James Dean

8/2/1931 - 30/9/1955

Record updated 30-Sep-06

James Dean was an American film actor who epitomized youthful angst. Raced an MGTD, Porsche 356 and 550 Spyder. Killed in a traffic accident on his way to a sports car race in Palm Springs.

James Dean
James Dean was an American film actor who epitomized youthful angst.

When Dean got the part in East of Eden, he bought himself a red race-prepared MG TD and shortly afterwards, a white Ford Woodie station wagon. Dean upgraded his MG to a Porsche 356 Speedster which he raced. Dean came second in the Palm Springs Road Races in March 1955, after a driver was disqualified, he came third in May 1955 at Bakersfield and was running fourth at the Santa Monica Road Races later that month until he retired with an engine failure. Dean traded the car in for a Porsche 550 Spyder.

Dean was contractually barred from racing during the filming of Giant, but with that out of the way, he was free to compete again. The Porsche was in fact a stopgap for Dean, as delivery of a superior Lotus MkX was delayed and he needed a car to compete at the races in Salinas, California.

Dean's 550 was customized by the young George Barris, who would go on to greater things, including the design of the Batmobile. Dean's Porsche was numbered 130 at the front, side and back. The car had a tartan seating and two red stripes at the rear of its wheelwell. The car was given the nickname "Little Bastard" by Bill Hickman, his language coach on Giant. Dean was keen to show off his new sportscar to friends, but his acting friends had bad feelings about the car. Barris would later have bad premonitions about the car.

Dean and his mechanic Rolf Wuetherich set off from Competition Motors where they had prepared his Porsche 550 Spyder on the morning of September 30th 1955, for a sports car race at Palm Springs. Dean originally intended to tow the Porsche to the meeting point at Salinas behind his Ford, but at the last minute Dean decided he needed more time to familiarise himself with the car. Later in the afternoon, Dean was pulled over for speeding. Already having left the Ford far behind, Dean Hickman and photographer Stanford Roth, stopped for fuel and to meet up with fellow racer Lance Reventlow, Barabara Hutton's son, who had two racing step fathers, Prince Igor Troubetzkoy and Porfirio Rubirosa.

Dean was driving west on U.S. Highway 466 (later California State Route 46) near Cholame, California when a 1950 Ford Tudor being driven in the opposite direction by 23-year-old Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed attempted to take the fork onto California State Route 41 and crossed into Dean's lane without seeing him. The two cars hit almost head on. According to a story in the October 1, 2005 edition of the Los Angeles Times, California Highway Patrol officer Ron Nelson and his partner had been finishing a coffee break in Paso Robles when they were called to the scene of the accident, where they saw a heavily-breathing Dean being placed into an ambulance. Wuetherich had been thrown from the car but survived with a broken jaw and other injuries. Dean was taken to Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival at 5:59PM at the age of 24. His last known words, uttered right before impact, are said to have been: "That guy's got to stop... He'll see us.", though are also, and probably more famously, known to be "My fun days are over."

Contrary to reports of Dean's speeding, which persisted decades after his death, Nelson said "the wreckage and the position of Dean's body indicated his speed was more like 55 mph (88 km/h)." Turnupseed received a gashed forehead and bruised nose and was not cited by police for the accident. He died of lung cancer in 1995. Rolf Wuetherich would die in a road accident in Germany in 1981. While completing Giant, and to promote Rebel Without a Cause, Dean had recently filmed a short interview with actor Gig Young for an episode of "Warner Bros. Presents" wherein he ad-libbed the popular phrase "The life you save may be your own" instead into "The life you save may be mine." Dean's sudden death prompted the studio to re-film the section, and the piece was never aired.

After his death, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) borrowed the Porsche 550 Spyder to use in a highway safety exhibit. Its last use in a CHP exhibit was in 1959. In 1960, while being returned to George Barris in Los Angeles, California, the car mysteriously vanished. It has not been seen since.