Automotive history

The curse of James Dean’s ‘Little Bastard’ Porsche 550 Spyder

by Nik Berg
3 November 2020 3 min read
The curse of James Dean’s ‘Little Bastard’ Porsche 550 Spyder
Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

James Dean’s career as an actor and racing driver was cut tragically short on September 30, 1955, when his “Little Bastard” Porsche 550 Spyder was involved in a catastrophic collision on the way to a race meeting. Dean was killed instantly, but Little Bastard would go on to cause considerably more trouble.

In fact Little Bastard had caused upset almost from the moment Dean bought it. A week before the fatal crash Dean met British actor Alec Guinness in Los Angeles. Guinness had an ominous feeling on seeing the Porsche and would later write in his diary: ‘The sports car looked sinister to me . . . exhausted, hungry, feeling a little ill-tempered in spite of Dean’s kindness, I heard myself saying in a voice I could hardly recognise as my own: ‘Please never get in it. . .  if you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week.’”

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Dean laughed it off and set about preparing the car for the Salinas sports car races with his Porsche mechanic Rolf Wütherich. Enlisting stuntman Bill Hickman to help out, the original plan was to tow Little Bastard to the races, but Wütherich felt it would be better for Dean to get used to the Spyder and run the engine in. On that fateful Friday, Wütherich sat next to Dean, while Hickman followed with his truck and trailer. Police pulled over the convoy and issued a pair of speeding tickets just outside Bakersfield. It didn’t slow Dean down one bit.

The wreck of James Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder
Photo: Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

Dean was barrelling along Route 46 at an estimated 85mph when Donald Turnupseed, a young student from California Polytechnic State University, driving a Ford Tudor, decided to make a sudden turn on to Route 41. The impact sent the Ford almost 40 feet down the road and ejected Wütherich from the Porsche. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at the Paso Robles War Memorial hospital at 6.20pm.

Despite being declared a total loss by the insurance company, the car was sold on and would continue to cause carnage wherever it – or even parts of it – went.

Dr. William Eschrich bought the Porsche from a salvage yard in Burbank and proceeded to strip it for parts. Eschrich installed the Porsche’s engine into his Lotus IX race car, then loaned the transmission and suspension parts to fellow doctor and racer Troy McHenry. Eschrich crashed the Lotus at the 1956 Pomona sports-car races, surviving, but McHenry wasn’t as lucky. He hit a tree and was killed in the same race, and so the “curse of Little Bastard” gained strength.

Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Dean’s Porsche carried on. Shortly after the crash, publicity monger and self-proclaimed “King of Kustoms” George Barris bought the Spyder, promising to rebuild it. When the mangled frame was found to be beyond recovery, Barris chose to capitalise on the car’s notoriety. The Porsche was loaned to the Los Angeles chapter of the National Safety Council, and from 1957 to 1959, it went on a gruesome tour of car shows, cinemas and bowling alleys. In March of 1959, while in storage in Fresno, the car mysteriously caught fire. It suffered remarkably little damage – two melted tyres and some singed paint – and fortunately the fire didn’t spread to other vehicles in storage. Meanwhile, Barris had sold a pair of tyres from the 550 and both reportedly blew at the same time, causing the new owner to career off the road.

There are other unconfirmed stories of Little Bastard’s post-accident life. The car is said to have fallen from its display while on show in Sacramento, breaking the hip of a bystander. The Spyder also reportedly fell on and killed George Barkus, the driver who transported it to a road-safety expo. Finally, the Porsche is rumoured to have disappeared from a sealed boxcar in 1960 while en route from Miami to Los Angeles. Some believe that Barris, ever the showman, fabricated that story as a way of keeping the car’s mystique alive.

Despite a million-dollar reward for information being offered in 2005, the whereabouts of the Porsche 550 Spyder remain unknown. With Barris himself now gone and no sign of the car for 60 years, the end of Little Bastard’s haunting story may never be revealed.

Via Hagerty US

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  • Sherman Harold Brown says:

    Enjoyed the review of “The Little Bastard.” Amazing how toxic even the parts of James Dean’s Porsche were.

  • Sherman Harold Brown says:

    As a collector/broker of interesting cars I always enjoy Hagerty articles on cars, people and events.

  • Sherman Harold Brown says:

    My special inside knowledge: I saw the car that inspired Edsel Ford to create the First Series Lincoln Continental . Hint: it was blue, English and a 1937 Cabriolet.

  • Lee Raskin says:

    Haggerty…fact checking goes a long way in discovering the truth. The James Dean Myths and Curses have been dispelled in James Dean At Speed, 2005, and more recently in James Dean On The Road To Salinas, 2015 / 2020. You should consider pulling this article and start over from scratch. Lee Raskin, JD., James Dean / Porsche historian / Author

  • Larry Swift says:

    Reminds me of a 1960 Cadillac I purchased in Sacramento one time that I purchased that had a name tag ‘this car made especially for Harry French. Harry was a locomotive engineer I had worked with on the old Southern Pacific Railroad and after he passed away his widow sold it to the Sacramento Auction. I bought it at a used car lot. Big mistake. Nothing but grief.

  • Larry Swift says:

    Some cars are faithfull and true but some cars are nothing but grief and suffering. Like airplanes. Sometimes pilot error. (Pilot stupidity), sometimes design error, sometimes poor maintenance, or maybe sometimes bad luck or maybe jinks.

  • Dennis says:

    My friend Artie had a 1958 red Plymouth fury, same thing car was sinister it killed several
    People including Artie who was infatuated with it. Talk about cursed

  • Keith says:

    You mean Arnie? Lol

  • Sean Venter says:

    So the car is still missing but yet someone, in March 2021, purchased the transaxle, which has been 100% verified as the original part from the car?

    Please explain that. Is that guy a fraud, his part a fraud or your story a fraud?

  • Kenneth Killian says:

    Well, I think the answer to “Little Bastard’s” whereabouts is simple….. Hunters finally found it and burned it until there was nothing left. That was for the “Supernatural” fans! 😀 Seriously, I’m currently watching season 5, episode 5 of “Supernatural” called, “Fallen Idols” where in the opening of that episode, a man who had found and purchased “Little Bastard” was killed by the car. LOL

  • Brian Hanson says:

    The transaxle was separated and loaned out (or sold, depending on who’s telling the tale), soon after the wreck. Part numbers and serial numbers stamped on the transaxle make tracing it ‘possible.’ How well documented is it? Who knows. As for the shell and frame? If it was deemed too severely damaged to repair, then it likely went to scrap long before anyone realized it might have other ‘value.’
    It prowls the desert at night, just beyond view, seeking out new prey.

  • Gary Porsche Williamson says:

    The end story is now complete.
    This article could do with an update.
    Half of the chassis /transaxel remains and is owned by the Haunted Museum in Vegas

  • James Sleigh says:

    Alex Guinness in his autobiography and in a videotaped interview confirmed the fact of his prediction that Dean would
    be killed in his Porsche ‘Spyder’ was a fact. Guinness said that was the only time in his life he’d made any kind of prediction.

  • .. says:

    Hey guys I’m positive the historic auto attractions has a piece of this car and I think it’s the only piece

  • MadamImAdam says:

    @ Kenneth Killian
    Same here hahaha!

  • Robert Ernst says:

    Do people really think auto parts have a life of their own? How crazy is that ? However I don’t want to tempt fate !

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