The Curse of the Spyder

By RANDAL C. HILL

Film star James Dean, the cultural
icon of teenage angst and rebellion, was
known for his bad boy image, good looks, love of fast cars – and early demise.

He died at age 24 in a violent car accident
involving his powerful new Porsche 550 Spyder.
After his death, the car he affectionately named “Little Bastard” appeared to go on a killing streak, leaving a trail of wreckage in its path. It’s a creepy story so proceed if you dare.

James Byron Dean was born in Marion,
Indiana, in 1931, the only child of Winton
and Mildred Dean. After high school, he
enrolled at UCLA to study drama. Early in
1951, he left school to chase his acting dreams. He moved to New York, won some minor TV roles, and studied method acting in Lee Strasberg’s Actors
Studio.

In 1954, director Elia Kazan hired Dean for the role of Cal Trask in
Kazan’s forthcoming movie East of Eden, based on John Steinbeck’s novel.
Two more films followed. Rebel without a Cause, his ticket to stardom, had
him playing troubled adolescent Jim Stark. In Giant, Dean portrayed a Texas
ranch hand who strikes oil and becomes rich.
James Dean at the wheel of his “Little Bastard.”

Away from the movie set, Dean had nurtured a second passion: auto racing. On September 30, 1955, Dean was behind the wheel of the Little Bastard with mechanic Rolf Wutherich as they roared north from Los Angeles for a race in
Salinas. Along the way, a college student named Donald Turnupseed turned his Ford into the Porsche’s path, resulting in a horrific crash. Turnupseed and Wutherich survived, but Dean broke his neck and died at the scene. His ironic
final words to Wutherich: “Don’t worry, that guy’ll stop. He sees us.”

After the Dean tragedy, many declared the car was cursed.

Among the claims: The car rolled off a truck and crushed the legs of a
nearby mechanic. The engine, transmission and tires were sold to different
people who were either killed or maimed in subsequent car crashes. During a
high school exhibition to promote safe driving, the Porsche wreckage fell off
its display and broke a student’s hip. Finally, the shell of the Little Bastard
mysteriously vanished and was never found.

At the time of his death, only East of Eden had been released, and Dean wasn’t famous yet. Rebel Without a Cause—his best-known work—premiered three days after his demise, and Giant wouldn’t open until 1956. But his eerie passing created a tsunami of posthumous worship, and James Dean remains to this day one of the iconic Tinseltown superstars of the 1950s.

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