Celebrating the 1930 Buick inline 6 GMC taxi from 'It's a Wonderful Life'

By Nick Williams
National Historic Vehicle Register

(January 3, 2020) When holiday season comes around in America, there are several traditions that you can always count on throughout the last few weeks of the year: Christmas music everywhere you go, last minute shopping for gifts, houses lit up in beautiful arrays of lights, and of course, the movie It’s a Wonderful Life on TV.

This holiday classic tells the story of George Bailey (played by James Stewart), a man who has given up on life and his hopes of helping others, until his plans for suicide are intervened by a guardian angel who shows him how worse off the world would have been without him.

 It’s A Wonderful Life became so iconic not from initial cinema success, but rather from a clerical error in 1974. Due to the owners of the film’s distribution rights lapse in renewing the movie’s copyright, It’s A Wonderful Life was put into the public domain, allowing TV networks to air the movie without having to pay royalties. This ability to freely show content during the holiday season lead to many local TV networks playing the movie on repeat, which aided in the movie’s resurgence and iconic status during the holiday season.

Throughout this celebrated holiday classic, there is a recurring vehicle that plays a special role in the life of George Bailey: Ernie’s Taxi. George was happily transported throughout town in luxury by his dear friend Ernie in his taxi throughout the film and even used it as his “Just Married” getaway car after his marriage to Mary Hatch.

After the movie’s production had wrapped up, the car used in the film, a 1930 GMC Series H Yellow Cab – Model 06, was bought by a gentleman from California. This man owned the car for several decades with hopes of restoring it to original factory like conditions.

However, after decades of refusing to sell the car, he realized he was no longer in the shape needed, nor had the time required, to restore the Taxi as he had planned. In 2008, he finally decided to sell the vehicle to someone who would be able to take care of the famous Taxi as it deserved and sold it to world-renowned car collector Nicola Bulgari to join his collection at the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage of Allentown, Pa.

 While the car was in good exterior shape, the NB Center team had their work cut out for them as the Taxi needed extensive mechanical work in order to be brought back to proper driving condition. The NB Center team decided to keep the exterior of the vehicle in unrestored condition, while going through the mechanicals of the car in order to get it back into shape for driving. Once the NB Center team had the car, the engine, transmission, drive line, and brake system were all removed, disassembled, and restored. In order to keep the originality and history of the taxi, the body and interior were merely cleaned and left in original condition.

The exterior of the Taxi is painted a bright yellow, which is ubiquitous with taxis today, but did not become practice until 1905 thanks to John Hertz  (founder of Hertz Rental Car) in order to make the taxis stand out more amongst traffic.

The side of the taxi advertises a cost of “15¢/first ¼ [mile], 5¢/each additional ¼ [mile],” which comes out to $2.26 and 75 cents in today’s dollars. The Taxi still has its original Buick inline 6-cylinder engine (257c.i.d.) outputting 72.5 horsepower which is connected to a 3-speed, synchro-shift manual transmission. The Taxi weighs in at a heavy 3,960 pounds and is stopped by pairs of front and rear drum brakes connected to 6.50×18 tires, all of which work like a dream after the vehicle’s mechanical restoration.

The vehicle itself is rather simple, with stronger components built specifically to withstand the extra wear and tear that comes from being used as a taxi. The driver’s compartment consists of a single, faux-leather seat, a taxi meter, several operator controls, and a sliding glass partition between the front and rear passenger areas to accept ride fare. The back seat is quite spacious with room for two and luggage, as well as two additional jump seats that fold up from the floor to add seating for two additional passengers.

This piece of American holiday and cinema history currently resides at the HVA National Laboratory on loan from the NB Center for American Automotive History and continues to live an active lifestyle. “Ernie’s Taxi” is driven on a consistent basis, has become a regular at several automotive museums including the AACA and America on Wheels, and has even been made into a scale model.

Through an unlikely chain of events, this Taxi’s minor role in what was originally a box office flop, lead to it being a part of one of the most celebrated films in American history.

Though it went through rough patches of life, it is now and forever will be in held on a pedestal of reverence for its association with history and will continue to be loved and shared by those who can truly appreciate its significance in American automotive history.