His Love For Speed Was Not An Act

He needs no introduction: James Byron Dean (1931-1955) was an American actor who became a real pop culture icon after starring in Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden or Giant. His untimely death in a dramatic car accident helped to ensure his status and was the beginning of yet another urban legend.

Dean was an avid driver and often participated in car races. He 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 – only 90 such models were ever made.

“You Will Be Dead Next Week …“

The car was nicknamed Little Bastard by Dean’s stunt driving coach Bill Hickman.

Image via Wikipedia

On September 23, Dean asked the actor Alec Guinness to take a look at the Spyder. Guinness said the car looked “sinister” to him.

“If you get in that Porsche, you will be dead next week,” GUINNESS WARNED DEAN.

Here’s what happened on the day of the accident:

  • On September 30, Dean and his mechanic Rolf Wütheric got the car ready for a sports car race at Salinas, California. They decided to drive there together in the Little Bastard.
  • At 3:30 pm, Dean got a speeding ticket in Kern County for driving 65 in a 55 mph zone. He was driving west near Cholame, California when a Ford, coming from the opposite direction, attempted to take the fork onto State Route 41.
  • The driver was Donald Turnupseed, a 23-year-old student who crossed into Dean’s lane without seeing him. The Porsche and the Ford hit almost head-on.
  • Turnupseed and Wütherich suffered minor injuries. James Dean was taken to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital and pronounced dead on arrival, on September 30, at 5:59 pm.
  • Wütherich survived the crash but eventually died in a road accident in Germany in 1981.

Little Bastard Becomes A  Urban Legend

After Dean’s accident, many fans believed he was still alive but terribly disfigured. Also, there soon appeared a number of stories about Little Bastard. Here are some of them:

  • The car designer Georges Barris bought the wreck for $2,500. When it was delivered, it slipped off its trailer and broke the legs of a mechanic.
  • Troy McHenry, a Beverly Hills doctor, bought the engine of the Little Bastard and put it in his own Spyder. He lost control of the car, crashed into a tree and was killed on the spot.
  • Little Bastard even went touring across the USA because it was still so popular. On the anniversary of James Dean’s death, a fifteen-year-old boy was standing about twelve to fifteen feet away from the exhibit. Suddenly, three bolts snapped and the car plowed forward, crushing both of the boy’s legs.
  • In 1960, Barris decided to have Little Bastard shipped back home to California. The Spyder was loaded into a boxcar, the door was sealed … when the train arrived in LA, Little Bastard was nowhere to be found even though the seal was intact! The car was not seen since …

Debunking the Legend

It’s not easy debunking the legend after so many years – people will go on believing what they want, but some facts about Little Bastard just aren’t true.

For instance, it was the doctors McHenry and Eschrid (not Barris) who bought Dean’s Spyder because they wanted to use some mechanical parts as spares for their own Spyders.