On Sept. 30th, 1955, Hollywood star James Dean died in a tragic car accident at the age of 24. He was driving his new (owned for only a few weeks) 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder Convertible, the “Little Bastard”. As legend has it, the “Little Bastard” caused mayhem and death nearly everywhere it went.
While James Dean was an actor, his dream was to be a professional race car driver (much like Patrick Dempsey and his racing career). During his brief time as a professional racer, Dean had won a handful of races and had competed in several road races throughout his life. He was a definite Porsche fan. He owned a 356 Porsche Speedster in which he had logged thousands of miles on before he got the 550 Spyder.
The Rare Porsche 550 Spyder
The 550 Spyder was hard to get a hold of in the U.S. as plenty of racers wanted to get their hands on it. The 550 Spyder could go from zero to 60 in seven seconds, reaching top speeds of up to 150 mph. And with gusto like that, it was no wonder that it conquered its class in Le Mans and Carrera Panamericana.
The 550 Spyder was designed with a more skilled class of racer in mind than Dean who wasn’t near the experience level of his more successful contemporaries. While Dean had owned several fast vehicles before his Porsche Spyder, this car was different as it had complicated handling. With a rear weight bias, the Spyder had a tendency to oversteer and thus a driver could lose control and overturn.
Here are the eerie events surrounding James Dean and the “Little Bastard”:
Before Dean had a chance to drive the 550 Spyder, fellow actor Alec Guinness (the original Obi-Wan Kenobi) warned Dean not to drive the vehicle. On Sept. 23, 1955, he told Dean that if he drove it he’d be dead in a week. Exactly seven days later, Dean died in the accident.
Dean’s was the 55th Spyder to be built out of only 90 produced. That led to the serial number being a palindrome: 550-055.
A few months before the accident, Dean was in an ad in which he says “Drive safely; the life you save may be mine.”
Only two hours before his fatal car accident, Dean received a speeding ticket for driving 10 mph over the speed limit. Some say that this was yet another warning of the events to come.
When Dean got into the accident, he was driving with his mechanic Rolf Wüetherich in the passenger seat. Wüetherich survived the crash but suffered serious head injuries and a broken leg. It was said that as Dean’s mechanic, Wüetherich felt extreme feelings of guilt after the accident and tried to commit suicide twice during the 1960s. Wüetherich also stabbed his wife with a kitchen knife in a failed murder/suicide.
Wüetherich died in a drunk-driving accident in 1981. Donald Turnupseed (the man who hit Dean’s car in the fatal accident) died of lung cancer in 1981 (history.com).
Once the Porsche was written off by Dean’s insurance company, it was sold to Dr. William F. Eschrich for $1,092, who removed the engine and other drivetrain components before George Barris took possession of the rest of the car. The Eschrich family still has the original pink slip for the car, along with the engine.
George Barris (the Batmobile creator) was an auto customizer who had previously worked on Dean’s Porsche Spyder and had bought the rest of Porsche from the Eschrich family. He reported that when the Little Bastard arrived at his shop, it had rolled off a trailer as it was being unloaded and crushed a mechanic’s legs.
Barris stated that a thief slipped and broke his arm while trying to make off with the Little Bastard’s steering wheel.
The curse continued followed each part. With the Little Bastard’s engine, Troy McHenry (below) lost control of his vehicle during a race, crashed into a tree, and was killed. At the same time during the same race, William Eschrich’s car locked up with the drivetrain and he also crashed his vehicle. Eschrich survived, but with serious injuries.
After this incident, Barris didn’t want to sell any more of the vehicle’s parts. He eventually agreed to let the California Highway Patrol borrow the remainder of the wreckage for a highway safety exhibit. During a presentation, the vehicle fell off of its display and landed on a student, breaking the student’s hip. After that, Barris decided to scrap the vehicle entirely.
As the car was transported from the California Highway Patrol exhibit back to Barris, the truck driver lost control and the truck skidded off the road. The driver was ejected from the transport truck and (according to legend) the Porsche fell out of the truck, landed on the driver, and killed him.
According to Barris, while being stored in a garage in Fresno, the garage caught on fire. As legend has it, everything but the Spyder was destroyed.
The Little Bastard’s current whereabouts remain unknown but they were claimed to be hidden in a museum’s walls in Washington. Shawn Reilly recalls that his father brought him to a job in 1974 of a building that still stands today. His father met with several men (including Barris) who hid a wrecked car behind a wall. His account of seeing the Porsche has passed a lie detector test that was carried out on behalf of the Volvo Auto Museum in Illinois.
The mystery remains at large. The legend of the curse lives on, but most James Dean experts doubt the accuracy of Barris’ statements. While only those there know what really happened, it has been said that Barris flourished the story of the Spyder for personal gain. Eschrich and McHenry who had parts from the car and were driving in the same race did, in fact, both get into accidents and McHenry was killed. As for the rest of the haunting events? No one can say for certain.
According to Bill Eschrich, after he had the engine, driveline, and other parts removed, the car went to a scrap yard in San Fernando. It was from the scrapyard that Barris got the rear body shell and the right door in which he added to another wrecked 550. Eschrich claimed that anyone that had the remaining parts of the Little Bastard has verified the authenticity of those parts. The Porsche is still very famous and the subject of several documentaries. Check out a few below!
Date Posted: October 24, 2017