By Gavin Foster
There have been more than 200 books written about James Dean since he died in his Porsche 550 Spyder en route to a Californian race meeting on 30 September 1955. That’s remarkable for a virtually unknown 24-year-old actor who starred in just three films, only one of which had been released at the time of his death. His estate’s net worth after the insurance pay-outs was approximately $100 000 all those years ago, but thanks to the way he died and the impact his three films have had on the industry and the public, his name and image still bring in around $5 million annually, mainly from licensing and merchandising. Bizarrely, the remnants of the long-missing Porsche 550 Spyder in which he died would be worth many multiples of that should they all miraculously resurface, along with the necessary provenance, but that ain’t likely to happen anytime soon. The James Dean Spyder wreck has been the subject of much debate ever since it supposedly ‘disappeared into thin air’ in 1960, but, in truth, it’s unlikely to ever put in an appearance in anything approaching one piece again.
Porsche’s first production sportscar, the little 356, was launched in 1948, and it used a 40bhp (30kW) 1086cc breathed-upon VW Beetle engine while relying upon its lightweight and aerodynamic body to bring about lively performance. When Ferry Porsche decided in the early ‘50s to build an open sports/racing version based upon that car it soon became apparent that he needed more power, so he developed a new aluminium 1498cc air-cooled four-cylinder horizontally-opposed dry-sump engine with a roller-bearing crankshaft and twin-overhead camshafts for each pair of cylinders. There was a new tubular chassis with torsion bar suspension fore and aft, and the engine was mounted amidships to drive the rear wheels via a four-speed gearbox hanging out behind the rear axle. The car, finally launched as the 550 Spyder in 1953 in Paris, delivered a very healthy 110hp (82kW) at 6200rpm which would still be considered reasonable today in a 1.5-litre four-cylinder naturally aspirated engine for a small car. The car’s all-aluminium body kept dry weight down to around 600kg, and with 110hp on tap it was a potent combination. The 0-100km/h time of around 7.2 seconds and top speed of 225km/h were both excellent for the 1950s, and even today are in the same ball-park as the Ford Fiesta ST or BMW 120i.
The lithe and nimble Porsche Spyder was a very special car that proved to be a giant-killer on racetracks around the world. Only 90 were built, with the first 15 being prototypes and the factory’s own race cars. James Dean’s silver car was number 550-0055, which means it was about the 40th customer car sold. Interestingly, actor Jerry Seinfeld owned number 550-0060 until March last year, when he sold it for $5.35 million – about R71m.
Most people know that James Dean was a famous filmstar who died very young doing what he loved most – driving a race car. One of the most credible books about him was penned almost 70 years after his death by Lew Bracker, who lived in Hollywood and became a good friend of Dean’s in the 16 months before the diminutive filmstar’s accident. The two were very close because of their shared love for cars, and after the accident Bracker, an insurance agent by profession, generally avoided giving interviews for decades. His book, first published in 2013, covers only occasions and incidents where Bracker himself was present so Jimmy and Me rings true in every respect. When he met James Dean the young actor was not yet well known and Bracker had no idea of just how famous he would become. Their relationship worked so well simply because they shared a common passion for motor cars and got on so well. There was little of the Hollywood Hoopla that Dean preferred to shun when he was away from work.
James Dean was paid just $6 000 for East of Eden, $9 000 for Rebel Without a Cause, and $21 000 for Giant, which was still being edited when he was killed in September 1955. East of Eden opened in February that year though, and Dean became hot material in the industry – the next Marlon Brando. The studio to which he was contracted, Warner Brothers, didn’t like the idea of their big investment risking his neck on the motorcycles he loved so much, so his contracts banned him from riding them during the periods he was working. Dean then shifted focus to sportscars which were not quite so contractually bothersome, and delighted in roaring around the narrow roads at the studios just to annoy Jack Warner. When he met Bracker in June 1954 he had a 1953 British MG TD sportscar, and spent hours extolling the virtues of the nimble European machine to his new friend. “I had a love of cars, but I had no interest in foreign sportscars at that time. Jimmy seemed to be on a mission to convert me,” Bracker says in his book. “I wasn’t at all familiar with what he was talking about.” Anyway, Bracker’s interest eventually piqued. Dean took him for a drive around the studio streets, and was amused when his friend said that the MG made a lot of noise but was slow.
In March 1955, after his success seemed sealed with the huge success of East of Eden in February, Dean traded the MG in on a new 1955 Porsche Super Speedster and at the end of that month while in between films (and contracts) entered his first car race at Palm Springs, finishing first in the novice class on the Saturday and following up with a second overall in the main race. Early in May he raced again at Bakersfield where he finished first in class and third overall, and in his third outing at Santa Barbara on May 30 he started in 18th spot, worked his way through the field to fourth, and then blew a piston. Those three meetings were the total extent of James Dean’s racing experience and he’d proved that he was at least moderately good at it, if a little wild. Things slowed down then, because when he started filming his third and final movie, Giant, Jack Warner’s studio banned him from motor racing until the job was done. Bracker, by then a convert, had traded his almost-new Buick Century convertible in on a new red Porsche Speedster in June 1955.
On 18 September 1955 Bracker drove past the local Porsche dealership and saw a stunning new $7 000 Porsche 550 Spyder on display. He later mentioned it in a telephonic conversation to Dean, who didn’t have too much to say before abruptly ending the conversation. Three days later Dean arrived at his friend’s house in the gorgeous silver race car. Bracker’s response was instantaneous – he called the dealership and arranged to buy Dean’s traded in old Super Speedster, which was faster than his own Speedster. He too decided to race, and Dean, the old hand with three race meetings already under his belt, took him under his wing and guided him through his first event. It was to be the only race meeting that they attended together, and they never had a chance to compete against each other on the track.
Once Dean’s Spyder arrived he sent it in to a local custom shop where customiser Dean Jeffries painted James Dean’s race-number, 130 onto the car. He’d wanted No. 13 but organisers often refused to permit the use of the supposedly unlucky number. Jeffries also painted the name that Dean had chosen onto the car – “Little Bastard – in quotation marks. One theory is that this was a dig at Jack Warner, who’d angrily called Dean a “little bastard” during an altercation, while another has it that the name was fondly aimed at the car itself. The truth is probably a combination of the two.
Filming of Giant ended in mid-September, so Dean was free to race again, and this time it would be in his new, much faster proper racecar – the “Little Bastard”. He pestered his friend, Lew Bracker, to travel with him down to a road race event at Salinas 500km away from Hollywood but Bracker declined, saying he wanted to stay home and watch a ball game on television. Dean had also bought a 1955 Ford Country Squire station wagon to tow the “Little Bastard” with. Along with him and a few friends and hangers-on was a Porsche factory mechanic, Rolf Wütherich. As they prepared to leave, Wütherich, who spoke little English, suggested that Dean drive the car the 500km to the racetrack at Salinas to ensure that it was properly run-in. With Dean behind the wheel and Wutherich in the passenger seat they set off on their journey, with the station wagon and now empty trailer following behind. They stopped occasionally for refreshments and once just south of Bakersfield, where Dean was ticketed for travelling at 105km/h in a 90 zone. The station wagon with the trailer following in their wake was also ticketed.
The accident that killed James Dean at about 17h45 has been extensively covered in myriad publications. In a nutshell, his little Porsche was involved in an angled head-on with a 1950 Ford Tudor driven by a 23-year-old student with the unlikely name of Donald Turnupseed. The Ford driver, failing to see the extremely low little silver car that merged indistinguishably into the heat haze over the grey tarmac, moved across at speed to merge with Route 66 heading east. The little Porsche stood no chance, despite Dean’s best efforts, and cartwheeled two or three times up the road into a gully. Wütherich was thrown clear and was barely conscious, with a broken jaw and serious hip and leg injuries. Dean suffered various internal and external injuries, including a broken neck, and died without regaining consciousness on the way to hospital. There was little evidence of any wrongdoing on either side, and the incident was ruled an accident. Wütherich, a former WW11 Luftwaffe glider pilot, paratrooper and aircraft mechanic, recovered and eventually returned to Germany, where he was killed in another car accident in 1981.
So, what happened to James Dean’s infamous Porsche 550 Spyder after his death? For a number of years afterwards, a Hollywood car specialist called George Barris toured all over America, charging punters to come and peer at the car that killed James Dean. There were some questions asked and fingers pointed because the car on display didn’t bear much resemblance to the car in the accident photographs. It seems that Barris may have at some time had the chassis and part of the body in his possession, which he supplemented by knocking various bits of steel and aluminium into place to fill in the gaps where body panels had been removed. Over the years Barris capitalised on the car by parading it the length and breadth of America, and at the same time kept interest alive by manufacturing all sorts of outrageous stories about a so-called curse on the Porsche that brought ill fortune to anybody who dealt with it. His claims were attracting a certain amount of scrutiny from indignant auto historians, when in 1960 the car simply vanished. In some accounts Barris said it was sealed in a railway box car, but when the train reached its destination the door was still sealed but the car was gone. In other instances he claimed the car was being moved on the road by truck, with the same mysterious outcome when the door was unsealed. What we do know is that Barris apparently never had legal title to the car, although he may have had possession of a large pile of scrap metal from it. A Dr Eschrich bought the wreck from the insurance company for $1 100, then installed the four-cam motor into the front of his Lotus, that he subsequently called a Potus. The transaxle he lent to a friend, Dr McHenry, who was subsequently killed in a racing crash. The gearbox was not in that car at the time, though, as was repeatedly claimed by Mr Barris as evidence of the curse. The Eschrich family apparently still has the engine and the pink slip that confers ownership of the car according to the engine number.
In late 2015 there was a bit of a stir on the Internet when a man in the USA came forward and claimed to know of the whereabouts of the car, saying he would reveal the truth in exchange for a $1 million reward offered by the Volo Auto Museum in Illinois. We mailed Volo to ask what had come of this. Here’s their reply.
It’s against a brick wall right now. There are so many legal obstacles to overcome and that’s what has halted progress. There is a lot of value to that car if it’s discovered and who is entitled to it? The owner of the property where the car is supposed to be located? The James Dean Estate? The last known owner, George Barris (or his family since he has passed)? Is there a reward to the man who discovers the car, if it’s there? If so, who is going to give the reward?
Volo Auto Museum
27582 Volo Village Rd
Volo, IL 60073