George’s 1919 Dodge from It’s A Wonderful Life warms hearts all year long

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The author goes for a spin. Phil Greden

Keith Smith starts the engine of the old car in his garage. Although the jalopy is nearly a century old and it has been several months since he took it out for a spin, it sputters to life without complaint. Stored safely at the rear of the building, the open-air motorcar is Smith’s pride and joy. You’d be forgiven for wondering why.

Sure, the 1919 Dodge Brothers touring car—painted black with wood-spoked wheels, leather upholstery, and a rarely-used canopy top—has plenty of charm. In fact, if you saw it on the street you’d probably smile and give the driver a friendly wave. But what makes this car like no other is the small, circular brass tag on the dash, the one that reads 789. That tag identifies it as a Twentieth Century-Fox movie prop. As such, the Dodge appeared in movies and on television into the 1960s, generally relegated to background duty. Except for one film, the one that put it in the spotlight: It’s A Wonderful Life.

Owned by Twentieth Century-Fox when It’s A Wonderful Life was filmed in 1946, the 789 badge indicates the car’s studio prop number.
Owned by Twentieth Century-Fox when It’s A Wonderful Life was filmed in 1946, the 789 badge indicates the car’s studio prop number. Phil Greden

Yes, it’s that car—George Bailey’s car. The one that Jimmy Stewart drove in his most famous role. The one with the troublesome driver’s side door that continuously frustrated its fictitious owner. The one that George defended when his son innocently shared news about the neighbors’ new vehicle. The one that a distraught George crashed into a tree before he stumbled away from the wreck and onto a bridge, stared intently at the frigid waters below, and wondered if the world might be better off without him.

Of course, we all know how the story turns out; the film has been a Christmas staple for years. George’s guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, jumps into the water first so that George will save him instead of doing away with himself. Then Clarence smartly grants George’s wish to see what life would be like if he’d never been born. The results are predictably disastrous, and George soon realizes just how valuable every person’s life is because it touches so many other people’s lives. George even lets out a cheer at the sight of his broken down Dodge, wrapped around a tree.

The car has the same joyful effect on people today.

“It’s iconic, a celebrity in its own right,” says Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu, Bailey’s youngest daughter, in It’s A Wonderful Life. “I wasn’t in a scene with the car, but I was thrilled to know that it still exists. Looking at it and sitting in it years later, knowing that Jimmy Stewart drove it in the movie… I felt right at home in it. It’s a part of me, just like the movie.”

Richard Goodson, who might be the film’s biggest fan, has been researching the movie and its cast for two decades and has an extensive collection of It’s A Wonderful Life signatures, photos, and memorabilia. He says George Bailey’s Dodge is simply an extension of director Frank Capra’s masterful film, which the American Film Institute voted the most inspirational movie of all time.

“There’s a lot of symbolism to it,” Goodson says of the car. “People are attracted to it, and it gets them to talk and reflect on Capra’s message and how it relates to every one of us. That’s where its value is, just as it is with anything else associated with the film.”

Nuts and bolts

The Dodge is 72 years removed from It’s A Wonderful Life, filmed in 1946, and a long way from its fictitious home in Bedford Falls, New York. Owned by Keith and Marilyn Smith, it currently resides in Johnstown, Colorado, about an hour north of Denver, but the Smiths are in the midst of a move to Nebraska to be closer to their daughter and her family. Today we’re blessed with sunshine and comfortable temperatures, and we’re greeted warmly by not only the Smiths but their two dogs. The Rocky Mountains, clearly visible to the west, provide a glorious backdrop for our celebrity meet and greet.

Keith gets into the Dodge by opening the front passenger door and sliding across the seat, and he wonders aloud how the 6-foot-3 Stewart ever managed to squeeze himself inside, “especially in the scene where he doesn’t even open the door, he just jumps over it and into the car.” Indeed it’s a tight fit behind that polished wooden steering wheel.

Smith looks out over the hood and describes the finer points of the 1919 touring car. It employs a “silent starter” (meaning it uses the generator to start the car instead of a Bendix engagement system) to awaken the four-cylinder flathead engine that produces approximately 36 horsepower. The engine has a sturdier five-main bearing configuration (instead of three), an enclosed timing chain, and twice the battery power (12 volts) of most cars from its day.

The car looks slightly different now than it did on screen. Stewart crashed into the tree with such force that the bumper needed to be repaired, and the left front fender and wheel were both replaced. “If you look closely, you can tell that the wheel is from a Dodge truck. The spokes are a bit heftier,” Smith says. In addition, the motometer atop the radiator cap was removed for the movie, since that was optional in 1919 and the penny-wise Bailey family likely couldn’t have justified the extra expense. Same goes for the optional cathedral windows in the rear—a standard canvas top with horizontal windows can be seen in the movie. The car also has side window clips, but side windows weren’t used in the film since they too were optional.

[An interesting side note: the car’s headlights were manufactured by Liberty. That might mean nothing to most people, but it certainly does to aficionados of It’s A Wonderful Life. The movie was the first—and only—one made by Capra’s own production company, Liberty Films.]

How does the car behave on the road? “It drives great,” Smith says. “Reverse is tough because the mirrors don’t help much. But once it goes forward, it’s a very smooth riding car for its time.”

Colorado bound

After its career with Twentieth Century-Fox, the Dodge (VIN #410376) was purchased by legendary casino tycoon Bill Harrah, who added it to his famous automobile collection in Reno, Nevada. More than 30 years ago it was purchased by a San Diego couple who wanted to refresh the car. Smith, a respected craftsman with expertise in woodgrain dashes and trim, was asked to work on it. He was also hired to paint the car, and he worked meticulously to match its original shade and finish. “He trusted me,” Smith says of the owner. “I knew how special the car is, and he knew I would do it right.”

Keith told his wife that someday he’d like to own the Dodge. “She said, ‘You must be out of your mind.’ But I vowed that if it ever became available, I would do whatever I could to get it.”

The Smiths and the car’s owners became friends, and three decades later, Keith finally got his chance. He didn’t hesitate. The deal was completed on December 10, 2010, but a series of unforeseen events delayed its delivery for two excruciating weeks. Finally, on the morning before Christmas, the transport truck pulled into the Smith’s driveway, where hundreds of neighbors and interested bystanders were waiting.

“Christmas Eve—it was just meant to be. The whole thing gives me goosebumps,” Smith says. “There was quite a crowd. A TV crew was there. A local police officer introduced herself and said, ‘My dad named me Bailey because of the movie.’ Then she told me who her dad was—the pastor of the church just up the road from us. Those kinds of crazy ‘small world’ things happen all of the time with this car.”

This photo was taken with a vest-pocket 1917 Kodak film camera.
This photo was taken with a vest-pocket 1917 Kodak film camera.

The Smiths decided to share the beloved movie car with the rest of the world in a way that would also benefit military veterans in need. They began making appearances at events and accepting donations from anyone who wanted to get a photo taken with the car. “We have a wonderful life because of the sacrifices those veterans made,” says Smith, who was unable to serve in the military because of a medical issue. “I wanted to help them in any way I could.”

Turns out that veterans aren’t the only people whose lives have been changed by George Bailey’s car.

“People just flock to it,” Smith says. “A little kid asked to kiss it once. And one time a woman read in the Sunday morning paper that we had the car in Deadwood, South Dakota, and she drove 90 miles to see it. She got her photo taken with it, and then she started to cry. She said, ‘This car saved my life. One night I was going to commit suicide and the movie was on TV. I looked up at the screen right when the car hit the tree, and I started to watch. By the end of the movie I had changed my mind.’ Stories like that make it all worthwhile.”

Crossing paths with Zuzu

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, with Keith and Marilyn Smith
Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, with Keith and Marilyn Smith courtesy Keith Smith

Less than a year after purchasing the car, the Smiths discovered that Grimes would be appearing at the annual holiday gift show in Denver, and soon they were on their way to meet the one-time child star who uttered these famous words at the end of the film: “Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angels gets his wings.”

The three quickly became friends, and Grimes visited the Smiths later that year. It was the first time she’d ever seen the car. “I’m happy that it’s been preserved for a lifetime,” she says. “It makes me happy every time I see it. I know it was used in other productions, but it’ll always be George Bailey’s car.”

As much as the Smiths love the car, they offered it at auction several years ago. Keith, who is 79, says it is becoming more and more difficult for him to get in and out of the car, plus it offers an avenue for him to pay for his grandchildren’s college education. Since the bidding didn’t meet his reserve price, the Dodge stayed in the family. For now. Keith says he’d still consider selling it, but Marilyn wants to keep it. Time will tell.

“No matter what happens, I hope it ends up in good hands so we can all share it,” says Grimes, who believes the perfect home for it is the It’s A Wonderful Life Museum in Seneca Falls, New York, which claims to be Capra’s inspiration for Bedford Falls. The town hosts an It’s A Wonderful Life Festival each December to celebrate the film, with the remaining Bailey children in attendance.

Everything’s coming up Roses

The Dodge made its biggest public appearance in years when officials from the Tournament of Roses Parade asked if they could use it to chauffeur another fervent supporter of military veterans, actor Gary Sinise, on New Year’s Day 2018. The Smiths agreed, but neither of them rode in the car. They watched from the parade route.

“They offered me the chance to ride along, but there wasn’t room for Marilyn,” Keith says. “So I said, ‘No thanks.’ We’ve been a package deal for 60 years.”

The Smiths and George Bailey’s Dodge haven’t been together nearly as long, but they’ve certainly made plenty of beautiful memories together.

“It’s one of the biggest investments we’ve ever made, but it has also been the most inspiring thing we’ve ever done, besides getting married,” Keith says. “We didn’t have much when we got married in 1958, but how blessed we’ve been. You know the scene where the George and Mary give away all of their money to save their business, and then Donna Reed fixes up the old house so that she and Jimmy Stewart can have a place for their honeymoon? That’s something my Marilyn would do. I don’t know what an 18-year-old kid knows about making a forever commitment, but it’s worked out pretty well.”

So has their union with that very special 1919 Dodge.

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