Was James Dean's Car Cursed?

By: Cherise Threewitt  | 
James Dean Porsche
James Dean waves from behind the wheel of his Porsche 550 Spyder Little Bastard in Los Angeles, California. The car has earned a reputation for being cursed. Bettmann/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

James Dean, one of the most recognizable "bad boy" actors, lived a fast life offscreen as well as on. After filming what would be his last movie, "Giant," he bought his notorious Porsche, the Little Bastard. Dean owned the car for only nine days.

It was a curvaceous silver Porsche 550 Spyder, one of the fastest cars in the world at the time. It had an open top, a tiny windscreen, and a ride height so low the car could scoot right under a railroad barrier and continue on to hit a top speed of 143 miles per hour (230 kilometers per hour) with the pedal to the floor. Temptation on wheels.


Porsche built just 90 550 Spyders, and only a few are known to survive today, because even a minor collision could total the car. They were made of aluminum, so they weren't designed to protect their occupants. It didn't take anywhere close to 143 mph for a collision to prove fatal.

It's no surprise that Dean's studio wouldn't let him race while he was filming; a car like this in the hands of a notorious hothead was a recipe for disaster. And that was even before the Little Bastard earned its reputation for being cursed.


How Did James Dean Die?

James Dean Porsche
German mechanic Rolf Wutherich (left) and actor James Dean raise their hands triumphantly in Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder, Little Bastard, Sept. 30, 1955. Later that day, Dean was killed in this same car while driving to compete in the Salinas Road Race. Porsche

Dean was behind the wheel of the Little Bastard on his way to Salinas, California, to race at a Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) event, with his mechanic, Rolf Wutherich, riding shotgun.

Dean collided with another driver on Sept. 30, 1955, at an estimated speed of 85 miles per hour (136 kilometers per hour) and was killed in the wreck.


That driver was 23-year-old Donald Turnupspeed, a student at Cal Poly. At 5:45 p.m., Turnupspeed made a left turn, right into Dean's path. Though Dean tried to miss Turnupspeed's Ford sedan, he couldn't avoid the collision in time.

It's still unclear which driver caused the wreck, though eyewitnesses said they saw the Porsche "cartwheel" into the nearby ditch. Turnupspeed and Wutherich survived, but Dean died at the scene of a broken neck and fractured skull, among other injuries, according to his death certificate. (Incidentally, Wutherich died decades later in a car crash in Germany, where he'd gone to work for Porsche.)

The intersection where the crash occurred is notorious even now for being a hot spot of collisions. The sunlight is particularly dangerous during certain times of day and experts suggest Dean, whose Porsche put him just 39 inches (1 meter) off the ground, might not even have seen the car that turned into his path.


What Happened to James Dean's Car After the Wreck?

James Dean Porsche
The wrecked remains of James Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder are seen in a repair shop in Paso Robles, California, after the 24-year-old star was killed when he collided with a Ford sedan. Bettmann/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The Porsche was declared a total loss and was sent to a salvage yard. William Eschrich, who knew Dean from racing, had been specifically looking for Little Bastard and found the car in Burbank. He kept the engine and put it in his own Lotus IX race car, then gave the transmission and suspension parts to his friend and fellow racer Troy Lee McHenry.

Setting off a string of creepy coincidences, just 11 months after Dean's death, both Eschrich and McHenry crashed at the same race — the 1956 Pomona Road Races — while driving the cars with Little Bastard parts. Eschrich survived, but McHenry's crash — a collision with the only tree on the racetrack — was fatal.


By then, the Dean's Porsche had pretty much been picked over and not many usable parts remained, yet there was plenty of mischief still left in the car.

George Barris Sells Little Bastard's Parts

James Dean Porsche
Car designer George Barris claims he bought what was left of the car from Dean's family and then lent it to the Los Angeles National Safety Council for the traveling display seen here. But many car enthusiasts note that this car is in much better condition than the car seen in crash site photos. Public Domain

Enter George Barris. Barris is a renowned Hollywood custom car designer responsible for the original Batmobile and the Munsters' hearse. He was clearly drawn to vehicles with strange origins.

Barris claims he bought Little Bastard's destroyed frame and body from Dean's family, and sold two of the original tires. He also lent what was left of the mangled car frame to the Los Angeles National Safety Council as a traveling display, ostensibly to scare motorists into behaving on the road.


While it was part of the traveling expo, the car fell from its display on several occasions. One time it injured a bystander and another time it killed George Barkus, a truck driver hired to transport the car. Meanwhile, those two tires Barris sold are rumored to have blown at the same time.

As for the rest of the car? Supposedly it was in storage in 1960 and caught on fire and then disappeared.

Barris toured with the car's chassis, and other car collectors have said he played up the "legend of the car's curse." Barris even wrote in his memoir that the car gave off "bad vibrations" and claimed a thief who tried to steal the steering wheel broke his arm during the attempt.

But some in his social circle have also noted that the Spyder Barris claimed was Dean's seemed in suspiciously "good" condition compared to the car in photos of the crash scene. Suffice to say, not everyone believed all of Barris' tales.


The Volo Auto Museum Connection

Porsche Spyder 550
Porsche made less than 100 Spyder 550 cars and very few remain intact today. Porsche

Now, remember we said the car was supposedly in storage and caught fire? Well, in late 2015, it looked like the frame was found ... or so enthusiasts thought.

That's when a man contacted Brian Grams, museum director for Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Illinois, which has tons of rare and famous cars. A decade earlier the museum had offered a $1 million for the original car. The man told Grams he saw his father and some friends hide the body of James Dean's Spyder in a building in Washington State when he 6 years old.


Grams, thinking they might have actually found the car's frame, informed the media at the time that the details appeared to confirm the story, and the man passed a polygraph test. It seemed like everything was moving forward. Then the story fell off the radar, so we talked to Grams.

"Over the years I have been contacted by numerous people with their stories, everything from [the car] was buried in a swamp in Japan to it was in the attic at Barris Kustoms," Grams says via email. "The burden of proof is always on the storyteller to provide me with something that would verify their story and all attempts failed, except one that was plausible.

A man contacted me stating he was a kid and witnessed his dad, Barris and other men hide [the car] in a false wall in a Washington State building and he had forgotten about it until recently; a scar on his hand supposedly triggered the memory stating the cut was from the car."

Grams says that despite a convincing polygraph test, the man couldn't secure the Spyder, and then further investigations determined the supposed building was no longer standing.

"If it was true, the car either got demoed with the building and ended up in a land fill, or it was discovered and kept secret," Grams says.

Still, Grams has a more pragmatic perspective on the car and its alleged curse than many other collectors.

"As far as the legend goes, I have heard stories, but I am far from an expert on the legend," he says. "The legend of the curse isn't what drew me to the car; it was the mystery of the disappearance."


What's Left of James Dean's Car Now?

James Dean Porsche transaxle
The transaxle of James Dean's Porsche was discovered after being stored in a crate for 30 years. It was auctioned off in May 2021 for $382,000! Don Ahearn

There's one known remaining part of Little Bastard, a transaxle that was discovered in Massachusetts in March 2020. After McHenry's death, his widow had sold off his collection of parts to other racers and car collectors, which is how the car's parts ended up in seemingly random parts of the country.

That transaxle, for example, was stored under a porch for a decade, then in a crate for another three decades, before it was sold at auction on the online platform Bring a Trailer May 21, 2021, for $387,000.


The Spyder's transaxle is now owned by Zak Bagans, who hosts a series on Discovery Plus and is in Zak Bagan's The Haunted Museum in Las Vegas.