After Dean got the part in “East of Eden”, in the spring of 1955, the movie star went racing with his Porsche 356 Speedster and came in second in the Palm Springs Road Races, third in Bakersfield and fourth in the Santa Monica Road Races. While he was on the set of “Rebel Without a Cause”, he traded his Speedster for a Porsche 550 Spyder – one of the only 90 which were made. Filming “Giant”, he was contractually barred from racing, but after completing the movie, Dean was free to compete again.
“You will be dead next week…“
James Dean’s Spyder was customized Georges Barris, by the man who would go on to design the Batmobile. The car was called “Little Bastard” by his stunt driving coach Bill Hickman in “Giant” and this nickname was painted on it by pin striper Dean Jeffries.
Image via Wikipedia
On September 23, Dean asked the actor Alec Guinness to take a look at the Spyder and Guinness said the car looked “sinister” to him. “If you get in that Porsche, you will be dead next week,” he warned his colleague.
On September 30, the Porsche 550 Spyder was prepared by Dean and his mechanic Rolf Wütherich for a sports car race at Salinas, California. Dean wanted to trailer the Spyder to Salinas behind his station wagon, crewed by his coach Bill Hickman and photographer Sanford Roth, who were planning a “James Dean at the Races” story. But at the last minute, Dean decided he needed more time to familiarize himself with the Porsche, and he drove the Spyder himself. Rolf Wütherich sat beside him.
At 3:30 pm, Dean was ticketed in Kern County for driving 65 in a 55 mph zone. He was driving west on what is now State Route 46 and what was then US Route 466 – near Cholame, California – when a Ford, coming from the opposite direction, attempted to take the fork onto State Route 41. Donald Turnupseed, a 23 year old student, crossed into Dean’s lane without seeing him. The Porsche and the Ford hit almost head on.
Highway Patrol officer Ron Nelson and his partner had a coffee break in Paso Robles. They were called to the scene of the accident and found Turnupseed there with a gashed forehead and a bruised nose. Wütherich had been thrown out of the Porsche and suffered from a broken jaw and other injuries. James Dean was just being placed into an ambulance, breathing heavily. He was taken to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital and pronounced dead on arrival, on September 30, at 5:59 pm.
His last words, just before impact, were: “That guy’s gotta stop!… He’ll see us!”
Wütherich survived several suicide attempts and died in a road accident in Germany, in 1981.
The Legend of the Cursed Car
After Dean’s accident, many fans refused to believe their idol was dead. An urban legend emerged, stating Dean was alive, but terribly disfigured. Also, there were soon more than just a few stories circulating concerning the jinxed car, the haunted Porsche, in other words: the Little Bastard. Let us recount here the “mainstream” urban legend.
Car designer George Barris bought the wreck for $2,500. On delivery, the Porsche slipped off its trailer and broke the legs of a mechanic. A doctor from Beverly Hills, Troy McHenry, bought the engine of the Little Bastard and put it in his own Porsche. The first time he took the car out, the vehicle spun out of control and crashed into a tree. He was killed on the spot.
Another physician, William Eschrid, bought the transmission of Dean’s Porsche. He went racing – some say against McHenry – and, going in a curve, the car rolled over. He was seriously injured.
Barris sold two tires of the wreck, which were unharmed in the accident, to an unnamed New Yorker. The tires blew up simultaneously, causing the car to go off the road. It was not reported what happened with the driver.
Two young thieves were injured while they attempted to steal parts of Little Bastard. Barris decided to store the cursed car safely away, but the bad luck kept coming from the hunk of twisted metal. In 1959, a fire broke out in the Fresno garage where Dean’s Porsche had been stored.
In that year, the Dean mania was still intense and so the California State Highway Patrol thought of transporting the mangled vehicle to local high schools and show teenagers the dangers of high speed driving. Little Bastard was put on exhibit in Sacramento, fell from its display and broke the hip of a teenager. On the way to Salinas, the flatbed truck with the Spyder on it lost control and the driver was crushed by the Porsche.
Little Bastard still was very popular and George Barris took the cursed car on a tour to the other states. On the anniversary of James Dean’s death, September 30, a fifteen year old boy was standing about twelve to fifteen feet away from the exhibit. As if broken by spectral hands, three bolts snapped. The car plowed forward and crushed both of the boy’s legs.
In 1960, Barris decided to have Little Bastard shipped back home to California. In Florida, the Porsche was loaded into a boxcar, the door carefully sealed. When the train arrived in Los Angeles, the seal was still intact… but Little Bastard was missing. Private detectives went after the car of James Dean, but they could not find it. The Little Bastard mysteriously vanished and has not been seen since…
Image via Wikipedia
Debunking the Legend
Has the Spyder returned to the hell he came from? Or is he still in some secret place, killing and maiming and spreading bad luck? Was there a curse placed on James Dean… or on his car?
Some people were thinking of a malevolent spirit within the Porsche, something like the “Christine” that was living in the Chrysler Fury of Stephen King’s supernatural horror novel. Others said that the curse perhaps originated in occult or even Satanist circles. Dean was fascinated by “all things haunted”; he had his own witch coven in LA. There were fans swearing that Dean had returned from the grave, and there were reports of a phantom Porsche cruising the area where Dean was killed.
This is the stuff “urban legends” are made of. Debunking these “true ghost stories” doesn’t help really, people will go on believing, because they are so powerful. The legend of the Little Bastard however, suffers from several factual errors.
Barris, for instance, was not the initial purchaser of the wreck. It was the doctors McHenry and Eschrid who bought the Spyder directly from the insurance company. They removed the mechanical components – such as the drive-train and steering – to use them as spares in their own 550 Spyders, and then sold the shell to Barris. McHenry was killed in a race at Pomona in 1956 when the steering of his car failed, but this was not one of the jinxed parts of Little Bastard…