After Dean got the part in “East of Eden”, in the spring of 1955, the movie star went racing with his Porsche 356 Speedster and came in second in the Palm Springs Road Races, third in Bakersfield and fourth in the Santa Monica Road Races. While he was on the set of “Rebel Without a Cause”, he traded his Speedster for a Porsche 550 Spyder - one of the only 90 which were made. Filming “Giant”, he was contractually barred from racing, but after completing the movie, Dean was free to compete again.
Dean’s Spyder was customized Georges Barris, by the man who would go on to design the Batmobile. The car was called “Little Bastard” by his stunt driving coach Bill Hickman in “Giant” and this nickname was painted on it by pin striper Dean Jeffries.
On September 23, Dean asked the actor Alec Guinness to take a look at the Spyder and Guinness said the car looked “sinister” to him. “If you get in that Porsche, you will be dead next week,” he warned his colleague.
On September 30, the Porsche 550 Spyder was prepared by Dean and his mechanic Rolf Wütherich for a sports car race at Salinas, California. Dean wanted to trailer the Spyder to Salinas behind his station wagon, crewed by his coach Bill Hickman and photographer Sanford Roth, who were planning a “James Dean at the Races” story. But at the last minute, Dean decided he needed more time to familiarize himself with the Porsche, and he drove the Spyder himself. Rolf Wütherich sat beside him.
At 3:30 pm, Dean was ticketed in Kern County for driving 65 in a 55 mph zone. He was driving west on what is now State Route 46 and what was then US Route 466 - near Cholame, California - when a Ford, coming from the opposite direction, attempted to take the fork onto State Route 41. Donald Turnupseed, a 23 year old student, crossed into Dean’s lane without seeing him. The Porsche and the Ford hit almost head on.
Highway Patrol officer Ron Nelson and his partner had a coffee break in Paso Robles. They were called to the scene of the accident and found Turnupseed there with a gashed forehead and a bruised nose. Wütherich had been thrown out of the Porsche and suffered from a broken jaw and other injuries. James Dean was just being placed into an ambulance, breathing heavily. He was taken to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital and pronounced dead on arrival, on September 30, at 5:59 pm.
His last words, just before impact, were: “That guy’s gotta stop!… He’ll see us!”
Wütherich survived several suicide attempts and died in a road accident in Germany, in 1981.
After Dean’s accident, many fans refused to believe their idol was dead. An urban legend emerged, stating Dean was alive, but terribly disfigured. Also, there were soon more than just a few stories circulating concerning the jinxed car, the haunted Porsche, in other words: the Little Bastard...
The Curse of Little Bastard