James Dean’s Little Bastard

Amidst the Hollywood glamour, Fifties’ film star James Dean enjoyed a passion for fast cars and track racing. We look at how he played out this obsession in theatrical roles and reveal some surprising premonitions about the star’s death, as well as the supposedly ‘cursed’ vehicle dubbed Little Bastard.

Renowned artist of both screen and stage James Dean was born on 8th February, 1931. In his early years, he lived in Marion, Indiana (USA), but moved to Los Angeles at the age of five and spent much of his younger years on his uncle’s farm. Though James took part in a number of school productions, it was not until he attended college that he decided to embark full-time on the acting career that would one day make him a household name.

By this time, the seventeen-year-old Dean had developed a great personal interest in sports-car racing and had become a regular spectator down at the local track. A move to New York in 1951 saw him appear in a number of TV shows and many expected his interest in motorsport to subside. During this period, Dean was also awarded a part in the long-running Broadway show See the Jaguar; the title a reference to the wild cat rather than the vehicle manufacturer.

However, in 1953 – as soon as he turned 21 – Dean sought to emulate his racing idols with the purchase of his first car, a 356 Porsche Super Speedster. Though keen to compete, this eye-catching model was undoubtedly a significant investment for the young man, not least because it was some time before his acting roles were bringing in a reliable income.

He once said, “Racing is the only time I feel whole,” and thus made a committed decision to try and further both his acting and racing ambitions. James Dean would go on to become a popular name on the amateur racing circuit, running alongside his stage and film work over the next couple of years.

Pride and joy

Things began to unravel for Dean in 1954 when Warner Brothers—for whom he had made the movie Giant—attempted to ban him from racing, resulting in some tough choices. Spurred on by a powerful sense of adventure, Dean was adamant that he wanted to race competitively and there was no question that he was an adept and confident amateur racing driver.

Nonetheless, some of his closest friends and advisors were worried about what the dangers posed by high speeds and the risk that an injurious accident would have on his acting career. This left him with a serious dilemma. Dean made a defiant choice and continued to expand his vehicle collection, initially with the purchase of a Triumph Tiger T110 in 1954. He then went on to race at Palm Springs in March 1955 and in May he partook in road races at Minter Field, Bakersfield and Santa Barbara.

Having achieved modest success, Dean enrolled for the road race at Salinas. He traded in his two-year-old Speedster, upgrading to a Porsche Spyder 550, which was capable of speeds of over 140mph. It came with custom fibreglass panelling, was silver in colour and had the number 130 proudly displayed on the sides, front and engine cover.

Meanwhile, the words ‘Little Bastard’ were painted on the rear cowling. This was applied at Dean’s request by pin-striper Dean Jeffries. Bill Hickman, who had worked with Dean as a stuntman and dialogue coach on Giant, had jokingly called Dean himself a ‘little bastard’ and this was to become a running joke, now attributed to the car.

The self-confessed thrill seeker had got himself a newer, faster racing car – one of only 90 in this range ever made. He hoped that this would be enough to give him the edge come race day.

James Dean’s untimely death

However, it was to come as a great shock to friends and fans alike when James Dean suffered a devastating car crash not on the race track, but on the road – a collision in which he would tragically lose his life.

Motoring accidents were relatively common even in the fifties, though there were far fewer fatalities than there are today. He would be mourned by millions in the weeks and months that followed.

The tragedy itself occurred on 30th September 1955 as Dean was test driving the new Porsche Spyder; accompanied by his mechanic Rudolf (Rolf) Wütherich in the passenger seat. Bill Hickman was driving a Ford station wagon close behind and the route had been carefully planned to incorporate quiet roads, which would allow the Spyder to reach similar speeds to what it could achieve on track.

At around 5.45pm, he was driving in the direction of California Polytechnic at an estimated speed of 85 mph when a black and white Ford Tudor coupé came out from the adjoining intersection on Route 46/41 near Cholame and the two vehicles collided, flipping Dean’s car into the air. The Tudor, meanwhile, skidded nearly 12 metres upon impact.

Dean suffered multiple broken bones and internal bleeding, striking the steering wheel with his head, which caused the actor’s neck to snap violently. Whilst ambulance crews attended the scene quickly; there was, unfortunately, little they could do. He was taken to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital and pronounced dead within the hour.

His mechanic, meanwhile, had not worn his seatbelt. He had been thrown from the vehicle but escaped with his life, albeit with serious injuries including a broken hip and jaw. The driver of the coupé, a 23-year-old student by the name of Donald Turnupseed was relatively unharmed, but bruised and in shock.

Police inquest

An inquest was held into Dean’s death by the San Luis Obispo Court and Turnupseed was asked to give evidence. The Court suggested that the low profile of the coupé, combined with high speeds were key contributing factors, but attributed no blame to either driver and a verdict was returned of accidental death without criminal intent.

Dean himself may not have been entirely surprised that he died in a car crash; he is quoted as saying “What better way to die? It’s fast and clean and you go out in a blaze of glory.” That said, he could not have known that he would crash the Spyder within nine days of having purchased it. Multiple sources including contemporaries have commented on Dean apparently having problems with his car in the time leading up to his death.

Given the Spyder’s unfortunate outcome, some believe the car was evil and cursed with bad luck. Chillingly, various accounts corroborate that anybody directly associated with the car is at risk of being affected, potentially even harmed by “The Curse of Little Bastard.”

The Curse of Little Bastard

One example of this can be seen with crash survivor, Rolf Wütherich – Dean’s mechanic. He successfully went on to work with the Porsche Rally team, yet he too would be involved in a crash, in his own vehicle some years later.

Meanwhile, a sequence of events involving the car’s wreckage somewhat sends a cold chill up the spine. Car designer, George Barris – later known for designing the Batmobile – bought Dean’s car to sell for parts. However, as soon as his team entered the garage, the car’s engine slipped, breaking the legs of one of the mechanics.

Physician Troy McHenry bought the engine of the car from Barris on 26th October 1956, though he fared no better with it. When racing the vehicle at the Pomona Fair grounds it spun wildly out of control and hit a tree, killing McHenry in the process. If that were not shocking enough, another racer at Pomona—William Eschrid—who had coincidentally purchased the transmission from Dean’s car, had his vehicle flipped over in a similar manner to Dean’s fatal blow. Thankfully, Eschrid survived, but again; not without sustaining serious injuries.

In light of all these events, Barris had become uncomfortable with the Little Bastard wreckage, though he proceeded to sell the tyres to an interested buyer from New York. The curse was said to strike again when those tyres, now fitted to another vehicle, blew at the same time whilst driving, almost causing another collision in the process.

In another incident, a plucky adolescent slipped and gashed his arm when trying to steal the steering wheel.

With little else to lose, Barris decided to loan the car out to a local charity, the Californian Highway Patrol to use for training exercises. To his disbelief, the charity reported that their garage had been burned down just a week later. But despite the devastating fire, Little Bastard had strangely remained intact.

At this point, Barris wanted little more to do with the vehicle. It had caused at least six injuries and two deaths by that time and he thought it best to take Little Bastard off the road for good. It was taken to an exhibition at Sacramento, but whilst on display, the car suddenly slipped of the exhibition stand, breaking the hip of a teenage visitor.

Lorry driver George Barhius became the haunted car’s next unfortunate victim. He was tasked with transporting the Porsche, when it suddenly fell from his flatbed truck, crushing him in and killing at the same time. Traders and automobile enthusiasts talked about how James died too young and how the car didn’t seem to “want” to go to another owner.

The mishaps and accidents continued until 1960 when the car mysteriously vanished. Barris had requested that it be transported back to Los Angeles. However, when the transporter reached its destination, Barris opened the back of the trailer to find that it was empty. A reward of $1million was offered for its return. Apparently, a few parts are with Dean’s relatives and, recently, a part was apparently sold on eBay, but the authenticity is yet to be proved.

James Dean’s second choice

The stupefying events concerning the wreckage of Little Bastard now sit alongside the tragedy of the star’s early death. Strangely, it would not be the only car to apparently inflict upon its owner some kind of hex. Ever since the motorcar was invented, there have been many accounts of haunted or cursed vehicles. Not least among them was a golden 1964 Dodge 330, dubbed the “GoldenEagle”. A car which was not only suspected of being responsible for a number of vicious murder-suicides at the hands of its various owners, but one which also inspired the Stephen King novel; Christine. But that is a story for another time.

With Dean being such an experienced driver, the nature of his death still divides opinion to this day. The question of whether the accident could have been prevented has been raised countless times and there are a number of plausible theories which argue the case for this.

Firstly, and perhaps the most blatant example of a warning, is the fact that both Dean and Hickman were issued with speeding tickets on the day of his death at around 3.30pm. Despite this stern cautioning from the law, Dean persisted in pushing the new Spyder to the limit in the hope of gaining an advantage come race day. He was not to know that fate would snatch this opportunity and indeed his life from his grasp.

It has also come to light, that Dean had actually intended to purchase a Lotus MK10 instead of the Spyder. The MK10s were less curvaceous, and perhaps more typical in appearance to something seen today at Le Mans. More significant, however, was the fact that it incorporated a unique disc-braking system, and some believe this may have made a difference even at high speeds. Dean would have had to import the Lotus from the UK, a lengthy process, which meant he would miss certain events on the racing calendar. This was a deal-breaker for the young star and so the Spyder was purchased as his second choice.

Warnings…

Aside from the vehicle mechanics involved, various ideas and, indeed, conspiracy theories have surfaced, likely perpetuated by the strange events surrounding Little Bastard after James Dean’s death. Various colleagues also claim to have warned him about the ill-fated vehicle.

Ursula Andress—Dean’s own girlfriend—refused to get in the car, claiming that it had an evil presence. Fellow actress Eartha Kitt apparently once told Dean, “James, I don’t like this car. It’s going to kill you,” whilst the two were out for a drive in it. On 23rd September 1955, just seven days before Dean’s death, he shared dinner in Hollywood with fellow actor Alec Guinness and Guinness gave the younger man a stark warning. He said: “It’s now 10 o’clock, Friday 23rd September, 1955. If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.” Though Dean laughed this off, time would go on to suggest how a serious message had been ignored.

Andress is also known to have been dating Marlon Brando at the same time. By bizarre coincidence, back in 1947, Brando performed a screen test for an early Warner Brothers’ script based on a then little-known novel; Rebel Without a Cause.

Strange coincidences

Researchers have also noted a number of strange coincidences in Dean’s lifetime. These include curses and events such as the re-enactment of car crashes, that some believe to be significant or even ominous.

One of Dean’s first recorded stage roles was in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Many actors involved with this play have died or become injured with the belief that real witches’ spells were used by Shakespeare in his script, and that the play is in fact cursed. Chosen from over 350 auditioning actors, Dean played the role of Malcolm, during his time at UCLA.

When filming East of Eden, he couldn’t have known he would go on to win a posthumous Golden Globe and be nominated for an Academy Award. Moreover, when production finished in the Salinas Valley, the very same haunting landscapes would provide the setting for his unfortunate end just months later.

Dealing with tough themes such as juvenile delinquency, the film release of Rebel Without a Cause was an ‘X’-rated release in Britain, which had various scenes cut. Dean’s character gets involved in vehicle crime with disastrous consequences. He races a fellow competitor and sees his rival’s vehicle plummet over a cliff, bursting into flames. This was the last film to be made during Dean’s lifetime, one which is still highly regarded to this day. The young star would be immortalised in his role as Jim Spark, becoming somewhat affectionately known as ‘Jimmy Dean’.

In one final strange twist of fate, Dean’s final known stage performance also includes an echo of his impending demise. He performed as a character called Jeffrey Latham in a play called “The Unlighted Road” and once again, the plot includes a car crash scene. In the play, Dean causes another vehicle to swerve off the road, killing the driver, who also turns out to be a police officer.

Epilogue

Is there any truth to the curse of Little Bastard? Or was it all just a series of coincidental and unfortunate events? In any case, when taken in context and compared to Dean’s lifestyle and role-playing choices, it is no less chilling.

It seems Dean was a truly gifted actor, but whether this is a case of life imitating art, or art being a spookily accurate representation of life, his time with us surely ended prematurely. It is clear that his memory lives on, through his work and even via recent reports of strange visions in Bakersfield of a lone man with obscure features, driving along the highways in a silver Porsche Spyder.

In the words of The Eagles:

Little James Dean up on the screen
Wonderin’ who he might be.
Along came a spyder, picked up a rider
Took him down the road to eternity
 
James Dean, James Dean, you bought it sight unseen
You were too fast to live, too young to die, bye-bye

AUTHOR: Dwain Reynolds
DATE: August 2018