James Dean and Million Dollar Cursed Car - Spirit of Speed

James Dean and Million Dollar Cursed Car - Spirit of Speed

Photo from Porsche of Dean's Cursed 

Part One: The Cursed Car

According to the 1985 autobiography, Blessings in Disguise, an exhausted Alec Guinness once remarked to James Dean upon his first Friday night in Los Angeles on September 23, 1955, stating: "Please, never get in it. It is now ten o'clock, Friday the 23rd of September 1955. If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week." 

Shockingly, this came true. The following Friday, September 30th, the 24 years old actor, James Dean, died after he crashed his automobile while traveling to a sports car racing competition. His car crashed at the junction of California State Route 46 and California State Route 41 which killed him instantly. This was the darkest day in Hollywood’s history as they have lost a cultural icon of teenage disillusionment and social estrangement made famous by the 1955 film, Rebel Without a Cause.

After filming for East of Eden (1955) had been completed, Dean became interested in pursuing a career in motorsport, and he purchased various vehicles including a Triumph Tiger T110 and a Porsche 356.

The Palm Springs Road Races took place in Palm Springs, California from March 26–27, 1955, just before shooting on Rebel Without a Cause began.

  • Dean achieved first place in the novice class and second place at that main event.
  • He finished third overall and first in his class a month later in Bakersfield and was inspired to compete in the Indianapolis 500, but his busy schedule prohibited it.
  • Dean’s final race occurred on Memorial Day of 1955 in Santa Barbara, but he was not able to complete the trace due to a blown piston.
  • His brief career halted when Warner Brothers prevented him from racing during the production of the 1956 film, Giant.
  • Once filming for that film concluded, Dean would continue his racing career as he traded his old 356 Porsche Super Speedster for a brand new and faster 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder which he would use for the upcoming Salinas Road Race event held from October 1st to 2nd

Porsche 550 was a racing sports car that was produced only in limited quantities, around ninety, from 1953 until 1956.

  • The Porsche 550 is a mid-engine car that held an air-cooled four-cylinder engine, taken from the precedent of the 1948 Porsche 356/1 prototype designed by Ferry Porsche. 
  • The mid-engine racing design was further improved with Porsche's 718 models and its advantages led to it becoming the prevailing design for top-level racing automobiles by the mid-1960s.  The design gained a reputation for being a strong competition to other racing car designs at that time with its first version producing 110 PS at 6200 rpm and a maximum torque of 121 Nm at 5000 RPM which enabled it to win first place in its first race during the Nurburgring Eifel Race in May 1953.
  • By 1956, the design switched to a 5-speed gearbox. James Dean's car was one of the early ninety models made with the number 130 (VIN 550-0055). Lee Raskin, a Porsche historian, and author of James Dean at Speed stated that Dean asked custom car painter, Dean Jeffries, to paint "Little Bastard". That become the nickname of the car that led Dean to his death. 

"Dean Jeffries, who had a paint shop next to [George] Barris did the customizing work which consisted of painting '130' in black non-permanent paint on the front hood, doors, and rear deck lid. He also painted 'Little Bastard' in script across the rear cowling. The red leather bucket seats and red tail stripes were original. The tail stripes were painted by the Stuttgart factory, which was customary on the Spyders for long-distance endurance racing identification." Wrote Raskin.

How did the curse come about? It first started with British actor Sir Alec Guinness relating the story in his autobiography, but it was heightened with the purchase of the wreckage by George Barris who claimed that a mysterious series of accidents and car crashes, that occurred between 1956 to 1960 involved the "Little Bastard" in races after the accident resulted in the death of a truck driver. However, historian Lee Ruskin felt that this is merely a tale to promote the existence of the car further from Barris's novel, Cars of the Stars.

Part Two: The Cursed James Dean's Car

On September 30th, 1955, James Dean's career as an actor and racing driver ended tragically when he engaged in a catastrophic collision in his "Little Bastard" Porsche 550 Spyder. Dean was instantly killed, but Little Bastard caused much more trouble.

British actor Sir Alec Guinness had a sinister feeling on seeing the Porsche and advised Dean not to drive that car.

  • Dean laughed it off as mere superstition and began prepping for the next upcoming race, the Salinas Road Race event, held from October 1st to 2nd.
  • He was accompanied by his Porsche mechanic Rolf Wütherich as well as stuntman Bill Hickman. The initial plan was to tow Little Bastard to the races. However, Wütherich felt it would be better for Dean to get used to the Spyder and suggested that Dean drives to the races instead which he agreed.
  • It was on a Friday afternoon that Dean and his crew headed north on the Golden State Highway and then towards Bakersfield. Wütherich sat next to Dean, while Hickman followed behind with his truck and trailer.
  • At 3:30 pm, a California Highway Patrolman Otie V. Hunter pulled over the convoy and issued Dean with a speeding ticket as Dean was driving 65 mph in a 55 mph traffic zone. This did not stop Dean who continued to speed along Route 46 at an estimated 85mph when a Ford Tudor Donald Turnupseed made a sudden turn to Route 41.
  • "That guy's gotta stop ... He'll see us". Said Dean and this was purported to be his final words to his mechanic as he tried to prevent the crash by steering away.
  • An impact occurred, with the Porsche ejecting Wütherich as the two cars collided almost head-on. The Spyder smash into the ground two or three times in cartwheels with Dean still onboard before the car landed in a gully.
  • Dean had to be extracted from the cockpit of the automobile by California Highway Patrol Captain Ernest Tripke and his partner, Corporal Ronald Nelson, as it was heavily damaged due to the crash.
  • A woman with nursing experience addressed Dean who found a weak pulse in his neck. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at 6:20 p.m. when brought to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, 28 miles away from the crash site.

Dean's death was investigated three days later at San Luis Obispo's council chambers. The jury found that he was entirely at fault due to speeding and that Turnupseed was not guilty of any criminal acts. As reported in the Los Angeles Times of October 1, 2005, a California Highway Patrol officer who responded to the accident, Ron Nelson, disputed reports that Dean had been traveling at 90 mph, reporting that the wreckage and the positioning of Dean's body indicated he was only going 55 mph.

The car was sold further to the next unlucky person. After purchasing the Porsche from a salvage yard in Burbank, Dr. William Eschrich stripped it for parts and installed the engine into his Lotus IX race car. He then loaned the transmission and suspension parts to fellow Doctor Troy McHenry.

  • Eschrich crashed his Lotus during the 1956 Pomona sports-car races but luckily survive. McHenry on the other hand did not as he crash into a tree during the same race.
  • This strengthens the curse theory amongst the press.

After the crash, publicity monger George Barris bought the Spyder to rebuild it.

  • The crash he had, however, destroyed the frame of the car beyond recovery and so Barris decided that capitalize on the car’s notoriety. The car was brought on a tour from 1957 to 1959 when it was loaned to the Los Angeles body of the National Safety Council.
  • While stored in Fresno in 1959, the car mysteriously caught on fire but suffered minor damage with only two melted tires and some singed paint.
  • It is reported that Barris sold a pair of tires from the Porsche 550 to a new owner, who then crashed his car.
  • Several unconfirmed reports describe Little Bastard's post-accident life, including that it fell from its display while on show in Sacramento and broke the hip of a bystander; it also reportedly killed George Barkus, the driver who transported it. Lastly, there is a rumor that the Porsche vanished from a sealed boxcar en route from Miami to Los Angeles in 1960 with some believing that Barris invented the story to keep the car's mystique alive. 

To this date, no one knows the whereabouts of the cursed car. However, it can be assumed that most of the stories are just fabrications of Barris as a publicity stunt.

With a million-dollar reward for information being offered in 2005 for the whereabouts of the Porsche, the car has yet to resurface to this date. Perhaps it is just sitting in an old abandoned warehouse, waiting to be discovered or to curse another victim.

Efforts have been made to get the information as accurate and updated as possible. If you found any incorrect information with credible source, please send it via the contact us form
Author: M.A Amru
Writer of First under heaven & A Song For Zenith
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