studebakers in 1950 but does not seem to have stayed with them for very long. Later in the '50s, the Scotsman (which had almost no chrome and looked much like a cab anyway) and compact Lark made some cab operators give Studebaker another look. Studebaker eventually offered a Lark Econ-O-Miler with Perkins diesel power, but this apparently sold in very small numbers.

In addition to the aforementioned limo-based LWB taxi, Packard offered a short-wheelbase version based on the standard sedan, also with the Packard Six. This model also did not come back after 1950.

Nash built some excellent cars during this era, which probably would have sold better as cabs had it not been for their torque tube driveline. The '54 and '55 Ramblers were the only 4drs built by Nash in this era with open driveshafts... the '56 Rambler went to a torque tube when it got bigger, and while the '58 American was a reprise of the early Rambler down to its open driveshaft, a 4dr American did not come out until '60.

Hudsons were solid as a rock in the early '50s, and Hudson was a pioneer in cab packages as well, offering fullsize cars and compact Jets as taxicabs. This was probably an outgrowth of Hudson's racing program... at the time, NASCAR race cars were a lot closer to stock than they are today, and all kinds of factory performance parts turned up in the Hudson parts book under the headings "Police", "Taxi", "Heavy-Duty" and "Export". They built an exceptionally good car, and their cork-faced clutch in patented "Hudsonite" fluid was said to be the smoothest clutch in the industry, but the potential orphan thing probably chased off cab companies as it did most everybody else. Also, Hudson was a high-medium priced car, and their fullsize cabs probably were unable to compete with DeSoto on price, let alone Plymouth.

It might surprise many today to know that Kaiser may have been the biggest seller in cab circles among the independents, especially during the '46-'50 generation. They had a cab package early on - when all you have to offer is a 4dr sedan, you try to come up with as many variations on that theme as you can - and most of their cab sales probably came at the expense of Checker, who used the same basic engine and more than a few other parts. Kaiser had the further advantage over Checker of improvements on their own license-built version of the Continental 226 (a Kaiser-Frazer employee said some years later that K-F insiders always checked engine numbers to see that they were getting a K-F-built engine as opposed to one built by Continental Motors) and much more of a dealer network than Checker ever had.

Willys offered a taxi version of its Aero sedan, which was probably considered too small for a cab despite outstanding maneuverability and the toughness of the Jeep powerplants. Less than 100 were built in the US and it is believed that none survive today.

Even the British and Germans tried to get into the act, with Austin sending over a small number of LHD-converted London taxis in 1951. San Francisco Yellow experimented with these but found them to be underpowered on our hills. Similar results ensued in 1959-60 when SF Yellow briefly experimented with a couple of Mercedes-Benz 190D diesels.

As you can see, it's not as if cab operators went to Chrysler products because there were no alternatives, as could be said about the preponderance of Ford Crown Victorias in both police and taxi fleets today. There were many good choices, every one with something positive to recommend them - not a Vega or Pinto in the bunch. Cab operators needed economical vehicles that spent very little in downtime. More often than not, they went to Chrysler after comparing them all. I've always felt this pretty much said all that could be said.

What was in a taxi cab package? (from Bill Watson)

Plymouth and Dodge taxis would have been built using optional heavy-duty and taxi items and were not separate models before the 1960s.

(Note from Mike: The parts book shows VIN variations for taxi models starting with the '59 model year, but apparently these production numbers were buried in the Savoy and Coronet totals.)

I have a copy of the 1958 Plymouth order code list (USA) that lists the various items in the Heavy Duty Packages - Taxicab and Police :

399 - Non-Slip Differential - 350-cid V8 only
451 - Heavy Duty Package for 3-speed manual & overdrive transmissions
452 - Heavy Duty Package for Powerflite & Torqueflite models
437 - Universal Key Package (Taxicab)
455 - Heavy-Duty Springs and Shock Absorbers
394 - Automatic Dome Light Switch - All Doors (Taxicab)
400 - Fuel Tank - 23 gallons
225 - Vinyl Trim - Seat and Door Panels
609 - City Traffic Carburetor (Taxicab)
359 - Heavy Duty Crankcase Ventilation Package
585 - Battery - 70 Ampere Hour
571 - 30-Ampere generator - city police
572 - 40-Ampere generator - city police (N/A 6 with PS)
574 - 50-Ampere generator - Leece Neville (N/A 6 with PS)
573 - 50-Ampere generator - Bosch (N/A 6 with PS)
378 - Governor (35 to 60 miles) - 6-cylinder only
309 - Handle - Door Pull-To - Taxicab - right rear door

Packages 451 and 452 included such HD equipment as springs, shocks, clutch, battery, seat cushion springs, and wheels (14x5*). Taxi models also included economy carburetor and head (on the 6). Chrysler also listed alternators (Leese-Neville) as optional equipment. They needed special rectifier units - no electronic diodes back then.

(Note from Mike: Taxi and police models in this era were also optionally available with 15' rims and tires. When so equipped, these models used a variation on the '50s Plymouth "poverty cap" that looked like the original but did not have the ship logo. This practice continued until 1969, when civilian C-bodies became available with 15' wheels once again. 15' wheels were much more common on police models than taxis, but some cabs had these too.)

(Somewhat related note from Mike: In addition to the "Plaza Taxicab" and "Coronet Taxicab" mentioned in the '56 and '57 model years, a "Savoy Taxicab" was also offered in 1957.)

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