George Bailey’s Wonderful Life Dodge isn’t getting wings, but it may soon have a new owner

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Keith Smith takes the car for a spin. Phil Greden

George Bailey’s 1919 Dodge phaeton has a permanent home in the hearts of movie fans, but the famous car that Jimmy Stewart drove in the Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life may soon have a new address. Fresh off an appearance at the 75th anniversary celebration of the 1946 film, the Dodge Brothers Model 30 Touring Car will cross the block at Mecum’s Kissimmee Auction on Sunday, January 16.

A similar 1919 Dodge sold for $8125 at auction in 2020, but bidding will quickly surpass that number for the Bailey car, which carries an estimate of six figures. The It’s A Wonderful Life Dodge, owned by Keith and Marilyn Smith of Johnstown, Colorado, was offered at auction in 2016 but didn’t reach its reserve price.

Keith Smith, now 82, told us in 2018 that it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to get in and out of the car, and if/when he sold it, the proceeds would finance his grandchildren’s college education. Obviously, that time has come.

“It’s one of the biggest investments we’ve ever made,” Smith says, “but it has also been the most inspiring thing we’ve ever done, besides getting married.”

George Bailey car - IAWL - 1919 Dodge 2
Phil Greden

After its movie and TV career was over, the Dodge (VIN #410376) was purchased by legendary casino tycoon Bill Harrah, who added it to his famous automobile collection in Reno, Nevada. Thirty-five years ago, the car was purchased by a San Diego couple who wanted to refresh the four-door ragtop. Smith, a respected craftsman with expertise in woodgrain dashes and trim, was asked to work on it. He was also hired to paint it.

“I knew how special the car is,” Smith says, “and (the owner) knew I would do it right.”

George Bailey car - IAWL - 1919 Dodge - Movie still 1
Liberty Films

Smith vowed to own the car himself someday, and after he and the owner became friends, he finally acquired it in 2010—on Christmas Eve. “It was just meant to be. The whole thing gives me goosebumps.”

The dash of the “George Bailey car” still wears a small, circular brass tag with the number 789, which identifies it as a Twentieth Century-Fox movie prop. The Dodge appeared in other movies and on television into the 1960s, generally relegated to background duty. It is best known, however, for its pivotal role in the only film ever produced for director Frank Capra’s own production company, Liberty Films.

George Bailey car - IAWL - 1919 Dodge 1
Phil Greden

Last month the Bailey car appeared at the annual It’s A Wonderful Life Festival in Seneca Falls, New York, the town that many believe served as Capra’s inspiration for fictitious Bedford Falls. Among the attendees, as always, was Karolyn Grimes, who played young Zuzu Bailey in the film.

George Bailey car - IAWL - Smiths with Zuzu
Marilyn Smith, Karolyn “Zuzu” Grimes, and Keith Smith. Keith Smith

“It’s iconic, a celebrity in its own right,” Grimes says of the Dodge, which she’d never seen in person until 2016. “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.”

The Dodge looks slightly different now than it did on screen. In the film, a distraught George crashes it into a tree before he stumbles away from the wreck and onto a bridge, stares intently at the frigid waters below, and wonders if the world might be better off without him. In reality, the car hit 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 substitute wheel is from a Dodge truck because the spokes are slightly thicker than the spokes on the other three. Also, the motometer that now sits 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.

Under the hood is a 215-cubic inch, four-cylinder, flathead engine that produces about 35 horsepower and is mated to a three-speed transmission. 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.

George Bailey car - IAWL - 1919 Dodge 3
Phil Greden

The Smiths have used the Dodge to raise money for military veterans in need—“They sacrificed for us so we could have a wonderful life,” Smith has said—by appearing at events and accepting donations from anyone who wants to be photographed with the car. Grimes hopes that, when the gavel comes down on January 16, the car’s new owner will consider placing it on display at the It’s A Wonderful Life Museum in Seneca Falls. “No matter what happens, I hope it ends up in good hands so we can all share it.”

So do we.

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