Only 24 and a fast rising ‘star’ in Hollywood James Dean’s life was cut short when, at the wheel of his new Porsche 550 Spyder, he was involved in a terrible car accident and was killed only a day after wrapping the filming on what would be his last motion picture.
Indeed the fact is that the accident, and the subsequent release of Rebel Without a Cause, made Dean into a cult star whose fame has now extended to almost 3 times the years that he was actually alive. Even today Dean remains the symbol of teen angst, a talented but misunderstood young man who the world unfortunately never really got a chance to know very well.
James Dean the race car driver.
What few people knew back then and know less about today was that, as Dean’s star status grew, he started to use his new-found money and fame to take up a new hobby; racing. He had been in 3 races in 1955 leading up to his death, the Palm Springs Road Race, the Minter Field Bakersfield Race and the Santa Barbara Road Race. He didn’t make much of a showing but, racing his Porsche 356 Speedster, he did good enough to get some attention.
In September of ’55 he traded in his 356 for a new Porsche 550 Spyder, one of the fastest cars that Porsche had ever produced and a car that looked as dangerous as its name. He was so enamored of the car that he had the number 130 painted on both the front and the back of the 550 and, on the back, he had the nickname that he had picked up when filming the movie Giant stenciled; ‘Little Bastard’. He had been given the nickname for some reason by his voice coach for the film Bill Hickman.
The final ride of James Dean and his Porsche 550 Spyder.
The day he died Dean was on his way to Salinas, California to enter the 550 in a car rally. As fate would have it he decided to get a better ‘feel’ for the car (he had just purchased it) and drive it there, even though he already had a trailer to tow it. He and his mechanic Rolf Wuetherich were in the Spyder and photographer Sanford Roth and Bill Hickman (his voice coach) followed in a Ford station wagon.
As Dean and Wuetherich drove westbound on Highway 466 a 1950 Ford Tudor driven by Cal State student Donald Turnupseed made a left turn directly in front of them, leaving them no time to react at all and causing a practically head-on collision. While Turnupseed suffered minor injuries Wuetherich was thrown from the Spyder and received traumatic head injuries and a broken leg. James Dean, however, did not survive
Ironically just a week before the accident that took his life Dean sat down to lunch with fellow thespian Alec Guinness (before he was knighted, natch). Guinness took one look at the 550 and told Dean that, if he decided to race the car, he would be dead within a week. One week later James Dean was dead and his Porsche 550 Spyder was a smoldering heap.
If you’re keen on learning more about the Porsche 550 Spyder or any Porsche model Automobile Atlanta is the place to go. Dr. 914, George Hussey, has been talking Porsche for over 35 years and if he doesn’t have the answer, NOBODY will. They also sell Porsche parts for every model they have ever made.