On September 30, 1955, a silver Porsche 550 Spyder is making its way down a California highway. It’s driver, iconic actor James Dean, notices a Ford Tudor turning ahead of him, but can’t break in time and is killed in the collision. But the actor wouldn’t be the last person to fall victim to the curse of the Spyder.
From humble beginnings, Dean would go on to become an icon of the 1950s and beyond. Born in Indiana in 1931 to Winton and Mildred Dean, the family moved to California when he was still very young. However, when he was just nine years old his mom succumbed to cancer, and he returned to Indiana.
Once back in Indiana, Dean lived with his aunt and uncle in Fairmount. There, he was said to be an excellent student with interests in sport, public speaking and, of course, drama. He moved back to California after graduating high school and lived with his father while attending college. Initially, he enrolled on a pre-law course, but eventually made a decision that would lead to trouble.
That’s because Dean decided to study drama instead, which caused tension with his father. However, the student then left college in 1951 to take up acting full-time, a decision which would set him on a path to unprecedented stardom.
That year, Dean landed the role of John the Beloved Apostle in the TV special Hill Number One. Soon after the actor bagged three walk-on roles in the movies Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, Fixed Bayonets! and Sailor Beware.
From there, Dean moved to New York where he landed parts on a number of CBS TV series including Lux Video Theatre and Studio One. He was then accepted to the prestigious Actors Studio drama school. Famous for it’s method acting style, the school counted Marlon Brando among its alumni.
Indeed, Dean was so thrilled at being accepted at the Actors Studio that in 1952 he wrote to his family about it. In the note, he described it as “the greatest school of the theater. Very few get [in]. It is the best thing that can happen to an actor.”
And Dean had every reason to be excited. That’s because studying there, his career continued to grow, and he secured parts on TV shows including General Electric Theater and Robert Montgomery Presents. Subsequently, a 1954 theatrical role in The Immoralist put him firmly on Hollywood’s radar.
As such, Dean’s next role would transform him from a burgeoning actor to hot property. Cast as Carl Trask in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, the actor largely improvised many of his lines. Described later by the Los Angeles Times as “Kazan’s richest film,” the review went on in glowing terms with regard to the young actor. “It is arguably Dean’s best performance,” the author wrote.
Sadly, although Dean starred in three motion pictures in total, East of Eden was his only movie to be released before his death. His next project, 1955’s teen-angst classic Rebel Without a Cause catapulted him from hot property to worldwide stardom. Capturing the mood of America’s disaffected youth, the movie is the basis for the actor’s status as the face of new generation.
Following Rebel Without a Cause, Dean took what would be his last role. Cast in Giant opposite Hollywood heavyweight Elizabeth Taylor, the young actor died before the film was edited. And it’s this event, almost as much as anything else, that thrust him into the world’s consciousness. That, and a spooky series of accidents involving the star’s car.
Dean had a fondness for racing, alongside his successful work as an actor. In an eerie twist, he competed in as many professional driving events as he had lead movie roles – three, though he couldn’t finish the last race due to a blown piston.
Having been prevented from competing during the making of Giant, Dean was scheduled to race in California on October 1, 1955. As such, the actor had recently purchased a new Porsche 550 Spyder Convertible, and nicknamed it the “Little B******.” Intending to race the car the next day, the young actor was en route to the event on September 30.
Alongside Dean in the car was Rolf Wütherich, along with photographer Sanford Roth and Bill Hickman, a stunt coordinator. And in an eerie foreshadowing of later events, the actor was given a ticket for speeding at 3.30pm that afternoon. Indeed, less than three hours later, the heartthrob actor would be dead.
Driving along Route 466 – now the SR 46 – Dean came up behind a Ford Tudor. The latter was turning through an intersection in front, and the actor, driving over the speed limit, was unable to stop the Porsche. In the resulting collision, Wütherich was thrown clear from the car, sustaining a broken leg and head wounds.
Dean, however, fared much worse. The actor suffered several injuries, including a broken neck, and died. He was just 24 years old. Hollywood, and the rest of the world, was shocked by his sudden death. That sentiment was made all the worse but the fact that, months earlier, the actor had appeared in a commercial for road safety. In it, he uttered the line, “Drive safely; the life you save may be mine.”
Following the crash, Dean’s Porsche took on a gruesomely legendary status. Indeed, the man who originally customized the car, George Barris, bought the wreck for $2,500, according to the website Jalopnik. When what was left of the Spyder arrived, though, it reportedly fell off the truck that was carrying it and broke a mechanic’s leg.
Jalopnik reported that Barris decided to sell the Spyder’s drivetrain and engine to separate racing drivers. The racers, Troy McHenry and William Eschrid, then competed against each other in cars containing those parts. During the race, both had serious collisions. Eschrid was badly injured when his car rolled over and McHenry was killed when his vehicle crashed into a tree.
Still holding onto some parts from Dean’s Spyder, Barris then apparently decided to sell two of its tyres to another customer. But they later blew at the same time, causing the vehicle using them to come off the road. But the Spyder’s curse didn’t stop there.
That’s because misfortune continued to befall those within touching distance of the Spyder, as two would-be thieves found out. Having caught wind that the wreck was in Barris’ possession, they apparently tried – and failed – to steal some of the parts, according to Jalopnik. One thief was injured attempting to remove one of the seats, while the other badly cut his arm trying to take the steering wheel.
By this point, Barris must have noticed the macabre pattern and decided to hide the Porsche away, the website reported. That, however, didn’t happen. Instead, the California Highway Patrol convinced him to donate the Little B****** to become part of a road safety display. But it didn’t last, as the building in which the car was being stored was apparently destroyed in a fire. The car, however, survived virtually unscathed.
The second attempt at the display fared little better. On show at a high school, the exhibition was cut short when the curse of the Little B****** continued. This time, the Porsche suddenly came off its stand, injuring a student who suffered a broken hip.
Tragedy then struck again when the car wreck was being transported one day. The driver of the truck carrying the Spyder was reportedly killed when he lost control of his vehicle, fell out of the cab and was crushed under the Spyder when it fell from its moorings.
The Spyder apparently continued to fall from the back of transport vehicles in a further two incidents. However, no one was harmed. Had the curse finally been broken? No one could say for sure, but after its last fall, it was sent back to Barris in 1960, according to Fox News, having spent a few years on promotional tours.
Here, though, is where the story gets a little confusing. According to Barris, the wreck simply disappeared while on transit to him. Meanwhile, Jalopnik cited unverified claims that a piece of the 550 made it’s way to Illinois’ Historic Auto Attractions museum.
Nevertheless, ever since the Spyder’s “disappearance” in 1960, fans have wondered what became of the notorious vehicle. So great was the desire to find it that in 2005 the Illinois Volo Auto Museum offered $1 million to whoever was in possession of it. But it wasn’t until ten years later that they got a very credible lead.
That’s because, according to the website Mother Nature Network, an “older individual” reached out and claimed to know exactly where the Spyder was hidden. Indeed, museum director Brian Grams told ABC7 Chicago, “He said he was six years old at the time. [He] was present as his father and some men put the wreck behind a false wall in a building in Whatcom County, Washington.”
Subsequently, the individual agreed to take a polygraph test to support the claim. Such an assessment can help discern if a person is lying by measuring their physical reactions when answering questions, and it looks at factors such as blood pressure, respiration and pulse rate.
Amazingly, the tipster passed the polygraph test “with flying colors,” according to Fox News. Does that mean the legendary Spyder will be seen once again? Not necessarily. While the man said he knows the location of the alleged building in Washington, he doesn’t own it. So, until the building’s owner can be found, the Little B****** will stay hidden.
However, museum director Brian Grams remains optimistic. “This guy’s story is awesome, and our most believable lead to date,” he told MNN.com. “It’s kind of like Al Capone’s vault. If it’s there, it continues the legend of this car’s notorious history.”
Later in 2015, Fox News revealed the mysterious tipster to be Shawn Reilly, from Washington State. And the plot thickens further, because Reilly claimed that he believes Barris was there when several men met up to discuss buying what could have been the Spyder. Had the latter been lying when he claimed the car had disappeared? He died that year, so we may never know for sure.
Something else we may never know is the legal owner of the wreck. While Reilly may well know where it is, it doesn’t belong to him. But that’s not all. According to Lee Raskin, author of the book James Dean: On the Road to Salinas, William Eshcrich – who used the Spyder’s engine – actually bought the car, removed some of the parts and let Barris take possession of the rest of it.
Meanwhile, Fox News reported that, “No official record of that transfer [from Eschrich to Barris] has been discovered.” Additionally, “Eschrich’s family still has the original pink slip for the car.” The late driver’s family, however, have made no claim to the vehicle.
So, while the car’s location remains a secret, one thing is certain – we’re all a lot safer with it hidden away. Cursed or not, the Little B****** definitely lived up to its nickname. And while it may be notorious for its deadly tendencies, it’ll never be more famous than its original owner.
Indeed, following Dean’s death in 1955, he won the first posthumous nomination in the history of the Academy Awards. He received one such award in 1956 for his role in East of Eden, and another the following year for Giant.
Dean’s legacy is bigger than the Academy, though. Breaking into acting at a time of great social and cultural change in America, he became the poster-child for an entire generation. His performance in Rebel Without a Cause embodied the frustration of youth, a need to break with tradition and a desire to not walk the same paths as previous generations.
Dean’s short career also inspired many artists in the years to come, and not just in film. Musicians from Elvis to Buddy Holly and David Bowie have all cited his influence on their careers. “I’ve made a study of poor Jimmy Dean,” Elvis told Parade magazine in 1956. “I don’t know anything about Hollywood, but I know you can’t be sexy if you smile. You can’t be a rebel if you grin.”
And it wasn’t just Dean’s contemporaries that felt his influence. According to many authors and social historians, the actor’s embodiment of youthful rebellion became the template for the generations to come. And his fame continues, as even today the star’s estate makes around $5 million annually, according to Forbes.
Dean’s legendary status has been marked in several ways, with Los Angeles’ Griffith Park Observatory perhaps being the most poignant. One of the locations in Rebel Without A Cause, it has its own bust of the star. Started by artist Kenneth Kendall on the day Dean died, it’s positioned with the Hollywood sign visible to his left.
In the end, though, Dean’s enduring legacy remains his small but powerful body of work. Those movies continue to captivate audiences into the 21st century; and his passion still offers a siren call for young people everywhere.