Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

I Am Not Making This Up: James Dean and the Curse of the Little Bastard

Written By: Tracy - Mar• 10•14

This article was originally written for Firefox News.  Since their content seems to be gone I’m republishing it here.  I find it funny that people took this article to be some kind of “proof” of what happened to the car, and for me to be some kind of wannabe James Dean authority.  For the record, I’m just a retired reporter who was doing some fun writing for an internet website.  I don’t claim to be an expert on James Dean, or his car. I just thought it made for a cool story. 

In writing this article I actually generated a short story.  Sometimes inspiration comes from the oddest of places.  Incidentally, if any editors out there would like to buy a story about hobos, the devil and James Dean’s car, I still haven’t sold it yet.  

 

It was like a silver bullet: Shiny, fast and rare. James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder was only one of 90 made. And on September 30, 1955, with Dean behind the wheel, the customized racing machine that he named Little Bastardproved to be just as deadly when it carried Dean into a collision that took the movie star’s life.

Then, inexplicably, the wreckage went on to cause property damage, injury, and even death wherever it went, before disappearing altogether.

Dean acquired the Porsche 550 during filming of Rebel Without a Cause for use when he raced. The car was a temporary solution. He’d purchased a Lotus Mk. X, but it wouldn’t be delivered in time for an upcoming race in Salinas that he planned to compete in. (A few months prior, he blew the engine out of a Porsche 356 Super Speedster while racing in Santa Monica.)

Immediately, Dean hired legendary car customizer George Barris, the “King of Kustomizers”, to work on the car. Barris is known for his design of the Batmobile for the 60’s era Batman TV show. The customizer painted Dean’s racing number 130 on the front, sides and back. Along with red racing stripes and the name Little Bastard on the back. The car’s name had been taken from a nickname that Dean had been given while filming the move Giant.

Though Dean had been contractually unable to race while filming Giant, once he had finished the movie, he started making plans to race again.

And while the actor was excited to show off his newest race car, his friends weren’t happy about the purchase. In the time leading up to Dean’s death, friends of the actor – including Barris, Eartha Kitt and Dean’s former girlfriend Ursula Andress – said that they felt that the vehicle had a malevolent presence about it.

“James, I don’t like this car; it’s going to kill you,” Kitt is reported to have said to Dean while the two were out for a drive the week before Dean’s crash.

Around the same time, Dean introduced himself to Alec Guinness and asked the actor’s opinion of the car. Upon seeing it, Guinness stated that the car was sinister, and said that if Dean got in it, he would be dead within the week.

Perhaps Dean himself sensed that he was headed for destruction. Prior to his death, he gave away a kitten that Liz Taylor gave to him on the set of Giant. His reasoning for doing so was that “some day I may go out and not come back.”

And while filming a commercial for the National Safety Council, Dean ad-libbed the words of the script from “Please Drive Safely. The life you save may your own,” to “The life you save may be mine.”

The anticipated road race was to take place on October 1. On September 30, Dean and his entourage consisting of his mechanic Rolf Wütherich and stunt driver Bill Hickman, both of whom would serve as Dean’s racing crew. Also traveling with the group was Life magazine photographer Stanford Rolf, who planned on doing a photo story of Dean at the races.

Dean originally planned to trailer the Porsche behind his station wagon, but at the last minute decided to drive the car to the race in order to familiarize himself with it. Wütherich would ride with Dean while Hickman and Rolf would take the station wagon.

During one of the stops along the way, Hickman cautioned Dean to watch his speed (both drivers had already received tickets that day, Dean for going 10 miles over the speed limit. Since Hickman was pulling a trailer, his ticket was for 20 over.) Hickman cautioned that Dean was still getting used to the car. He said that Dean’s silver Porsche was difficult to see, thanks to its low profile and silver color. He was concerned that it might blend too easily into the pavement.

At approximately 5:30, Dean was driving west on U.S. Route 466 near Cholame, California, when a 1950 black and white Ford Tudor cut across his path. The driver of the Ford was a college student named Donald Turnupseed, who was on the way home to visit his family. Turnupseed had been driving in the oncoming lane and was attempting to make a left-hand turn on to Highway 41.

The sun had just dipped below the nearby hills, and dusk was quickly falling. Just as Hickman predicted, Turnupseed failed to see Dean.

Though legends say that Dean was driving in excess of 100 miles per hour when his vehicle struck Turnupseed’s, responding officers say that Dean was in all likelihood only driving 55 miles per hour when the accident happened. According to Wütherich, Dean’s last words were: “That guy’s gotta stop. . . He’ll see us.”

Neither Dean nor Wütherich were wearing their seat belts a the time of the accident. The mechanic was thrown from the automobile, and suffered a broken jaw and leg. Dean remained trapped in the vehicle, which was crushed like a piece of used tinfoil. He was taken by ambulance to nearby Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 5:59 PM. Cause of death: broken neck, multiple fractures of the upper and lower jaw, severe head trauma and massive internal bleeding.

What happened next fueled speculation that Dean’s car was cursed, or at the very least, led a cursed afterlife.
Barris immediately paid $2,500 for the wreckage with the intent of parting it out. However, a string of bizarre tragedies immediately struck.

  • As soon as the vehicle was delivered to Barris’ garage, it slipped off its trailer and broke a mechanic’s leg.
  • Shortly thereafter, Barris sold the engine to Troy McHenry and the drive train to William Eschrid. Both were physicians and racing hobbyists. While racing at the Pomona fairgrounds on October 24, 1956, McHenry was killed when his vehicle spun out of control and crashed into a tree. Eschrid’s race car rolled several times while taking a curve, seriously injuring him. He later said that the vehicle ‘just locked up’ on him.
  • Two tires that Barris sold malfunctioned simultaneously, causing the car they were on to go off the road.
  • A young man who was attempting to steal the steering wheel had his arm gashed open on a piece of jagged metal.
  • Another man was hurt while trying to steal one of the bloodstained seats.

At this point, Barris decided that the car would be safer in storage. But before long, the California Highway Patrol persuaded him to loan them the car for a traveling exhibition.

  • The mangled remains of Little Bastard were taken to a garage in Fresno, and stored there. Then, in March 1959, a fire broke out in the garage. The garage itself, and everything stored within, were incinerated. All except for the wreckage of James Dean’s car.
  • Further tragedy followed. At a display at Sacramento High School on the anniversary of Dean’s accident, the bolts holding the car in place snapped. The car plowed off its display and broke the hip of a fifteen-year-old boy who had been looking at the wreckage.
  • En route to Salinas, the truck hauling the vehicle lost control, causing the driver to fall out of the cab. Although the fall from the vehicle didn’t kill him, the Porsche fell off the truck bed and landed on top of him, ending his life.
  • Reportedly, while being displayed in New Orleans, the wreckage spontaneously broke apart in five separate pieces.
  • The car came off of a truck two other times. Once while on a freeway, and a second time in Oregon.

In 1960, the car’s tour ended. Barris had the vehicle loaded onto a box car in Florida and sealed shut. Then it was transported via train back to California. When the train arrived in L.A., the seal was still intact, yet the car had vanished, and has not been seen since.

So was the car cursed? Did it house a malevolent spirit that thirsted for blood? Or were the string of accidents that touched many who came near Little Bastard just bizarre coincidences?

While some folks believe that there is no curse. Others aren’t so sure.

For one thing, many people believe that Dean would die young, no matter what. George Stephens, Dean’s director on the movie Giant, told his co-star Liz Taylor that with the way Dean drove, it was no surprise to him that the actor died in a car crash.

It has also been speculated that Dean simply couldn’t handle the Little Bastard. The car’s specs were different from Dean’s 356 Super Speedster. The 356 had a lower center of gravity. Additionally, the 550 had higher pivot angles, so it was easier to oversteer a turn and spin out. The 356 was easily the more forgiving of novice mistakes. In the days leading up to the crash, Little Bastard showed evidence of minor fender benders, including a busted signal light, and a dent on the right rear fender. This is partially why Dean chose to drive the Porsche rather than haul it to the race: to give himself time to learn the car’s quirks.  Some fans speculate that, had Dean made it to Salinas, he may have caused himself injury or death while racing.

Others aren’t so sure.

Some fans have suggested that Dean himself was the one cursed. And the one who placed the curse? Maila Nurmi, who hosted horror films as television’s Vampira. Supposedly Nurmi, who was connected with the occult, was upset when Dean broke off their friendship, and cursed him. Others say that Dean’s own interest in the occult lead to the actor bringing a curse down on himself.

If Dean was cursed, some fans speculate that the bad luck may have extended to most of his close friends. Rebel Without a Cause costars Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and Nick Adams, who Dean once called his only true friends, also died under tragic circumstances. Wütherich, who survived the crash, went on to die in a motor vehicle accident in Germany.

Perhaps all of this is coincidence. Perhaps, as skeptics say, the idea of a curse is simply wishful thinking and our own need to venerate stars like Dean who live fast and die young and pretty. Perhaps the highly-charged atmosphere surrounding the well-publicized accident imbued the wreckage with a residual imprint that continued to follow it. Or perhaps the car was just evil.

In any case, the Little Bastard has not been seen since its disappearance in 1960. Rewards for its return, no questions asked, were posted on the 50th anniversary of Dean’s death; however no one came forward to claim them. Unless the car is found, the answer may never be known.

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