September 30, 1955 – James Dean dies driving Porsche 550 Spyder

Actor James Dean had just finished filming the movie Giant and was ready to get back to the action on the racetrack. During production of the movie, Warner Bros. barred Dean from pursuing a new passion, racing. The fear, of course, was injury, or worse, death. Unfortunately, Dean would not make it to the track before fate had its way. On this day in 1955, at the age 0f 24, James Dean was killed behind the wheel of his new Porsche 550 Spyder, en route to the Salinas Road Race. 

James Dean's porsche 356
Dean driving a Porsche 356

Dean, who starred in such movies as East of Eden, Giant and Rebel Without a Cause, took an interest in auto racing in 1954. His first professional race would come at Palm Springs Road Races, held March 26-27, 1955. The young driver’s were on full display, taking first place in the novice race and second in the main event.

Dean’s final race would come just two months later, on May 30, 1955, before filming for Giant began. He did not finish due to a blown piston, making him all the more eager to return to racing. After wrapping up his final scenes in the new movie, Dean signed up for the race in Salinas, which started on October 1. Dean decided to drive his new Porsche, known as Lil Bastard, instead of trailer it to break in the fresh engine. On his way he received a ticket for speeding at 3:30 pm in his Porsche. It didn’t slow him down.

James Dean Porsche

A short time later, at 5:15, a 1950 Ford Tudor turned in front of Dean. Dean could not avoid a collision. He and his passenger, mechanic Rolf Wütherich, slammed into the Ford driven by 23 year old Donald Turnupseed. Dean died almost instantly as a result of several injuries, including a broken neck. Wütherich suffered a broken jaw and serious hip and femur injuries, but survived. The man in the Ford walked away with minor injuries.

What happened to James Dean’s Porsche?

While parts of the car landed in various hands, in 1956 George Barris purchased the remains of the Porsche. He planned out a tour with the car, creating a sort of gruesome highway safety side-show. After a number of mishaps involving the car, including the death of a driver who put the Porsche’s engine in his race car and crashed, the car crushing a tow truck driver, and the Porsche randomly catching fire, many deemed the Porsche as cursed.

James Dean wreck
The wrecked 550. Rolf Wütherich is being loaded on a stretcher.

In 1960 a sealed train carried the Porsche 550 back to LA from Florida after a tour. When the train arrived Barris opened it to find the car was no longer inside. Despite searching high and low, to this day nobody knows the whereabouts of the cursed James Dean Porsche. A man from Bellingham, Washington last laid claim to a $1 million prize offered by the Volo Auto Museum in Chicago for information leading to the car. The 2015 claimant told a tall tale about seeing the Porsche being hidden behind a false wall when he was a child. His story appeared to have no merit and the location of the car remains a mystery.

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