"We're All Mad Here…."
On September 23 of 1955, teen idol and revered rebel James Dean met actor Alec Guinness outside of a restaurant. Dean introduced himself and went on to discuss with Guinness his latest acquisition, a brand new Porsche 550 Spyder, one of only ninety in 1955. The car shone immaculate silver, with Deans nickname, ‘Little Bastard’, applied by the guy who designed the Batmobile, George Bariss, the legendary ‘King of Kustomizers’, emblazoned across its bonnet.
Guinness wasn’t impressed. He told Dean that the car had a “sinister” appearance and then went on to say: “If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.”
Obi Wan Kenobi was right.
A few months before this chance meeting, Dean, a keen race car driver, had over revved his Porsche 356 Super Speedster while racing in Santa Monica, resulting in a blown engine. Keen not to miss the race he planned to compete in, he bought a Lotus MK X. However, the Lotus would not be delivered in time for the race in Salinas, and so Dean decided to purchase the Spyder.
Many people were unimpressed by his latest purchase, Barris included. Many of his close personal friends including Eartha Kitt and his former girlfriend Ursula Andress felt the car had an Evil presence about it.
It has been speculated that Dean himself foretold his own death. Shortly before his accident he is reported to have rehomed the pet kitten Elizabeth Taylor had given him while filming ‘Giants’, and footage from a Road Safety campaign shows Dean adlibbing ‘The life you save may be mine’, instead of the scripted ‘The life you save may be your own’.
James Dean, ever the Rebel, ignored the dark warnings.
On the 30th September Dean, his race crew and a Life magazine photographer set out to Salinas to compete in a race the following day. His original plan of transporting the Spyder was discarded at the last minute. Dean decided to drive the car because, due to a contractual agreement during filming, he hadn’t had time to either accrue the necessary road miles, or familiarise himself with the vehicle.
At some point during the journey Bill Hickman, a noted stunt driver, Deans friend and the driver of the station wagon which was transporting the crew and trailer, warned Dean to watch his speed. Both Dean and Hickman had already been ticketed during the journey, and Hickman was concerned that Dean still wasn’t used to the Spyder. He also pointed out to Dean that, due to the Spyder’s low-slung chassis and silver paint, it was difficult to see against the road surface in the fading daylight, and they continued their journey West along Route 466.
At around 5.30pm, Donald Turnupseed was making his way home to see his family in his black and white Ford Tudor. He failed to see the Porsche Spyder in the oncoming lane and attempted to make a left hand turn, cutting straight across the path of Dean’s car.
Exactly what happened next is unclear. Legend states that the Spyder was travelling at over 100mph when it slammed into the Ford, yet the Police personnel who attended the carnage afterwards estimated Deans speed at a far more conservative 55MPH. Other theories state that low sun impaired Dean’s and his passenger, mechanic Rolf Wutherich’s eyesight, and that Turnupseed failed to see the silver car against the road surface in the failing light, but Wurtherich states that Deans last words prior to impact were “That guy’s gotta stop. He’ll see us.”
Wutherich was thrown from the car, either as Dean tried to swerve out of the way, or on impact. He suffered a broken jaw and leg.
Dean remained with his beloved Spyder. The car was crushed almost beyond recognition. He sustained a broken neck, facial fractures and head trauma and internal bleeding. He was pronounced DOA at Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital at 5.59pm. He was 24.
Shortly after the crash, rumours began to circulate that the Porsche Spyder was cursed, and perhaps these rumours were not without foundation.
The wreckage was bought by George Barris for $2,500, who intended to break it for parts. As the tangled wreckage was delivered to him it slipped from the trailer, landing on a mechanic and breaking his leg. Barris sold the engine and other parts to amateur racers Troy McHenry and William Eschrid. McHenry died the year after when his car went out of control and hit a tree. Eschrid was seriously injured when his car ‘just locked up’ and rolled several times.
Barris then allegedly sold two of the tyres from the Spyder, which, also allegedly burst simultaneously causing the car they were fitted on to leave the road.
A young boy had his arm badly gashed when he slipped while trying to steal the steering wheel, and another man was also badly injured when he tried to steal the bloodstained driver’s seat.
Looking at the photographs of the remains of the car, it’s hardly surprising that any parts salvaged from it would fail or malfunction, and health and safety rules regarding the refitting of salvaged parts and the transportation of vehicles were radically different in the 1950’s – if they existed at all. Also it has to be said that I can’t substantiate some of these reports with evidence. However, the tale goes on…
Whatever was left of the pile of scrap which had once been James Dean’s pride and joy was then put into storage. Why is not clear. Maybe there was nothing left that was usable. Maybe Barris was sick of people moaning about the poor quality of his parts. It wasn’t to stay in storage long though because California Highway Patrol wanted to display the wreckage as part of a travelling road safety exhibition – all rather macabre, but Barris agreed to loan them the still bloodstained wreckage of the car he watched his friend die in.
The wreckage was transferred to storage in Fresno, and in March 1959 the garage and everything in it was burned to the ground. Everything except for the remains of Jimmy Dean’s car.
This is where the tale gets a little bit spooky…
On the anniversary of the crash, the wreckage – which we are led to believe that at this point was a few scraps of crumpled metal, possibly the bloodstained seats and steering wheel, a warped chassis perhaps – was put on display at Sacramento High School. The bolts holding the wreckage in placed suddenly snapped, sending the wreckage sliding into a group of children who were stood ogling the wreckage, and breaking the hip of a fifteen year old boy.
Next stop on the wreckages tour was Salinas. It didn’t get there the first time, and I’m not sure it did the second. The driver of the truck hauling it apparently lost control and was thrown from his cab. The driver survived the fall, but the remains of the Spyder landing on top of him ended his relief. And his life.
The wreckage allegedly parted company with haulage trucks at least another twice and was also reported to have spontaneously broken into several pieces while on display in New Orleans…
In 1960, the wreckage is said to have been loaded into a box car in Florida which was sealed shut ready for its return to California. When it arrived in L.A the boxcar is said to have been empty, yet the seal was still intact. Apparently, no trace of the car has been seen since…
Although I should imagine that nobody was looking for it that hard, and how would anyone recognise it anyway?
Was it cursed? Well, no… A curse is a psychological effect – it may work on a person who believes in it by triggering all kinds of fear and survival responses, but you can’t curse an object because an object can’t think. Simple, really. It is possible that, due to the Spyder’s tragic history, the people involved with it may have been scared of what may happen to them while in the vicinity, causing their concentration to lapse and mistakes to be made. Add to that poor health and safety practices, fitting damaged parts to vehicles etc. and you can pretty much explain the entire tragic tale.
The bolts breaking on the anniversary of the crash? Coincidence.
Damn creepy though, huh?