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James Dean and the Curse of the Little Bastard

Racing is the only time I feel whole.
(JAMES DEAN)
 
James Dean's passion for fast cars and bikes is almost as legendary as the man himself. His first real motorcycle, a 1947 CZ 125-cc, was a gift from his uncle Marcus Winslow when he was just 15 years old. The CZ was lightweight and easily maneuverable, giving Jimmy a sense of freedom that was inaccessible to most teenagers in the small farming town of Fairmount, Indiana.
 
In 1948, the Fairmount High School principal, Roland Dubois, asked students to compose a short autobiography and Jimmy proudly wrote, «My hobby, or what I do in my spare time, is motor cycle. I know a lot about mechanically and I love to ride. I have been in a few races, and I have done well. I own a small cycle myself.» Marvin Carter, the man who sold Marcus the CZ, later remembered: «Jimmy was really a pistol. They called him 'One Speed Dean.' One speed: wide open.» Teenage Jimmy often raced his bike on an improvised track behind Carter's motorcycle shop and quickly developed a reputation for mischief.
 
James Dean and his first motorcycle, a 1947 CZ 125-cc.
 
When Jimmy enrolled at Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio, he traded in his CZ for the more «exotic» Royal Enfield 500-cc, which was soon replaced by a maroon and gold striped 1952 Indian Warrior TT. During the time he lived in New York City, he stored his motorcycle at a garage in Greenwich Village. Working there as a part-time mechanic was future Academy Award-nominated actor Steven McQueen, who bonded with Jimmy over their love of bikes.
 
After earning the starring role in Elia Kazan's East of Eden (1955), he used part of his salary to purchase a used red 1953 MG TD sports car and a shell blue 1955 Triumph T110. Three days after the filming of East of Eden wrapped, Jimmy traded his T110 for a 1955 Triumph TR5 Trophy at Ted Evans Motorcycles in Culver City, California. Like his first Triumph, the Trophy was shell blue, but Jimmy made made a number of modifications to it, including the removal of the muffler in favour of louder pipes. He also flipped the passenger seat backwards, the same way Marlon Brando, his idol, did on his 1950 Triumph 6T in The Wild One (1953).
 
Jimmy with his Triumph Trophy on Sunset Boulevard in 1955.
 
In March 1955, shortly before he began work on Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Jimmy replaced his MG TD sports car with a white 1955 Porsche 356 Super Speedster, which he bought new from Johnny von Neumann at Competition Motors in Hollywood.
 
Although the Speedster was primarily a street car, it was also a popular entry in local road races run by the California Sports Car Club and the Sports Car Club of America. Later that month, Jimmy made his racing debut in the Palm Springs Road Races, finishing first overall in the novice class and second overall in the main event. In April, he raced in Bakersfield, achieving first place in his class and third overall. The following month, he entered another race in Santa Barbara, but was unable to finish the competition due to a blown pistol.
 
James Dean at the Palm Spring Road Races in March 1955.
 
During production on Giant (1956), Jimmy was barred by Warner Bros. from all racing activities. However, as filming drew to a close, he returned to Competition Motors and traded in his Speedster for a much more sophisticated silver 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder. He bought the Spyder on September 19 and immediately entered it in the Salinas Road Races, scheduled to be run the following week in Northern California. He also bought a Ford Country Squire station wagon, which he planned to use to tow the Spyder on an open trailer from race to race. Although the Salinas racecourse was actually just a temporary track, built at the municipal airport, the location was special for Jimmy, since the outdoor scenes in East of Eden were shot there. As he once told Judy Garland, «Salinas is where James Dean was born

Before the race, Jimmy asked up-and-coming painter and pinstriper Dean Jeffries to personalize the Spyder. Jeffries painted the race number (130) that Jimmy had been assigned for Salinas in black non-permanent paint on the front hood, rear deck-lid and both doors. At Jimmy's instruction, he also hand-lettered a nickname — Little Bastard, in quotation marks — in a stylized script in a permanent black gloss enamel across the rear cowling. Reportedly, «Little Bastard» was a sobriquet given to Jimmy by his friend Bill Hickman, a Warner Bros. stunt driver who accompanied him to the Salinas race. According to Hickman, «I'd call [Dean] Little Bastard and he'd call me Big Bastard.» Another version of the story claims that the nickname originated with Jack Warner, head of Warner Bros., who had once referred to Jimmy as a «little bastard» after the actor refused to vacate his temporary East of Eden trailer on the studio lot. 
 
Jimmy preparing the «Little Bastard» for the Salinas Road Races.

Thirteen days before the Salinas races, Jimmy filmed a short interview with fellow actor Gig Young for an episode of Warner Bros. Presents (1955-1956), in which he discouraged speeding on public roads. Instead of saying the scripted phrase «The life you save may be your own,» he nonchalantly ad-libbed, «Take it easy driving. The life you might save might be mine.» 
 
On his last day of work on Giant, Jimmy showed off the «Little Bastard» on the Warners lot and insisted that the film's director, George Stevens, take a ride with him. Stevens would later quote studio guards as saying, «You can never drive this car on the lot again; you're gonna kill a carpenter or an actor or somebody.» «That,» Stevens said, «was the last time I saw Jimmy
 
James Dean in his brand new and personalized «Little Bastard.»

In the early morning of September 30, the Spyder was prepared for the race at Competition Motors by Porsche factory mechanic Rolf Wütherich. The original plan had been to tow it to Salinas on the Ford station wagon, but Wütherich recommended that Jimmy drive it instead to put some needed miles on the new and «notoriously temperamental» motor. As such, Jimmy got behind the wheel of the Spyder and Wütherich took the passenger seat. Bill Hickman and professional photographer Stanford H. Roth, who was planning a photo story of Jimmy at the races for Colliers magazine, followed them on the station wagon, towing the unladen trailer.
 
James Dean and Rolf Wütherich on their way to the Salinas Road Races.

The two cars made several stops during the 300-plus miles trip to Salinas, including at the Mobil gas station in Sherman Oaks to refuel before continuing on their journey.
 
By the late afternoon, while driving west through Route 466, Jimmy accelerated on the Porsche and left Hickman far behind. At about 5:45 p.m., Dean confronted a 1950 Ford Custom Tudor driven by 23-year-old college student Donald Turnupseed turning left across the road from them. Jimmy, who was driving at a reported speed of 137 km/h (85mph), did not have sufficient time and space to execute an evasive maneuver. The Spyder struck the Ford nearly head-on, with the driver's side of the Porsche taking the brunt of the impact. The Spyder reportedly flipped two or three times before landing on its wheels in a gully beside the road. Jimmy, trapped in the wreckage, was pronounced dead on arrival at the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital at 6:20 p.m. Wütherich was ejected from the car, but survived critical injuries, including a broken jaw and crushed femur. Turnupseed broke his nose and suffered facial lacerations.
 
LEFT: Jimmy at the gas station in Sherman Oaks (reportedly, this was the last photo taken of him alive). RIGHT: The site of the crash and the wrecked «Little Bastard.»

There had never been nothing since the passing of silent film star Rudolph Valentino in 1926 to equal the mass hysteria that followed James Dean's untimely death. Fans refused to believe he was gone and it was not long before bizarre rumours began to circulate. The first, and perhaps the most outlandish, claimed that he was still alive and disfigured in a sanatorium. But even after this tale was debunked, it was replaced by the legend that the «Little Bastard» was cursed.

Reportedly, the myth originated with auto customizer George Barris, who said he bought the wrecked «Little Bastard» from the Dean family in 1956. In his 1974 book Cars of the Stars, Barris wrote that when the Porsche was being unloaded in his shop, it fell on a mechanic and broke both his legs. Barris subsequently sold the engine to a man named Dr. Troy McHenry, who was apparently killed while driving a car powered by the Porsche's motor.
 
LEFT: The remains of the «Little Bastard» being towed by a tow truck after the crash. RIGHT: The «Little Bastard» in the garage of a repair shop in Paso Robles.

After Barris reworked the car to display at various auto shows and highway safety demonstrations throughout California, he said that a fire in Fresno in late March 1959 destroyed everything in the garage — except the Spyder. On September 30, 1959, the fourth anniversary of Jimmy's death, it supposedly fell off a display at Sacramento High School and broke the hip of a teenage boy who had been examining the wreckage. A few weeks after that, while being transported to Salinas, the car fell off the trailer and and killed the truck driver.

As if all of this was not enough, Barris also claimed that two years after crushing the trucker, the «Little Bastard» broke in half and fell onto a freeway in Oakland, California. (In later accounts, though not according to Barris, the road blockage caused a fatal accident.) Then, in Oregon, the car slipped off another truck and smashed into a store. In 1959, while on display in New Orleans, it crumbled into eleven pieces. By 1960, Barris had apparently had enough of these mysterious incidents and decided to load the cursed Porsche on a freight train to Los Angeles with the door to the boxcar sealed. Upon arrival, the door was unsealed and opened, but the container was completely empty. The «Little Bastard» had vanished was never seen again.
 
LEFT: The «Little Bastard» on display in 1956. RIGHT: George Barris with the «Little Bastard» replica he made for the television film James Dean: Race with Destiny (1997). Also pictured in Casper Van Dien, who played Dean.

After decades of study, Porsche historian Lee Raskin, the author of James Dean at Speed, is convinced that most of Barris's stories are fabrications and several are completely false. According to Raskin, «The only part of the curse that can be proven is the death of Dr. Troy McHenry. Just about everything else is made up.» He believes that Barris made up the stories to perpetuate the James Dean myth, especially on the milestones anniversaries of his death.
 
In fact, on September 30, 2015, the 60th anniversary of Jimmy's death, a man claimed he knew the whereabouts of the «Little Bastard.» He said he saw his father and some other men hide the car in a building in Washington when he was six years old. This person will not reveal the exact location of the building until he receives a portion of the reward currently being offered by the Volo Automotive Museum in Illinois. Allegedly, the man has passed a polygraph test and has even offered some details about the Spyder that are, by all accounts, factual.

«If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live after he's died, then maybe he was a great man. Immortality is the only true success.» (James Dean)

Whatever you choose to believe, curse or no curse, the «Little Bastard» undoubtedly played a major role in elevating James Dean to legendary status. All his life, for as short as it was, Jimmy strove for greatness and immortality; in a tragic way, that little silver 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder gave him that. When Jimmy introduced himself to British actor Alec Guinness outside the Villa Capri restaurant in Hollywood, he asked him to take a look at his brand new Porsche. As soon as Guinness laid his eyes on the car, he thought it appeared «sinister.» He told Jimmy, «If you get in that car, you will be found dead by this time next week.» Legend goes that this fatidic encounter took place on September 23, 1955, exactly a week before Jimmy's death.
 
 
 
_______________________________________
SOURCES:
History's Greatest Automotive Mysteries, Myths and Rumors Revealed by Matt Stone and Preston Lerner (Motorbooks, 2012)
Legendary Motorcycles by Basem Wasef (Motorbooks, 2007)
The Unknown James Dean by Robert Tanitch (B.T. Batsford, 1999)
Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: James Dean's Final Hours by Keith Elliot Greenberg (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2015)
«The Curse of the Little Bastard: James Dean Never Stood a Chance» by Rob Finkelman (Street Muscle Magazine, October 19, 2015)

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