Was the Porsche That Killed James Dean the Most Haunted Car of All Time?
It’s a ghost tale as glamorous as Hollywood: The 1955 Porsche 550 racing car that killed celebrity James Dean was a cursed car, later maiming and killing half a dozen more people. The wreck fell on a mechanic, breaking both his legs, and then killed a truck driver. Once it had been parted out, race cars equipped with its engine and its transmission both crashed, killing and injuring more folks. Even as a museum display, the car’s body fell again and broke someone’s hip. Finally, it lit on fire in a garage and burned a priceless collection to the ground. Once salvaged, it was loaded on a train but disappeared before its destination. The only problem? Most of this haunted car ghost story was probably fiction. The truth might be stranger. One week before Dean’s death, Obi-Wan Kenobi saw the Porsche and said, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
James Dean was a leading man and hotshot racer
By 1955, James Dean was one of Hollywood’s brightest rising stars. At just 24, he had already been the leading man headlining East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant. He was on track to win an Oscar for the first film and a nomination for the third. Critics were even calling him the next Marlon Brando.
Nowadays, it seems every celebrity owns a Lamborghini to drive to the Beverly Hills Starbucks. But in 1955, racing was a punishing profession and a niche hobby. Sports cars were designed, you know, for the sport. But James Dean was a speed demon. He had owned multiple Triumph motorcycles and Porsche cars, including an older Spider. And he had competed in multiple races. The studio forbid him from racing during shooting. But Giant wrapped as Porsche delivered Dean’s new 550 just days before the October 1st Salinas Road Race.
He had time to take the car for some test drives in Los Angeles, apparently knocking over trash cans as he skidded around corners. And he even took it to a famous LA pinstriper for racing numbers. The President of Warner Bros. supposedly hated Dean and called the 5’7″ leading man from a broken home the “Little Bastard” behind his back. As a big middle finger, Dean had his car done up with “Little Bastard” livery.
Was James Dean a good race car driver?
At 24, James Dean had only been racing for a year. He had a good record, but it was likely due to his aggressive driving style.
After trading his old MG for a Porsche Speedster, Dean competed in the Palm Springs Road Race in the spring of 1955. He won first place in the novice class. He then went to Bakersfield where he won his class and finished third overall. His third race was in Santa Barbara, and his engine blew up (supposedly from his over-revving it).
You can’t argue with results: Journalists of the day had to admit that James Dean was placing in races. But his wins were likely due less to a mastery of the sport and more to his aggressive style scaring off other drivers. He initiated “metal-to-metal” contact in every race he entered.
Whenever anyone with James Dean’s talent dies at such a young age, they leave behind a wake of “what ifs.” But it’s intriguing that Dean’s contemporary, Paul Newman, balanced an iconic Hollywood career while building a true mastery of racing. You have to wonder how good a race car driver Dean might have become.
James Dean’s final drive
September 30th, James Dean and his factory-trained Porsche mechanic (Rolf Wutherich) spent the morning testing his Porsche 550. He also owned a station wagon and a car trailer, but his new Porsche didn’t yet have enough miles to qualify for Salinas. So he decided to drive it up to Salinas himself. His mechanic rode shotgun, and his friend and stunt driver, Bill Hickman, tried to keep up in Dean’s Ford Country Squire wagon.
Dean lost Hickman repeatedly. He played tag with fellow racers on their way to Salinas in a Mercedes-Benz 300SL. He even collected a speeding ticket from the CHP.
Outside of Bakersfield, at the intersection of what are now California SR-41 and SR-46, a College student driving a 1950 Ford Tudor didn’t see the oncoming Porsche and turned through the intersection directly in front of Dean.
James Dean attempted to avoid the Ford but they still collided. His Porsche cartwheeled two or three times. He likely died on impact, though some onlookers claim he was unconscious with a slight pulse. He was pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital. His mechanic underwent several surgeries, but survived and later tested race cars for Porsche’s factory team.
Was James Dean’s 1955 Porsche cursed?
Race cars that inherited parts from the wrecked Porsche were involved in crashes, but no more than average racers. And they don’t seem to have killed anyone. Hollywood custom car manufacturer George Barriss claimed he bought the wrecked Porsche body and that it killed multiple people. But his stories–including the Porsche’s ownership–can’t be corroborated beyond his memoir.
Many folks are ready to dismiss the story of James Dean’s haunted Porsche 550 as a tall tale. But not Sir Alec Guinness, the English actor famous for his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Guinness first arrived in Hollywood on September 23, 1955. He claims that he and actress Thelma Moss went out for dinner. They arrived at a famous restaurant that had no room. As they were leaving, they ran into James Dean and his entourage. Dean said he had a table reserved and insisted they join him. But first, he wanted to show them his pride and joy: his brand-new Porsche 550.
In his memoir, Guinness wrote that he immediately sensed something off about the car. He begged Dean, “Please, never get in it…If you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week.” And of course, Guinness’ prediction came true.
Next, read about the famous crash that left many racers believing all green cars are cursed, or learn more about the Porsche’s supposed curse in the video below: