This article regards the untimely death of a Hollywood icon and the deathly rampage of the car in which he was killed.
A Porsche, affectionately known as “Little Bastard”, became a malicious and ruthless killer as it maimed and murdered its way through the US in a ghoulish tour of destruction. This is the story of James Dean’s 550 Spyder.
In September, 1955, James Dean was just finishing production on the film ‘Giant’; he spontaneously traded in his Porsche 356 Super Speedster for a very stylish Porsche 550 Spyder. Dean was an avid car enthusiast and, given the fact that he was a Hollywood superstar, he had the means to enjoy all of the vehicles that the 1950s had to offer. The 550 was created with an air cooled flat-4 engine and was dominant in several racing classes in its time. James bought the car, which was one of only ninety produced, and swiftly took it to add his own personal flourishes.
On the 23rd of September, Dean enlisted the help of legendary automotive customizer and builder of famed film vehicles George Barris to help him fulfil his vision for the car. He added tartan seats and the number ‘130’ painted in non-permanent paint on the front bonnet, doors and rear decklid. The actor also had customizer Dean Jeffries write the car’s name of “Little Bastard” just under the Porsche badging.
The beginning of the curse
This is where the story begins to make your hairs stand on end. Later that day, Dean journeyed to meet his friend and fellow performer, the deeply superstitious Alec Guinness. Eerily, the actor’s private diaries later revealed that when he was exposed to Dean’s new car, he thought it was ‘sinister’ and he urged James with an ominous premonition “Please never get in it. . . if you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week.” Dean laughed it off, thinking nothing of it.
As if on cue, a week later Dean was with Porsche mechanic and former Luftwaffe pilot Rolf Wütherich who was preparing the 550 Spyder to go racing. They planned to trailer the car to Salinas for a race behind a Ford Country Squire with his friend and colleague Bill Hickman, who worked as a photographer and stuntman, at the wheel. However, Dean thought it better to drive the car there as he wanted to familiarise himself with his new Porsche and it would be prudent to run-in the engine and add miles before racing it.
Fatefully, Dean and Wütherich began their voyage to the track on the 30th of September, 1955. After a brief coffee break, they began their journey from Competition Motors at around 1:15pm. By 3:30pm, both the Porsche and the accompanying Ford had racked up a speeding ticket just outside Bakersfield; Dean was a roughish, wealthy and petrol-enthused actor so it was only fair to assume that he travelled with some haste in his new German sports car. Undeterred by the ticket, he journeyed on towards his destination. They would stop for drinks with fellow competitors Lance Reventlow and Bruce Kessler and as the afternoon drew to a close, fate grew closer. The sun dipped below the mountains as a black and white Ford Tudor turned left onto Route 41. Its driver, Donald Turnupseed, was unaware of the open-top Porsche which was rapidly hurtling towards him.
Dean’s al fresco motoring experience met an abrupt end at around 5:45pm when he met the Ford head-on as the cumbersome vehicle crossed through the middle of the road after making his left turn. The actor was travelling at a considerable rate (approximately 85mph) and the collision between the two cars was disagreeable to say the least. Wütherich was thrown from the passenger seat of the vehicle whilst the Ford and its occupant was propelled 12 metres backwards.
The Spyder left the road after several somersaults and ended up in a gully nearby, Dean was trapped in the mangled cockpit – his foot was crushed under the clutch pedal. He was cut out of what was left of the 550 and taken to hospital, slowly dying from his injuries. Dean was soon pronounced dead on arrival to the hospital and his passenger was taken into surgery with severe injuries. Remarkably Donald Turnupseed had escaped with a simple scratch on his nose.
The rampage of an automobile
From then on, the crumpled Porsche would go on to harm several individuals in some of the most unusual and suspicious ways. Shortly after the accident, the ruined 550 chassis was declared a total loss by the insurance company. However, the car was still sold to George Barris – the man who customised it after Dean’s original acquisition of the vehicle – who then stripped it of all useful parts and pledged to restore the car. When it was found to be beyond repair, he planned to tour the now famous vehicle and charge people to see it.
The parts he had taken from the car were its working engine and drivetrain which he sold to two doctors, who raced recreationally, by the name of William Eschrid and Troy McHenry. Eschrid took the engine and installed it in his Lotus IX race car whilst McHenry would take the transmission and suspension.
Spookily, Eschrid would be racing his Lotus at Pomona raceway when his car locked up and rolled over for no apparent reason. He would be seriously injured in the incident. His associate, McHenry, was much more unlucky as he would be killed instantly in the very same race when his car slammed into a tree.
The gloomy tale only continued to unfold as two tires which lay untouched in Barris’s garage since Dean’s death would eventually be sold for road use. Simultaneously, they would both explode one day and sent the car they were fitted to careering off the road. Disturbed by the vehicle’s evident ill-intent, Barris decided to cancel his exhibition of the vehicle and hide it away.
Dean’s car on display by the CHP
He was later convinced by the California Highway Patrol (CHP) to lend them the car to tour it around and raise awareness of road safety. The daunting carcass was toured in several cities from 1957-1959 with some rather horrifying results. On its first outing in Fresno, the “Little Bastard” spontaneously combusted in storage and the building burned to the ground; unnervingly, the Porsche sustained virtually no damage aside from some scorched paint and exploded tires. In Sacramento, it fell from its display and broke the hip of a nearby student.
From then on, the CHP was equally as concerned as Barris and on a journey from Los Angeles to Miami, the wreckage disappeared from a sealed boxcar. This is according to Barris (a notable showman) who claimed to have discovered an empty carriage when it arrived at the station; he stated that the seal securing the boxcar was intact and the car simply vanished without a trace, but this is unconfirmed. Today, Barris and all other parties involved with the infamous vehicle are gone and the car hasn’t been seen since it’s departure in 1960.
Dean and Wütherich before their fateful voyage
Repercussions of the crash
The series of events following James Dean’s horrific crash is legitimately alarming and is the main basis for why people believe the “Little Bastard“ is cursed. Though, a lesser known repercussion of the accident which people tend to overlook is the fate of those involved. Yes, Dean was killed gruesomely, but what of his compatriots?
The final victim in this dastardly narrative is Rolf Wütherich – Dean’s mechanic and friend – who underwent severe physical and psychological toils resulting from the incident. He would cheat death in 1955, though would still be burdened with a double fractured jaw and serious hip and femur injuries. His left hip was so badly torn that it would only be fixed after six months of further surgery.
However, the biggest effect that the crash had on Wütherich would be on his mind. Some of Dean’s fans blamed him for their idol’s death and would send abusive and threatening letters. This deeply affected him psychologically and he would develop severe depression and suicidal tendencies. Subsequently, alcoholism ensued and he spiralled down to his demise.
Wütherich navigating a Porsche 904 at the Monte Carlo Rally
After the incident, he would return to West Germany and work as a freelance tester for Porsche vehicles. He would attend the 12 Hours of Sebring and act as a navigator in several rallies with Porsche until 1968 when he was relieved of his post. In 1979 he joined a local Honda dealership.
His personal life was unfavourable to put it kindly. He was married four times and would have a young son with his third wife. The shadow of James Dean’s death loomed wherever he went and he divorced his second wife due to a dispute regarding the incident where she apportioned blame to him.
The reason for his termination at Porsche was because he stabbed his fourth wife in her sleep after an attempted suicide. In 1968 he was sentenced to a mental institution for rehabilitation; most of his trauma stemmed from the crash which had happened almost fifteen years ago.
Poignantly, he would die in a car crash on the 22nd of July, 1981, when an intoxicated Wütherich crashed his Honda Civic into the wall of a residency. He, like Dean, had to be extricated from the vehicle wreckage and would die at the scene. Rolf had recently been offered a contract to feature in a documentary about James Dean’s demise which may have attributed to his state at the time. He was only 53 years old and the crash which killed James Dean can indirectly be linked to his own fate.
I know this article isn‘t exactly uplifting or relevant in modern times, but it is Halloween so you are supposed to be sufficiently spooked and I thought this was the story to do just that. I hope this has sent a shiver up your spine as it has mine and remember to be cautious when driving a Porsche 550 Spyder – should you be lucky enough to do so.