James Dean’s Porsche: can a car be cursed?

Can a car be cursed? If it is possible, then James Dean’s ‘Little Bastard’ (the nickname of the car he died in) surely was.

About Little Bastard

Little Bastard was a Porsche 550 Spyder. It was fast, curvy, and quite rare: Porsche only made about 90 550 Spyders. It was built for speed, and it was a feat of engineering—then and now, but especially then. Its svelte body was made of aluminum, and every possible element was designed to be as light as possible. And it was light. It weighed in at just 1,212 pounds. (For reference, the diminutive modern-day Lotus Elise weighs about 2,010 pounds.)

James Dean in the Little Bastard the week he bought it, September 1955

Both its rarity and the icon status it co-opted through its association with the Rebel Without a Cause have made it extremely collectible and valuable. Recent examples have sold for $3-5 million at auction.

But enough about its heritage: the interesting part lies in what happened after it was designed and built.

In 1955, 24-year-old Hollywood heartthrob James Dean bought the 550 Spyder, which he christened ‘Little Bastard’. According to Hollywood lore, that’s what Warner Bros. president Jack L. Warner called Dean when he refused to vacate his trailer on the studio lot after East of Eden was done filming. Naming the car was an act of defiance against Warner, as the studio had a no racing policy during filming. Dean wanted to make it very clear that he would be racing in between projects.

In a bit of foreshadowing, when Dean showed the car to the actor Alec Guiness, Guinness reportedly called it ‘sinister’ and told Dean, ‘if you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.’

En Route to the Salinas Road Race

Per Warner Bros. policy, Dean had been forbidden from racing from June through mid-September of 1955, while he finished work on Giant. Right after wrapping production, Dean traded his ‘55 Speedster in on the Little Bastard (which was faster and more powerful). He promptly entered the Salinas Road Race, to be held the first two days of October, and he bought a Ford station wagon and a flatbed trailer to tow the Little Bastard.

Dean had planned to trailer the car from Los Angeles to Salinas behind his station wagon, but when the time came he hadn’t put enough break-in miles on the new Porsche. So he decided to drive it up north to Salinas. On the way up, he was pulled over by the highway patrol and ticketed for driving 65 in a 55 mph zone.

A few hours later, as Dean drove up Route 466 toward Paso Robles, a car going the other way crossed the center line to make a turn (apparently not seeing the Spyder’s low profile). The crash, nearly head-on, was catastrophic. A witness reports seeing Dean’s car flip end-over-end two or three times. Dean was pronounced dead at the hospital, and his passenger (who was also his mechanic), Rolf Wütherich, survived and eventually recovered from his serious injuries. 

Wreckage sold

After the accident, the car was sold by Dean’s insurance company (who’d deemed it a total loss and paid out the car’s value to Dean’s father) to Dr. William F. Eschrich. He removed the engine and several other components, and then sold the rest of it to George Barris.

Barris was a Los Angeles-based car customizer who was best known for building the original Batmobile. Barris was also a bit of a P.T. Barnum-type character. Some think he bought the car (minus engine and internal components) to sell tickets for viewing the macabre spectacle. According to Barris, when it arrived at his shop, the car slid off the trailer and crushed a mechanic’s legs. 

It’s worth noting that Barris’ accounts of the car are considered unverified and could be exaggerations or outright fabrications. Still, even if only some are true, this car seems to carry with it some seriously bad luck.

More carnage

While it was at Barris’ shop, a thief broke in and tried to steal the steering wheel of the storied car. During the attempted theft, the thief seriously injured his arm.

Meanwhile, the original buyer, Dr. Eschirch, sold its engine to Dr. Troy McHenry, who put it in his own Porsche. In 1956, the two men were competing in a race when Dr. McHenry’s car went out of control and hit a tree, killing him. In the same race, Dr. Eschirch’s car—which had components taken from the Little Bastard—flipped over, seriously injuring him.

After those crashes, Barris allegedly decided to stop selling parts from the car, and instead lent it to the California Highway Patrol for a school highway safety exhibit. During a presentation, the car fell off a platform and injured a student.

The CHP wisely returned the car to Barris, but the truck driver transporting it lost control and ran off the road. The driver was ejected from the truck, and it’s rumored that the car then fell off the truck and fatally crushed him.

After being returned to Barris, the Little Bastard was being stored in a garage in Fresno. The garage caught on fire (which was not blamed on the car), and the structure and all of the other cars in it were destroyed. Except for (wait for it)… the Spyder.

Where is it now?

No one knows where Little Bastard is today. There have been rumors that it’s hidden in a museum’s wall in Washington state. The good news is that it seems to be out of circulation now, and hasn’t harmed anyone in years. As long as you don’t have any 550 Spyder parts of unknown provenance in your car, you’re safe from the curse!

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