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Journalism: James Dean’s ‘Little Bastard’

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One of the world’s most famous cars, the ill-fated Porsche 550 Spyder of iconic movie star James Dean, is now claimed to be hidden behind a false wall in a building in Washington State, USA. And there’s a $1m reward for finding it. So what’s the truth about this car’s whereabouts and its supposed curse?

‘Little Bastard’, the Porsche 550 Spyder in which Hollywood legend James Dean lost his life, is back in the news. The most iconic of all Porsches, and perhaps the most infamous of all cars anywhere in the world, has resurfaced in TV news bulletins across America following suggestions that a $1 million reward for finding the mangled vehicle is closer to being claimed. This re-ignites controversies about the Spyder’s likely whereabouts and whether the car exercises a curse, sometimes fatally, on those who come into close contact with it.

The Spyder’s story, like so many associated with Jimmy Dean, has become distorted since that fateful final Friday in September 1955. Over the years the facts have been mixed with rumours, exaggerations, and outright lies to stir-up a cocktail of a story so deliciously entertaining that it is willingly consumed. But what’s the truth about this beguiling car? Where might it be hidden, if it is hidden at all? And should anyone who dreams of possessing the Spyder be worried that previous owners of the car and its parts were struck down by serious misfortune?

One certainty about the car is its tragically appropriate nickname. This was Dean’s invention, confirmed in a small workshop in Lynwood, Los Angeles, just four days before his death. It was here, with characteristic disregard for what others might think, that Jimmy asked customiser Dean Jeffries to signwrite ‘Little Bastard’ in gloss black paint on the car’s silver rump. At the same time, the Spyder’s bonnet, rear deck lid, and both doors were painted with the number 130, assigned to Dean by the Sports Car Club of America for the road race meeting at Salinas airport in Northern California that coming weekend. Dean might have taken this as a good omen: it contained his lucky number, 3, as had the various numbers he’d affixed to his white Porsche 356 Speedster on the three previous occasions he’d raced.

Dean’s 356 Speedster was one of the first to be fitted with the model’s more powerful, 70hp 1500cc roller-bearing Super engine, but the Spyder he traded it in for was a quite different proposition, about 10 percent lighter and 55 percent more powerful. The dealer who sold him both cars, Johnny von Neumann of Competition Motors in Hollywood, was also an amateur racer. And von Neumann was worried that the 24-year-old actor – who had become famous following the appearance that March of his first big-screen role in East of Eden, and who had just completed filming his third movie, Giant – wasn’t quite ready for the Spyder. For this reason, von Neumann insisted that his Porsche factory-trained mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, should service Dean’s 550 Spyder and attend the races with him.

Wütherich suggested that Dean should drive, rather than trailer, the 550 Spyder on the 300-mile journey from LA to Salinas, to break-in the engine and gearbox and to acclimatise himself to the car’s behaviour at speed. The 28-year-old German would ride shotgun. In the hours immediately before their journey, Wütherich presented Dean with an enamelled Nürburgring badge he’d received at the circuit’s 1000 kilometres race the previous year as a Porsche factory mechanic. Wütherich attached the badge by rivets to the Spyder’s front fender just in front of the driver’s door, a final touch to his painstakingly methodical preparation of the car.

In spite of Wütherich’s fastidiousness, however, Little Bastard set out for Salinas on Friday 30 September with imperfections. The driver’s-side front indicator was without any glass cover and near this was a slight crease in the bodywork. In getting to know the car since collecting it nine days earlier, hustling it through the twists and turns of 21-mile Mulholland Drive on the ridge of the Hollywood Hills, Dean had experienced some kind of minor accident. This was not without precedent – unexplained light damage had also appeared, on more than one occasion, on his 356 Speedster.

If this unsettled Wütherich in the morning before the drive north, he hid his nerves well – unlike Dean, whose last hours at Competition Motors were spent pacing backwards and forwards, restlessly running a hand through his tussled hair, drawing on one cigarette after another. During all this time with Wütherich, Dean avoided making any mention of the warning he’d been given not to drive the Spyder for the sake of his own safety.

This ominous premonition was made by British actor Alec Guinness, who by chance had gone to Jimmy’s favourite restaurant, Villa Capri in Hollywood, on the evening of Friday 23 September (although years later Guinness mistakenly remembered this as a Thursday). After Dean had introduced himself to Guinness, he was eager to show off his new pride and joy. Guinness later recalled in a TV interview: “There in the courtyard of this restaurant was some little silver very smart thing. Some strange thing came over me, some almost different voice, and I said, ‘Look, I must say something: Please do not get into this car, because if you do’ – and I looked at my watch – ‘if you get into that car at all, it’s now Thursday 10 o’clock at night, and by 10 o’clock next Thursday you’ll be dead.’” A friend of Dean’s, Lew Bracker, also witnessed Guinness repeat his plea in the restaurant: “Jimmy, do not drive this car.”

Within the week it had happened. In the parched and yellowed valley near the tiny settlement of Cholame in San Luis Obispo County, where a Y-junction brings together Highway 466 and Highway 41, the big blunt nose of a black-and-white 1950 Ford Custom sedan rammed the left (driver’s) side of the slender silver Porsche. The Porsche was launched into the air before slamming down onto scrubland to the right of the road. The violence of the collision ejected Wütherich from the car. Dean’s bucket seat, torn from its fixings, was also thrown out, but his broken and unconscious body remained in the cockpit of the mangled wreck, his left foot trapped by the clutch and brake pedals.

The driver of the Ford, 23-year-old college student Donald Turnupseed, was considered by eye witnesses to have been driving above the speed limit as he headed east on Route 466. He had crossed the road’s centre-line to overtake two cars, then steered back into his own lane, only shortly before making the left turn towards Route 41 across Dean’s path. Turnupseed’s indecision after belatedly seeing the Porsche – braking hard and skidding as he pointed the Ford left across the Porsche’s bows, then getting back hard on the gas as if attempting to accelerate out of the way, then braking and skidding again – would have made his intentions impossible for Dean to read.

Dean, heading westwards on 466, was also driving fast – one witness told police he “might have been racing a black foreign sports car which had passed us a few minutes before.” This was probably a dark blue Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing, also heading to the Salinas races. Dean had chatted with the Merc’s occupants, Bruce Kessler and Lance Reventlow (heir to the Woolworth’s fortune), in a pause at Blackwell’s Corner gas station about half-an-hour before. Dean had also made another stop earlier that afternoon, just south of Bakersfield, when a California Highway Patrol officer waved him down to issue a ticket for exceeding 65 mph in a 55 zone. Dean drove the next 108 miles to the junction at Cholame, according to the later calculation of a District Attorney, in just one-and-a-quarter hours, an average speed of 85 to 90 mph. On two-lane blacktop, that’s going some.

Turnupseed, who walked away from his battered Ford with a bloodied nose, refused ever to talk publicly about the accident. He died in 1995 of lung cancer at the age of 63.

Wütherich survived being thrown from the Spyder, but the subsequent troubles in his life encouraged believers in a Little Bastard curse. After surgery he returned to Competition Motors, but von Neumann let him go and he went back to Porsche’s racing department in Stuttgart. The high point of Wütherich’s career was navigating the Porsche 904 GTS of factory driver Eugen Böhringer to second place in the 1965 Monte Carlo Rally. But Wütherich reportedly descended into alcoholism, his behaviour increasingly erratic, and after being fired by Porsche he moved from one job to another. One evening in July 1981, driving home from a bar, 53-year-old Wütherich lost control of his car and smashed into a house. Like Dean, he was pinned in the wreckage, and like Dean he died.

For believers in the Little Bastard curse, there’s plenty more circumstantial evidence, and over the decades much of this has been repeated without question. But very little stands up to scrutiny.

Not least there’s the mystery of Little Bastard itself. Hollywood car customiser George Barris, who came into possession of the Spyder’s wreck in 1956, loaned it to the National Safety Council as the ghoulish centrepiece of a tour promoting safer driving. During 1960 the wreck was being returned from Florida to California on the back of a truck when, according to Barris, it was stolen without trace. It hasn’t been seen since.

In 2005, the Volo Auto Museum in Chicago publicly offered to buy Little Bastard’s wreck for $1 million from whoever had it. The museum was duly presented with almost every imaginable claim about the car. It’s in Japan. It’s buried in a swamp. It’s hanging on the wall of a house as a piece of art. Then last year a man named Shaun Reilly revealed that he had witnessed, as a child, the twisted remains of the Spyder being hidden behind a false wall inside a building in Bellingham, Washington. According to the museum, Reilly told and re-told his story with such convincing detail that he agreed to take a polygraph test, and this he passed. But Reilly has no rights to the building or the car, so if he wants a share of the $1 million he has some tricky negotiating to do – if this isn’t just another publicity-seeking fantasy, and if the Spyder’s mangled remains weren’t simply discarded when Barris had no further use for them.

The most valuable parts of Little Bastard, the engine and drivetrain, were salvaged from the carcass in 1955 and incorporated in the cars of hobby racers William Eschrich and Troy McHenry. The terrible consequence, according to the myth, was Eschrich getting seriously injured and McHenry getting killed in the same race. The truth? Eschrich, who had placed the Porsche’s engine in a Lotus Mark IX which he named a ‘Potus,’ crashed out of the lead of a race at Pomona in October 1956 in which McHenry did indeed crash fatally. But Eschrich was uninjured and McHenry’s Porsche Spyder wasn’t at that time using any parts from Dean’s car.

A colourful catalogue of myths also emerged from Little Bastard’s travels promoting road safety. A fire broke out in a garage storing the wreck. Two tyres transferred from the Porsche to another car blew out simultaneously, causing the car to crash. A thief was halted in his attempts to steal the Spyder’s steering wheel when he tore open his arm. The car fell off its plinth at a high school safety display and broke a student’s hip. The car slipped off a trailer and broke a mechanic’s leg. A truck carrying the wrecked Porsche veered out of control, throwing clear both the car and the truck driver, only for the car to land on the driver and crush him to death. This last event is the most elaborate and unlikely, but all these tales are – despite their worldwide repetition – exaggerations and lies. All these stories can be traced back to things said and written by movie-car customiser George Barris, who also claimed false credit for customising work on Little Bastard – actually done at the Porsche factory, and in Dean Jeffries’ workshop next to his – and who in true Hollywood style had a great flair for self-publicity.

So we are left, then, with the bare truth: that the stories about Little Bastard, like the legend of Jimmy Dean, will probably never die. And that if anyone ever did find this particular Porsche TYP 550 Spyder, chassis number 550-0055, registered to Mr James Dean of 14611 Sutton Street, Sherman Oaks, California, they could name their price.

This story by Phillip Bingham was first published in GT Porsche, the world’s biggest Porsche magazine 

Illustration by Kjetil Simonsen

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