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By Ben Selby
James Dean. The name is as recognisable around the world as Coca Cola and Levis Jeans. Star of cult fifties films East of Eden, Giant and the classic Rebel Without a Cause, Dean was only getting started in the acting world before his short life came to a tragic end.
Dean was a known lover of fast cars. This also spawned a love of racing them whenever he had the chance. He started to acquire a number of sports cars for SCCA racing events in California but his 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder is the one we all remember.
When Dean heard of a major sports car race to be held in Salinas on the week of Sept 30th 1955, he put an order in for a new Lotus. However, when the Lotus failed to arrive in time for the race, Dean grew impatient, cancelled the deal and bought the 550 Spyder instead.
Nicknamed “Little Bastard” by Dean himself, the Porsche quickly became Dean’s pride and joy and he was keen to show off his new car. One evening while parked in the courtyard of a Hollywood restaurant, he bumped into British actor Alec Guinness.
Upon showing Guinness the Porsche, the future Obi Wan Kenobi asked how fast it went. Dean responded by saying he could do 150mph and that he had only just bought it. Upon hearing that, Guinness issued a foreboding warning to Dean. He warned Dean “don’t get into that car, if you do, you will be dead by next week.”
Dean didn’t listen, merely laughing it off. After dinner, he began to make preparations for the race at Salinas. He enlisted the help of Porsche mechanic Rolf Wutherich and stunt driver Bill Hickman, the same Hickman who would go on to drive the black Dodge Charger in Steve McQueen’s Bullitt. They planned to trailer the Porsche to Salinas but Wutherich suggested to Dean that he drive it himself to get a feel for the new car.
So, on Sept 30th 1955, the trio left LA and set out for Salinas. Dean and Wutherich were in the Porsche while Hickman followed behind towing the Porsche’s trailer. Along the way Dean received a number of speeding fines as he frequently couldn’t help but floor it as much as possible.
Later while travelling along Route 466, a young student named Donald Turnupseed at the wheel of a Ford Tudor chose to quickly turn onto Route 41. This occurred right in front of Dean and Wutherich who were believed to be touching 90 mph.
The two cars collided with Dean bearing the full force of the impact. Wutherich was ejected from the car and landed on the roadside. James Dean was pronounced dead soon after. The prophetic words of Alec Guinness came to pass. Dean was only 24. The Porsche was a total write off, but that wasn’t the end of its story. What followed was one of the strangest unexplained mysteries of the car world.
The Porsche ended up in a junkyard in Burbank, California and was purchased by a Dr William Eschrich. Eschrich was a keen amateur racer himself and decided to install the Porsche’s flat four into his Lotus IX racing car. At the 1956 SCCA race at Pomona, Eschrich, running Dean’s engine, suffered a heavy crash. Fortunately he survived.
The same could not be said for Eschrich’s colleague and fellow racer Troy McHenry who was running Dean’s suspension and transmission. While competing in the same race, McHenry struck a tree at high speed which killed him instantly.
What was left of Dean’s Porsche was soon bought by famous Custom Car King George Barris. Barris toyed with the idea of completely rebuilding Dean’s car but upon seeing the extent of the damage decided to lend it to LA’s National Safety Council. The Porsche then became the subject of a national travelling road show from 1957 to 1959 designed to make people aware of the “dangers” of speed. However, the unexplained events surrounding the car kept coming.
While in storage in Fresno, Dean’s Porsche mysteriously caught fire. Despite little damage, it was quickly extinguished. The car was then displayed in Sacramento, California when it suddenly fell off its stand. A passer-by broke his hip in the process. Also after being transported to a road safety exhibit, the Porsche fell off the transport truck killing the truck driver.
Barris also sold two of the Porsche’s tyres to another Porsche owner. Strangely, this driver suffered a double blow out which travelling at speed. Fortunately, he survived. The final strange event took place in 1960. While the car was being transported by train from Miami to Los Angeles, the Porsche mysteriously vanished. Despite many searching for the car over the years, it hasn’t been seen since, though Dean’s transaxle is now on display at Zak Bagans’ ‘The Haunted Museum’ in Las Vegas.
Maybe someday the body of “Little Bastard” will be found. Until then, the mystique of James Dean’s last ride will live on for years to come.
Check out this very poignant short film “Two Friendly Ghosts” depicting James Dean and Donald Turnupseed “forgiving” each other after the crash.