Back in July 1997 the Checkerboard News featured and article from the May issue of Old Cars Weekly. That article told of a nationwide contest to be held that summer, where 26 Checkers would be given away as part of a promotion for the Coca Cola’s newest soft drink, SURGE. It just so happened that I won one of those cabs and that’s how I got myself into this Checker craziness!
Suddenly I was the owner of a brand of car I had barely known existed. Along with learning all I could about my new car, arguing with Uncle Sam and dealing with all the attention a Checker gets (a bright green one at that), I was also curious about what happened to the other 25 cabs in the contest. Where did they go? Were the new owners having as much fun as I was? What follows is the saga of the Surge Checker Taxis as I have pieced it together over the years.
In early 1997, the Coca Cola Company was seeking a way to promote their new citrus based soda called SURGE, which debuted during the Super Bowl that year. They came up with the “Fully Loaded Summer” advertising campaign to promote the new product. Coke decided that some old Checker taxicab would be a good way to promote the new pop. Why Checkers, of all cars? One Vice President of Marketing said: “We felt Checker Cabs were a great way to represent the sociable quality of Surge”. They also noted that Checker Cabs were becoming extinct as there was only one official Checker left in New York City at the time.
Some thanks are surely due to Coca-Cola for choosing Checkers. Many old cabs were saved from an uncertain fate through their efforts. Coke bought at least 40 Checkers that had been used as cabs by Fort Cab in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Once acquired the Checkers were sent to Craftmen Industries of St. Charles, Missouri to be refurbished, note that they were refurbished and not restored, there is a big difference.
The cabs were completed in less than three months. As former taxis, you can only imagine what condition the commercial vehicles were in, they would need significant work. With little time to recondition 40 Checkers, the automotive mechanics and body rebuilders were bound to cut some corners. Some of those corners had big rust holes in them.
There is some debate as to whether the engines were overhauled, most likely due to time constrains, the engines were probably just tuned up. Craftsmen made sure the cars ran and braked for regular real driving. Additionally the Checkers were reupholstered, painted, New Tires, batteries replaced, and small items from big A Auto Parts were installed to each taxi. Every Surge Checker had a very nice stereo system (usually the first things to come out when winners sold them), load speaker system and a plastic fan added to make appealing to Generation X’ers. Surge graphics were applied and the cabs were then shipped out to various area markets for distribution.
There were 26 cabs in the Fully Loaded Summer promotion. There was also a fall promotion called “Brake For Surge,” which included another 13 addition Checkers for the Surge fleet. The fleet was now up to 39 cabs, more interesting is that I found a cab number 40 in Maryland (all the cabs, have a number on the driver’s door), could there be more? One of the cabs was sent to the Louisville, KY bottling plant, ultimately I won that Checker, but how I won is a story for another time.
It seemed the bottler for each region was responsible for giving their respective cabs away. Many teamed up with local radio stations in order to unload the Checkers. The Checkers were awarded via many means: raffles at festivals, keys drawn from hats, “driving school” contests, dumpster dives for charities, games and other methods were used for selecting the winners. Each car came with a “trunkful of Surge” (which sometimes led to a sticky disaster when soda cans exploded in the summer heat) and an assortment of other prizes, which varied from market to market. Prizes included CD’s T-shirts, hats, pizza coupons, tickets for concerts and amusements parks and whatever the radio station felt like throwing in to the promotion. The entire promotion cost Coca-Cola was over $250,000. In addition to the Checkers two International Scouts were refurbished for Surge promotions in Oklahoma and Arkansas in the fall of 97, there was also at least one Surge dune buggy created that appeared in an August 1997 campaign.
After you win a car there is a lot of paperwork to deal with in order to get the Checker on the road. Each car was valued between $19000 to $24000 and all were taxed at both the Federal and State level, each Checker was clearly overvalued considering the true condition of each vehicle. There was also a substantial fee at the license bureau, some winters were not able to afford their “free” cars. Many were sold quickly and other were never registered or tagged.
Personally, it was a disappointment that after finally having some luck and getting something really nice, I might not be able to keep it! A bit of advice should you ever win an older vehicle, have it appraised right away, then use the appraisal amount on your taxes! Each cab had the Surge graphics removed before the owner took delivery. The removal of graphics by Coke was standard risk management so Coca-Cola would not be held liable in case and of the Checkers were involved in an accident.
In 2001 Surge soda began to disappear from store shelves. After a loud and energetic introduction, Surge soda was quietly discontinued in the US. Oddly enough a Swedish version called Urge was said to be available in the Netherlands for some time beyond 2001. A couple of years ago, Coca Cola began marketing a citrus soda very similar to Surge called Vault. The existence of Vault is surely due in part to the effort of many loyal Surge fans on the internet who wrote to Coke and lobbied for the soda’s return.
Many of these Checkers survive. A few remain in the hands of their original winners, while others have happy new owners. Some have changed hands several times. A number of them aren’t green anymore. I have been able to track down many Surge Cabs, although I ‘ve gotten poor response to my many letters to Coca Cola bottlers and none of the radio stations I contacted ever replied. Cokes responses as usually along the lines of a quick “we don’t know but thanks for your interest” and a coupon. Most of my information has come through the internet. A few of the more interesting fates of these cabs include:
The owner of the World Famous Ultimate Taxi got #6 a few years ago, repainted it yellow and used it daytimes to advertise his night time car.
In Tennessee #7 was nearly dismantled for parts until a public outcry changed the owners mind. Plans were underway to place the car in a Pennsylvania auto museum until a man from New York purchased it. It should have be back on the road by now.
In Virginia Cab #11 was purchased from a the winner and the new owner liked the paint scheme so much that he painted a couple more Checkers in similar colors.
The Kansas City cab #14 just barely missed out on a film career in Long Island. It has since relocated to Santa Rosa Beach, Florida where it joined other Checkers in a taxi fleet and then became an art car! Each body panel is now a different original painting by a different artist.
My Surge Checker is #22 and is a semi-daily driver that resides in Indiana, It has traveled to Kalamazoo and Ypsilanti and most recently Illinois, West Virginia, most parts of Kentucky and makes frequent trips to Ohio. It’s been part of three art car shows, a wedding, bachelorette party, independent film and was even mentioned in a song!
The Portland, OR. Cab #30, found a new owner in 2000 and was shipped to Florida almost 3000 miles away!
A bookstore owner in Tacoma, WA. Used #39 to promote his business.
Springfield, IL. This cab sat on the bottler’s lot, Surge graphics intact until last 2002. It reappeared on a used car lot shortly after and was spotted again for sale by a private owner for a mere $500.00, where will it pop up next?
Cabs in Egan, MN and Bartonville, IL. May still live at the Coca-Cola plants.
Bottlers in Dallas, TX and St. Augustine, FL both have cabs that sadly sit unused.
The winner in Akron, Ohio used his cab to promote bone marrow donations, capitalizing on tte attention getting combo of a Checker and nearly glow in the dark green paint.
The St. Louis, Mo cab moved to Kentucky where it returned to work as a taxi
Surge cabs occasionally show up on EBay. At least two different ones failed to find buyers, possibly due to their $5000 opening bid.
The Surge cabs remain active, in fact I received three new leads at the Ypsilanti show. I am still on their trail and welcome any information, corrections, sightings, updates, rumors, etc. I’d like to hear from current or former owners.
For more Checker Cab fun please check out our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/145497838799022/ or our website: http://www.checkercabclub.org/
The Coca-C0la promotional video: