Do you like scary stories? The scariest car story out there is that of James Dean’s “Little Bastard”, the Porsche 550 in which his ticket was eternally punched on September 30th, 1955. It leaves behind a trail of wreckage that goes far beyond just Dean himself.
One of One
The story begins on September 23, 1955, just a week before Dean’s fatal crash. He’d purchased a new 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder and brought it to the customizer and legendary flimflammer George Barris to have it personalized. He chose tartan seats, the number 130 emblazoned on the hood, and the name “Little Bastard” painted just under the Porsche emblem on the engine cover. Monkeemobile builder Dean Jeffries did the lettering.
On September 23, 1955, while driving the car around Los Angeles, he met up with British actor Alec Guinness outside a restaurant. He showed the deeply superstitious Guinness the new Porsche.
In Guinness’s unpublished diaries and letters, he wrote:
“The sports car looked sinister to me. . .[E]xhausted, hungry, feeling a little ill- tempered in spite of Dean’s kindness, I heard myself saying in a voice I could hardly recognise as my own: ‘Please never get in it. . . if you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week.'”
A Fateful Drive
A week later, on September 30th, Dean and Rolf Wütherich — a former Luftwaffe pilot and factory-trained Porsche mechanic — were at Competition Motors in Hollywood preparing The Little Bastard for racing that weekend at Salinas.
The intent was for Dean to trailer the car to Salinas behind his 1955 Ford Country Squire, along with a photographer and stuntman Bill Hickman, stunt coordinator on the movie Bullitt.
But the car needed some break-in miles on it, and Wütherich suggested driving the car to Salinas to break in the engine and familiarize himself with his new car. Wütherich went along for the ride.
A Turn for the Worst
The group left a coffee shop across from Competition Motors at 1:15 pm. At 3:30 pm, California Highway Patrolman O.V. Hunter stopped Dean and wrote him a ticket just south of Bakersfield for driving 65 mph in a 55 zone. Hickman got a ticket for 20 mph over the limit, because he was towing a trailer, which meant his maximum speed should’ve been 45 mph.
At Blackwells Corner on Route 466, the caravan stopped for drinks, and met up with Lance Reventlow and Bruce Kessler, also competing in the Salinas road races with Reventlow’s Mercedes-Benz 300 SL coupe.
At approximately 5:15 pm, Dean and Hickman drove west toward Paso Robles. A half-hour later, a black-and-white 1950 Ford Tudor coupe was headed east on 466, driven by a 23-year-old Cal Poly student with the unlikely name of Donald Turnupseed.
Turnupseed made a left on Route 41. As he crossed the centerline, Dean, who was estimated to be traveling at 85 mph, tried to avoid the Ford, and the two cars met head-on. The Ford coupe slid 39 feet down Route 466 in the westbound lane.
Soon afterward, an unconscious and dying Dean was placed into an ambulance. Wütherich, who had been thrown from the Spyder, and was lying on the shoulder of the road next to the Little Bastard, was transported in the same ambulance to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital almost 30 miles away. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at 6:20 pm. Turnupseed walked away with a scratch on his nose.
George Barris purchased the wrecked Porsche for $2,500 (with the likely intent to sell tickets to look at it) and transported the car back to his shop. The car slipped off the trailer and broke the leg of a mechanic.
Barris sold the engine and drivetrain to Troy McHenry and William Eschrid. The two used parts to build cars of their own and even raced each other with those parts in place.
Henry lost control and slammed into a tree, the impact killing him instantly.
Eschrid was driving his car, and the wheels suddenly locked up for no apparent reason, sending the car rolling over in a turn. Eschrid was seriously injured in the crash.
Two tires from the Little Bastard were in Barris’s garage, untouched since the accident that claimed Dean’s life. He sold the tires, and both of them exploded simultaneously, causing the driver to run off the road.
In a piece that appeared in Jalopnik, the curse apparently continued even further:
“Due to all the incidents involving “Little Bastard,” Barris decided to hide the car but was convinced by the California Highway Patrol to lend the cursed heap to a highway safety exhibit. The first exhibit was unsuccessful as the garage that housed the car caught fire and burned to the ground. Mysteriously the car suffered virtually no damage from the fire. The next exhibition at a local high school ended abruptly when the car fell off its display and broke a nearby student’s hip.”
Later, George Barkuis was hauling the wreckage of the Spyder on a flatbed truck and was killed instantly when the Porsche fell on him after he was thrown from his truck in an accident.
Mishap after mishap continued until 1960 when the twisted debris was on loan to a safety exhibit in Miami. Following the exhibit, the wreckage and the truck that was hauling it mysteriously vanished on the way back to Los Angeles.
Neither has ever been seen since, but people continue to spend big bucks on pieces of the infamous car. Let’s hope they handle them with care.