On September 21, 1955, movie star James Dean drove his 1955 Porsche Speedster into Competition Motors on Vine Street in Hollywood. After talking to proprietor, John von Neumann for a bit, he decided to trade his car in for a faster, more track-oriented car that he had his eye on and hoped would better satiate his burgeoning fascination with motor racing.
The car he fancied was a svelte and sleek, German racing silver 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder. As Dean signed his name on the $7,000 purchase contract, he unknowingly signed his own death warrant.
Two days after buying the car, Dean ran into Alec Guinness outside of a Hollywood eatery, and showed the fellow actor his new steed. Guinness walked around the car, examining its lines, and promptly told Dean that the car had a “sinister” appearance, adding, “If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.”
Exactly seven days later, James Dean, one of the most gifted actors of his day, would in fact sit dead behind the wheel of the car along a lonely stretch of California highway. And, although the story of Dean’s demise has long passed into Hollywood legend, the story of the Porsche that took his life has never been fully known to most, and features much more tragedy and mystery after Dean’s brief time with it.
An Overnight Success Story
Dean’s rise to fame was the archetypal Hollywood overnight success story. That is to say, he toiled away for several years getting bit parts in films and television, and worked various and sundry jobs to stay alive until getting his big break. In his case, it was being cast by director Elia Kazan in the lead role for the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden.
Dean was an instant sensation following the film’s release, and two iconic roles soon followed, that of troubled teen Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, and oil tycoon Jett Rink in Giant. Of the three films, East of Eden would be the only one to be released while Dean was still alive.
Dean’s fondness for racing began in 1954. Just before he began work on Rebel Without a Cause, he purchased the aforementioned Porsche Speedster, and entered it in his first sanctioned racing event, the Palm Springs Road Races, where he won first place in the novice class and second place overall.
He raced again in Bakersfield a few weeks later, where he finished first in his class and third overall. Dean’s last foray in the world of motor racing took place in Santa Barbara on Memorial Day, 1955. He was unable to finish the race due to problems with his Speedster’s engine.
Dean was contractually banned from racing during the filming of his next movie Giant, and it seems his desire to do so built to a fever pitch during the lengthy production. So, it was that as filming approached an end, Dean drove to Competition Motors and purchased the Spyder he had been lusting after. It was delivered to him on the Warner Brothers lot at the end of his last day of work on the film. He celebrated his freedom to compete again by signing up to race his new Porsche at an event in Salinas, California, to be held on October 1-2, 1955.
Dean’s 550 Spyder was one of 90 produced and carried VIN 550-0055. It was a study in lightweight automotive engineering, and featured a tubular steel chassis mated to an aluminum body that offered a low center of gravity, and a slippery drag coefficient.
The car’s engine was an aluminum, four-cylinder, air-cooled, horizontally opposed unit with four overhead camshafts and dry sump lubrication, and was mated to a fully synchronized four speed transmission. Though no monster, the motor produced a silky-smooth 110 bhp, enough to propel the 1,410 pound car to a top speed of 140 mph.
The Type 550 was a great success at tracks around the world, racking up 95 overall wins out of 370 races run. Beyond its racing prowess, the 550 was beloved by its owners for its true road and track nature, as one could drive the car to an event, compete in it, and then drive it home.
Upon receiving the car, Dean took it to the shop of famed car customizer, George Barris, whom Dean had met on the set of Rebel Without a Cause. Dean had Barris appoint the seats in tartan plaid, paint red stripes over each of the rear wheels and plaster the number 130 on the car’s doors, hood, and engine cover. Dean’s car then went next door to the shop of legendary pinstriper Dean Jeffries, who painted “Little Bastard” on the rear cowling. It was a nickname Dean had acquired by friend and stunt driver Bill Hickman.
After work was completed on the car, Dean was seen zipping around Hollywood in it, and showing it off to many friends and inquisitive strangers alike. Despite Dean’s pride in the car, many who saw it had less than enthusiastic reactions. In addition to Guinness’ opinion, friend Eartha Kitt told Dean, “James, I don’t like this car. It’s going to kill you,” while the two were out for a drive in it. Girlfriend Ursula Andress refused to get in the car, claiming it had an evil presence. Actor Nick Adams and Dean’s uncle, Charlie Nolan, felt similarly, and declined rides in the car.
Even George Barris felt some intangible sense of unease about the Little Bastard. “There was something strange about that particular car … it made me uneasy. Dean was all worked up about how he was going to race it that weekend, but I couldn’t get enthusiastic about it … I had crazy feelings about wanting to stop him as I watched him drive away from my shop,” Barris said in previous interviews.
Perhaps Dean himself sensed something too, or was simply reacting to the universal dislike of the car, when just days before his death, he gave away a kitten that Liz Taylor had gifted him on the set of Giant. He told a friend that he did it because, “I may go out and not come back.” Nonetheless, all of these harbingers of doom did not dissuade Dean from heading to Salinas for his first race behind the wheel of the Spyder.
On the morning of September 30, 1955, Dean drove his 1955 Ford station wagon to Competition Motors where the Little Bastard was being serviced for the upcoming race. Dean had originally intended to trailer the Porsche behind the Ford, but was convinced by his Porsche factory-trained mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, to drive the Porsche to Salinas to give the car some break-in miles, and Dean more seat time behind the wheel.
Dean, accompanied by Wütherich in the Porsche, Hickman, and a photographer from Life Magazine named Sanford H. Ross in the Ford station wagon, headed out on the road to Salinas. At a refreshment stop, Hickman told Dean that he would be wise to watch his speed in the Porsche, as its low slung profile and silver color had made it difficult for Hickman to see on the highway. Undaunted, Dean sped off with the station wagon in arrears.
At 3:30pm, Dean was pulled over just south of Bakersfield by the California Highway Patrol and issued a ticket for driving 65 mph in a 55 mph zone. Hickman, who had been following closely behind in the Ford so that Ross could get pictures of Dean’s car, was also ticketed.
After the incident, Dean told Hickman and Roth to meet him at a gas station and rest stop off Highway 466 called Blackwell’s Corners, as he intended to put some distance on the sluggish station wagon. Dean set off at high speed, and Wütherich immediately reminded Dean of Hickman’s warning about the car’s low observability. The mechanic further suggested that the break-in did not necessitate high speeds, but Dean was unmoved.
Even More Warnings Went Unheeded
At Blackwell’s Corners, Dean had an apple and a Coke, and ran into a couple of racing friends who were also on their way to Salinas. The friends warned Dean that there were an unusual number of police patrol cars in the area and that Dean would be wise to keep his speed down. It was, including his speeding ticket, the fourth warning that had been given to the actor, as if a guardian angel had been manifesting itself in others to try to keep Dean safe. Unfortunately, Dean failed to take heed, and he roared off from Blackwell’s Corners.
At approximately 5:30pm, with the sun falling behind nearby hills, Dean was speeding along highway 466 on the outskirts of the small, dusty town of Cholame, when a 1950 black and white Ford Tudor coupe heading in the opposite direction began to make a left hand turn across Dean’s lane onto Route 41.
Dean saw the car and had enough time to exclaim to Wütherich “That guy’s gotta stop. . . He’ll see us!” Due to the low light of dusk though, the driver of the Ford, a 23-year-old college student named Donald Turnupseed, didn’t see Dean’s car until the very last moment.
The driver’s side of Dean’s Porsche slammed into the front of the Ford, catapulting the lightweight racer 50 feet in the air before landing in a shallow gulley. Wütherich, who had not been wearing a seat belt, was flung from the car and suffered a badly broken jaw, a shattered leg and other internal injuries.
Turnupseed emerged from the heavier Ford virtually unscathed, though dazed and in shock. But Dean wasn’t so lucky. His side of the car suffered the brunt of the accident, and upon impact, his head struck the steering wheel and then snapped back so violently that he was nearly decapitated.
Trapped in the crumpled car, the most iconic actor of his generation died from a broken neck, multiple fractures of the upper and lower jaw, severe head trauma and massive internal bleeding. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at 6:20pm at nearby Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital. He was only 24 years old.
The reaction to Dean’s violent death was overwhelming. Across the nation, teenagers who had identified with Dean’s angst-ridden performance in East of Eden were devastated. Dean’s funeral was held on October 8, 1955, at the Fairmount Friends Church in Fairmount, Indiana. Over 600 mourners attended the closed casket service, while another 2,400 fans gathered outside the church during the procession.
Thus Dean began the inevitable march into the annals of history. But such was not the case for his 550 Spyder. In the years that followed, a verified rash of mysterious and terrible incidents surrounding the car occurred and gave rise to the legend of the curse of the Little Bastard. Many a person would wish that they had never seen or had anything to do with the car.
Immediately after Dean’s accident, the insurance company that covered the car adjusted it as a total loss. George Barris purchased the car from the insurance company for $2,500 with the intention of parting it out. When the car was delivered to Barris’ shop, it slipped off its trailer, and broke both of a mechanic’s legs when it landed on him.
Subsequent to this, Barris sold the Little Bastard’s engine to Dr. Troy McHenry for use in his Lotus, and the transaxle to Dr. Willaim Eschrid for use in his custom race car. Both doctors entered their cars fitted with the parts from the Little Bastard in a race at the Pomona Fairgrounds on October 24, 1956. During the event, McHenry’s car spun and hit a tree, killing him instantly, while Eschrid’s car rolled several times after taking a curve, leaving him with serious injuries. He would later state that the vehicle “just locked up” on him.
A few months later, two of the Little Bastard’s surviving tires that Barris had sold to a young New Yorker simultaneously blew out on a highway, sending the man’s vehicle into a ditch. Barris examined the two tire carcasses after the incident, and couldn’t establish any cause for the sudden failures.
Soon after that, two instances occurred in which vandals were injured trying to steal parts off of the car while it was stored at Barris’ shop. The first involved a young man who was attempting to pilfer the steering wheel who received a gash on his arm down to the bone on a piece of the wrecked car’s jagged metal. The second seriously hurt a thief who was trying to steal Dean’s bloodstained driver’s seat from the Porsche.
In 1958, interest in Dean remained high among teens. As such, the California Highway Patrol convinced Barris to loan them the car for a traveling exhibition aimed at impressing upon young people the importance of safe driving. The Little Bastard was transported north by flatbed. While near Salinas, the truck transporting it was involved in a serious accident that saw the driver, George Barkhuis, ejected from the cab. Though injured, Barkhuis initially survived. As if right on murderous cue though, Dean’s Porsche suddenly rolled off the flatbed and landed on Barkhuis, crushing him to death.
A few months later, while in between exhibitions, his Spyder was briefly stored in a garage in Fresno. In late March, 1959, the garage caught fire and burned to the ground, destroying everything in it except the car, which sustained no damage.
On September 30, 1959, the fourth anniversary of Dean’s death, the Little Bastard was on display at Sacramento High School, when the bolts holding the car down snapped. The Porsche careened off of the display stand and broke the hip of a fifteen-year-old boy who had been examining the wreckage.
But this wasn’t the end of the mayhem. In Oakland, California, the Little Bastard suddenly broke into two separate pieces while again being transported, and fell on the freeway, causing a serious traffic accident before the pieces could be removed. A few weeks later, a transporter carrying the car smashed through a plate glass store window when the truck’s parking brake failed while parked on top of a hill.
By 1960, Barris had enough of these mysterious and disturbing incidents, and had the cursed Spyder loaded on a freight train to Los Angeles with the door to the boxcar sealed. Upon arrival, the door to the boxcar was unsealed and opened, but the container was completely empty. The Little Bastard had vanished and was never seen again.
Over the years, many people and organizations have offered substantial sums for the Porsche, without anyone coming forward with information. That is until just recently, on the 60th anniversary of Dean’s death on September 30th, 2015.
A man claiming to know the whereabouts of the Little Bastard came forward. He claimed that he saw his father and some other men hide the car behind a false wall in a building in Washington when he was six years old. The man won’t reveal the location of the building until he receives a portion of the reward currently being offered by the Volo Automotive Museum in Illinois. He has, however, allegedly passed a polygraph test, and has even volunteered some details about the car that check out.
If history is any guide though, perhaps the man should think twice about getting involved with the Little Bastard.