September 30, 1955 – James Dean’s last ride

American actor and race car driver James Dean, 24, died in a wreck while driving a Porsche 550 Spyder on this day in 1955. Dean, who starred in such movies as East of Eden, Giant and Rebel Without a Cause, was already a beloved actor when he took an interest in auto racing in 1954. His first professional race would come at Palm Springs Road Races, which were held March 26-27, 1955. His skills were extremely prevalent, as he won first place in the novice and second in the main event.

Dean racing his Porsche Speedster in March 1955. By Chad White CC BY-SA 3.0

His final race would come just two months later, on May 30, 1955, after which he had to halt racing to film Giant. After wrapping up his final scenes, Dean jumped right back in the driver’s seat. He was headed to Salinas, California for a race on this day in 1955 when he was ticketed for speeding at 3:30 pm in his Porsche. It didn’t slow him down. Approximately an hour and 45 minutes later at 5:15 a custom 1950 Ford Tudor turned in front of Dean, who could not slow down in time. Dean and his passenger, Rolf Wütherich, slammed into the Ford driven by 23 year old Donald Turnupseed. Dean was killed 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.

In 1956 the wrecked car was sold to hot rod builder George Barris who decided to take it on tour as a sort of side-show. After a number of mishaps involving the car, including the death of a driver who put the Porsche’s engine in his racecar and crashed, the car crushing a tow truck driver, and the Porsche randomly catching fire, it become lore that the Porsche was cursed. 

Dean being put in an ambulance. The wrecked Ford in the background.

In 1960 the 550 was being transported in a sealed train car back to LA from Florida after a tour. When the boxcar arrived the car was not in it, and it’s never been seen again. In 2015 a man from Bellingham, Washington tried to claim to a $1 million bounty on the car offered by the Volo Auto Museum near Chicago to anyone who can prove they own the vehicle. The Bellingham man said he saw the car being hidden behind a false wall as a child. The story was never substantiated and the car remains missing. Do you know where it is?