The first victim of the James Dean Death Car was Dean himself.
On September 30, 1955, thirteen (ooooh! spooksville!) days after filming an announcement for the National Highway Safety Committee wherein he advocated safe driving, Dean’s 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder, which he’d named “Little Bastard” in honor of his own nickname, was hit by a 1950 Ford Custom Tudor coupe driven by Donald Turnupspeed.
Yep, the dude’s last name really was Turnupspeed.
The accident occurred at the intersection of Routes 41 and 466 near San Robles, California; Turnupspeed made a left-hand turn across the highway and plowed into the Porsche. According to Turnupspeed, he never saw the low, sleek silver car. Dean’s mechanic, Rolf Wuetherich, was thrown clear, but Dean was pinned inside the wreckage. He suffered a broken neck, plus other injuries, and died en route to San Robles War Memorial Hospital.
Rolf Wuetherich died in 1981 in a car accident.
Fun fact: The safety announcement was hosted by actor Gig Young, who in 1978 shot his fifth wife, Kim Schmidt, and then himself.
George Barris, who’d customized cars for Dean in the past, bought the mangled Spyder for parts soon after the accident.
Here’s where the Death Car urban legend (or . . . urban fact?) kicks in.
After arriving at Barris’s garage, the car slipped off the trailer and broke a mechanic’s leg.
Dr. Troy McHenry bought the engine. On October 2, 1956, McHenry drove his Little Bastard-powered Porsche Spyder in a race at the Pomona Fairgrounds in California. McHenry spun out of control; his car hit a tree and he was killed instantly.
Dr. William Eschrid bought the drivetrain. On the same date, at the same race, Eschrid’s own car rolled over going into a curve. He survived, barely.
Barris sold two of Little Bastard’s tires to a young man, who returned a few days later and said that both tires had blown simultaneously, sending him into a ditch.
A man who’d been attempting to steal the Porsche’s steering wheel while it was at Barris’s garage ripped his arm open on a piece of jagged metal.
The California Highway Patrol persuaded Barris to allow them to use the car in a traveling highway exhibit. While in Fresno, the garage used to store Little Bastard burst into flames. Everything but the Porsche was destroyed.
At a Sacramento, California, high school, the Porsche slipped off its pedestal and seriously injured a student. (The date of this incident was reported to be September 30, the anniversary of Dean’s death, but I was unable to locate a year.)
The car had a nasty habit of falling off the flatbed trucks used to transport it. Once, a driver was killed when the Porsche fell on top of him. Another time, the car fell onto a roadway and caused a fatal accident.
In 1960, the car vanished while loaded on a train bound from Miami, Florida, to Los Angeles, California.
Its current whereabouts are unknown.
James Dean’s ghost, driving the Porsche, is said to haunt the highway where he died. People have reported hearing car crash-type noises in the area at dusk, the same time of day Dean died.
Additional information: Warren Beath, The Death of James Dean
James Dean movies: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, Giant
James Franco made an excellent Dean in TNT’s 2001 biopic James Dean.
The James Dean safety announcement can be seen on YouTube.