The death of James Dean on September 30, 1955, sent shock waves through Hollywood. The 24-year-old actor was cut down in the prime of life when he was involved in a head-on collision near Cholame, California. Despite his death at such a young age, Dean’s legend lives on. Another enduring legend relates to the car he was driving that fateful day. Fasten your seatbelt as we delve into the mystery surrounding “The Curse of James Dean’s Porsche.”
The vehicle Dean was driving at the time of his death was a 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder convertible. Capable of reaching 60 mph in seven seconds and a top speed of 150 mph, it was well suited to Dean’s racing hobby. Unfortunately, its rear weight bias gave the car a tendency to oversteer, making it easy for an inexperienced driver to lose control of the vehicle.
Only 90 550 Spyders were built, and Dean was able to purchase the 55th of the series. Even the rarity of the vehicle did not make it special enough for Dean. He had the interior reupholstered in tartan and the number “130” painted on the doors, hood, and rear.
It seems that not everyone was as enamored with the vehicle as Dean was. In his 1985 autobiography, Blessings in Disguise, British actor Sir Alec Guinness (who would later become famous for his role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars) recalled his first night in Los Angeles, Friday, September 23, 1955. He wrote that he left a restaurant when he was unable to get a table. While outside the Villa Capri restaurant, Guinness and his friend Thelma Moss met James Dean, who offered to let them eat with him at his table. At that time, he also showed them his new Porsche, with Dean saying, “It’s just been delivered.” Guinness said that he thought the car looked sinister. He warned the young actor, “Please, never get in it. It is now ten o’clock, Friday the 23rd of September, 1955. If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.” The following Friday, his prediction would come true.
Guinness wasn’t the only one who expressed misgivings about Dean’s new set of wheels. In the nine days between purchasing the car and dying in it, Dean received warnings from his uncle, Charlie Nolan; fellow actor Nick Adams; and his ex-girlfriend, Ursula Andres.
The accident occurred while Dean and his companions were traveling in two vehicles to a race in Salinas, California. With Dean and his mechanic, Rolf Wüetherich, in the Porsche and a photographer and studio stunt driver following behind in a station wagon, the two vehicles were stopped just south of Bakersfield for speeding. Dean was ticketed for driving 65 mph in a 55 mph zone. The driver of the other vehicle was towing a trailer, thus putting his speed limit at 45 mph. He was cited for going 20 mph over the limit.
A little more than two hours after being ticketed for speeding, Dean accelerated his Porsche, leaving the other vehicle far behind. Shortly thereafter, he collided with a 1950 Ford Tudor that was being driven at a high rate of speed in the opposite direction. The other vehicle was driven by a 23-year-old college student named Donald Turnupspeed. Later investigation showed Dean’s vehicle to be traveling at 70 mph at the time of the accident.
It was just a few weeks before his fatal accident that James Dean filmed a public service announcement, warning against the dangers of speeding on the highway. He said, “I find myself to be extra cautious on the highway. I do not have the urge to speed on the highway.” His concluding remarks were, “Take it easy driving. The life you save might be mine.”
Although Wüetherich survived the crash, he suffered serious head trauma and a broken leg. He also suffered from an extreme case of survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. He sank into depression and alcoholism. He married four times. In 1967, he stabbed his fourth wife while she was sleeping in a failed murder/suicide attempt. He was committed to a mental health institution. After his release, he continued to struggle with alcoholism and psychological disorders. On July 22, 1981, he was killed when he lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a wall.
As tragic as the events of James Dean’s death were, the misfortune surrounding his vehicle had only just begun.
The wrecked Porsche was sold to William F. Eschrich for $1,092. He pulled out some components and incorporated them into his Porsche 550. He sold the rest of the wreckage to George Barris, an automotive customizer who created the frame for the Batmobile in the 1966 television series Batman.
Barris sold some parts to Troy McHenry, another Porsche 550 owner. McHenry entered this car into a race. Coincidentally, another car in the race was Eschrich’s Porsche 550, also with parts from Dean’s vehicle. Both of those cars crashed during the race. McHenry’s struck a tree, killing the driver instantly. The drivetrain of Eschrich’s car locked up, causing that vehicle to crash, as well. Eschrich survived, but with serious injuries.
Two tires survived James Dean’s wreck. Barris sold them, and it wasn’t long after that both tires blew out simultaneously, sending that car off the road.
As for the rest of the wreckage of Dean’s vehicle, it was shipped to Barris’ shop. Upon arrival, it unexpectedly rolled off the trailer, crushing a mechanic’s leg. While the vehicle was in the shop, a thief broke in and tried to steal the steering wheel. In the process of doing this, he ripped his arm open on jagged metal.
By this point, Barris was convinced that the car’s remains were cursed, and he decided to hide it. He did, however, consent to let the Los Angeles chapter of the National Safety Council borrow the wreckage to use at an exhibit about highway safety. Before the exhibit could even begin, the curse reared its head once more. The garage where the car was being stored caught fire and burned to the ground. Strangely, Dean’s car suffered no damage from the fire.
The wreckage finally went on display and was eagerly viewed by so many people that Barris consented to a cross-country exhibition. As the vehicle toured, the curse followed it, leaving more havoc in its wake.
At one educational exhibition, the wrecked vehicle fell off its display platform, landing on a student and breaking that student’s hip.
The wreckage went on a national tour, in hopes that it would teach the importance of highway safety. The curse of the vehicle traveled with it wherever it went, and its legend grew.
That’s when James Dean’s Porsche mysteriously disappeared. Consistent with its cursed reputation, even its disappearance is clouded in mystery and controversy.
According to one account, the vehicle was being shipped back to Los Angeles in a sealed truck. The driver of the truck lost control and drove off the road. He was thrown from the cab and killed. This much is documented to be true. What is not clear is whether this is the point at which the wrecked Porsche disappeared.
Barris initially said that when the wreckage was placed in a sealed truck, it disappeared while en route to him. Later, in his book and television interviews, he said it was shipped back to him in a sealed boxcar.
Regardless of the method of transport, it appears that when the sealed container was delivered to Barris, he signed the manifest and verified that the seal was intact. Upon opening the container, however, he found it to be empty.
In 2005, in observance of the 50th anniversary of James Dean’s death, the Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Illinois, and Barris announced a $1 million reward for anyone who could produce the remains of the 550 Spyder. To date, no one has claimed the prize, thus perpetuating the mystery and the curse of the ill-fated vehicle.