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Was James Dean Spyder cursed?

2012-08-27 07:44

'LITTLE BASTARD' LOOKALIKE: A Porsche Spyder 550, similar to the one that Hollywood film actor James Dean lost his life in nearly 60 years ago.


Jaco, the friendly barman at my local watering hole, had enjoyed my recent column piece about actor Steve McQueen and his love of Triumph motorcycles and wanted to know if I knew much about another actor favourite of his, one James Dean who died in a car crash in 1955.

It’s an interesting story and one worth repeating...


Dean loved speed. His short life and meteoric career as a film actor came to an abrupt end when he was killed in a fiery car accident in a Porsche Spyder 550 roadster. He was only 24.

Not new to speed, as McQueen was, Dean also owned a Triumph Tiger motorcycle and soon made the jump to a sports cars when he bought himself a red MG TD Roadster in 1954. Alas, the MG wasn’t really fast enough and, being quite a useful club competitor with usual finishes in the top five, Dean decided a Porsche 356 was the car to take him to the top of the winner’s rostrum, and so it was - for a while.

The appreciative crowds at Santa Barbara, Palm Springs and Bakersfield (circuits as well known in California then as our very own Roy Hesketh, Zwartkops or Killarney are to South Africans) loved the good-looking star of ‘East of Eden’, the film that set Dean’s acting career alight.

Unfortunately, the bog-standard 356 Porsche was also losing out to the opposition… it was time to find something really quick. A Lotus 9 racer was seriously considered but the delivery time remained uncertain.

A Morgan Plus Four was considered but a phone call from a sports-car dealer called Competition Motors in Hollywood – and on the advice of his motor mechanic and friend Rolf Wutherich – Dean fell in love with a Porsche 550 Spyder, chassis number 550-0055. This was one of a handful of Porsches tagged for the American market that year — a car Dean was to own, but never to race on a track, just a few days before he met his end.

Looking back, perhaps it was quite understandable that Hollywood film executives had cause to ban his racing exploits until another blockbuster movie was safely on celluloid — the title of the film: 'Rebel Without a Cause'. If he wasn’t famous already, he certainly was now!

On September 21 1955 – less than a month before 'Rebel Without a Cause', Dean's latest blockbuster, was released in cinemas across America – he took delivery of the $6090 Spyder, quite a sizeable amount of money for a car back then. Mind you, it easily outperformed the 356 by offering 40 more horses along with a top speed of 190km/h.


This little car – nicknamed by Dean’s friends "Little Bastard" – seemed, somehow, to have a mind of its own. Just before 6pm on September 30 Dean and Wucherich in the Porsche Spyder crossed a road junction near the town of Cholame on Route 41 on their way to their first race and collided with a big, solid Ford Custom coupé… well you know the rest. Amazingly, Wucherich and the Ford driver, Donald Turnupseed, survived the crash, but not Dean.

He was pronounced dead where he lay.

The battered aluminium coachwork of the Spyder was past salvaging but many of the mechanical parts were sold on. Legend has it that parts fitted to other 550s were somehow tainted with death and it’s reliably documented that at least one race driver, a Dr Troy McHenry, died 12 months later when driving his own 550 Spyder: he ran into the only tree at the Pomona race circuit.

Cause of the accident: a steering component believed bought cheaply from Dean’s wrecked car.

Could this have been the start of what was to become known as the Cholame Curse? A couple of years later a car enthusiast called George Barris bought what was left of the wreck but the car slipped off the tow-truck, breaking both his legs.

The malevolent Spyder seemed to be evil. When Barris broke the car up for spares he sold two rims and tyres only to learn both tyres had blown simultaneously sending another competitor into a wild spin and missing death by inches.

Some years later Barris loaned the wreckage to the California Highway Patrol for a display and later learned the garage where the car was stored had been burned to the ground, along with several squad cars… but not "Little Bastard"! Many years later it seemed the fans still hadn’t forgotten James Dean. His headstone was twice replaced – in 1983 and 1985 – after mysterious removal.

“So what happened to that car,” asked Jaco, who was really keen to know the outcome.

Well, in 1960, another road-safety show took place in Miami, Florida. The remains of the car were loaded on a truck after the event only to disappear en route to Los Angeles.

"Little Bastard" was never heard of again.

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