Curse of the Porsche 550 Spyder
Since James Dean’s death in 1955, the Porsche 550 Spyder has become infamous as the car that killed him.
While filming Rebel Without A Cause, James Dean had upgraded from the 356 to the 550 Spyder and decided that he wanted to make it uniquely his. Dean called upon George Barris, of movie car fame, to customize the Porsche. He gave it tartan seats, two red stripes over the rear wheels and plastered the number ‘130’ on its doors, hood and engine cover. The name “Little Bastard” was given by Dean language coach, Bill Hickman, and was later painted on the car by master pin striper, Dean Jeffries.
On September 23 of 1955, Dean met actor Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kebobi) outside of a restaurant and had him take a look at the Spyder. Guinness told Dean that the car had a “sinister” appearance and then told Dean: “If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.” Seven days later, Dean would be killed in his beloved “Little Bastard.”
On September 30, 1955, Dean and his Porsche factory-trained mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, were at Competition Motors in Hollywood preparing the “Little Bastard” for the weekend sports car races at Salinas.
Dean originally intended to tow the Porsche behind his Ford station wagon, driven by Hickman and accompanied by professional photographer Sanford H. Roth who was planning a photo story of Dean at the races for Collier’s magazine.
Because the Spyder did not have enough “break-in” miles prior to the race, Wütherich recommended that Dean drive it to Salinas to get more “seat time” behind the wheel. The group had coffee and donuts at the Hollywood Ranch Market on Vine Street across from Competition Motors before leaving around 1:15 p.m. PST.
They stopped at the Mobil station for gas on Ventura Blvd. at Beverly Glen Blvd. in Sherman Oaks around 2:00 p.m. The group then headed north on the Golden State Freeway and then over the “Grapevine” toward Bakersfield.
Curse of the Porsche 550 Spyder
At 3:30 p.m., Dean was stopped by California Highway Patrolman O.V. Hunter at Mettler Station on Wheeler Ridge, just south of Bakersfield, for driving 65 mph (105 km/h) in a 55 mph (89 km/h) zone. Hickman, following the Spyder in the Ford with the trailer, was also ticketed for driving 20 mph (32 km/h) over the limit, as the speed limit for all vehicles towing a trailer was 45 mph (72 km/h).
SR 166/33 was a known short-cut for sports car drivers going to Salinas, called “the racer’s road”, which took them directly to Blackwells Corner at U.S. Route 466 (later SR 46). At Blackwells Corner, Dean stopped briefly for refreshments and met up with fellow racers Lance Reventlow and Bruce Kessler, who were also on their way to Salinas in Reventlow’s Mercedes-Benz 300 SL coupe.
At approximately 5:15 p.m., Dean and Hickman left Blackwells Corner, driving west on Route 466 toward Paso Robles, approximately 60 miles (97 km) away. Dean accelerated in the “Little Bastard” and left the Ford station wagon far behind. Further along on Route 466, the Porsche crested Polonio Pass and headed down the long Antelope Grade, passing cars along the way toward the junction of Route 466 and Route 41.
At approximately 5:45 p.m., a black-and-white 1950 Ford Tudor driven at high speed was headed east on Route 466 just west of the junction near Shandon. Its driver, 23-year-old US Navy veteran and Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, made a left turn onto Route 41 headed north, toward Fresno. As Turnupseed’s Ford crossed over the center line, Dean (clearly seeing an imminent crash) apparently tried to steer the Spyder in a “side stepping” racing maneuver, but with insufficient time and space, the two cars crashed almost head-on.
A witness, John Robert White, reportedly saw the Spyder smash into the ground two or three times in cartwheels, and landing in a gully beside the shoulder of the road, northwest of the junction. The sheer velocity of the impact sent the much-heavier Ford broad-sliding 39 feet (12 m) down Route 466 in the westbound lane. The accident was witnessed by a number of passersby who stopped to help. A woman with nursing experience attended to Dean and detected a weak pulse in his neck, but according to the woman, “death appeared to have been instantaneous”
California Highway Patrol (CHP) Captain Ernest Tripke and his partner, Corporal Ronald Nelson, had been finishing a coffee break in Paso Robles when they were called to the scene of the accident at the Route 466/41 junction.
Before Tripke and Nelson arrived, Dean had been extricated from the Spyder’s mangled cockpit, his left foot having been crushed between the clutch and brake pedal. He was severely injured as his vehicle took the brunt of the crash, suffering a broken neck and massive internal and external injuries.
Nelson witnessed an unconscious and dying Dean being placed into an ambulance, and a barely conscious Wütherich, who had been thrown from the Spyder, lying on the shoulder of the road next to the wrecked vehicle.
Dean and Wütherich were taken in the same ambulance to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, 28 miles (45 km) away. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at 6:20 p.m. by the attending emergency room physician, Dr. Robert Bossert. The cause of death listed on James Dean’s death certificate is listed as a broken neck as well as multiple fractures of the upper and lower jaw along with both right and left arms broken as well as internal injuries.
Warren Beath wrote that Dean had died in the arms of his friend, Bill Hickman. Despite reports of Dean’s speed being around 85 mph (137 km/h), Nelson estimated that the actual speed was around 55 mph (89 km/h), based on the wreckage and position of Dean’s body.
Wütherich survived with a broken jaw and serious hip and femur injuries that required immediate surgery. Turnupseed was only slightly injured with facial bruises and a bloodied nose. After being interviewed by the CHP, Turnupseed hitch-hiked in the dark to his home in Tulare.
Hickman and Roth arrived at the accident scene approximately ten minutes after the crash. Hickman assisted in extricating Dean from the wreckage. Roth took photographs of the accident scene (which were acquired by Seita Ohnishi, a retired Japanese businessman who would later erect a memorial near the site).
Some sources give Dean’s last known words — uttered right before the impact when Wütherich told Dean to slow down as the Ford Tudor pulled into their lane — as, “That guy’s gotta stop … He’ll see us”. Raskin believes that any report about Dean and Wütherich communicating prior to the crash is pure conjecture. According to the coroner’s deposition taken of Wütherich in the hospital, and later in a 1960 interview given to an official Porsche magazine, Christophorus, he couldn’t recall any of the exact moments leading up to and after the crash.
Curse of the Porsche 550 Spyder
The official sheriff-coroner called for an inquest, held at the council chambers in San Luis Obispo on October 11, 1955, where Turnupseed told the jury that he did not see the low-profile Spyder until after he was turning left onto Route 41.
After other testimony by the CHP and witnesses to the accident, the coroner’s jury came back with a verdict of “accidental death with no criminal intent”, finding Turnupseed not guilty of any contributory wrongdoing in the death of Dean.
Although not charged with any offense, Turnupseed had nevertheless been dealt a devastating blow that would haunt him for the rest of his life. He granted just one interview to the Tulare Advance-Register newspaper immediately following the crash, but after that he refused to speak publicly about the accident. Turnupseed went on to own and operate a very successful family electrical contracting business in Tulare. He died at the age of 63 from lung cancer in 1995.
Turnupseed, hit and killed James Dean
Donald Turnupseed, the Tulare man who quietly built a family business
and endeavored to maintain his privacy after being involved in the car
accident that killed actor James Dean four decades ago, has died at age
63. Requests for interviews about the Sept. 30, 1955, crash came from
around the world and served as a constant annoyance to Turnupseed.
“That’s something that bothered him his whole life. That’s not Donald
Turnupseed,” said Wally Nelson, president of Turnupseed Electric in
As this year’s 40th anniversary of the crash approached, requests for
interviews continued. A German journalist was the last the call, Nelson
“He’s been bothered by people constantly trying to write a story.”
Nelson said. “There’s always somebody calling up or coming to the door.
We had to push them out the door.”
Although he has refused interviews for decades, Turnupseed did speak
with the Tulare Advance Register hours after the crash. It occurred
when he pulled his 1950 Ford from Highway 46 onto Highway 41 near
Cholame. Turnupseed’s car was struck by a speeding silver grey Porsche
Spyder driven by Dean, who at 24 was the star of three major films. “I
didn’t see him coming,” Turnupseed said.
Turnupseed was coming home to Tulare from Cal Poly State University,
San Luis Obispo, where he was a student. Dean was in route to a race in
Salinas. His mechanic was a passenger.
Dean, star of “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause” in 1955 and
“Giant in 1956, died in an ambulance headed for a Paso Robles hospital.
His mechanic, Rolf Wuetherich, was seriously injured but recovered.
Wuetherich died in 1981 in a car crash in West Germany.
On advise from la California Highway Patrol officer, Turnupseed
hitch-hiked to Tulare after the crash. He was treated for a scraped
nose and bruises at Tulare District Hospital.
Extensive investigation of the accident never established guilt, said
C.R. “Budgie” Sturgeon, a partner in Spuhler and Sturgeon Insurance,
which had a policy on Turnupseed’s Ford. “It was never established
whose fault it was. It just died.”
Unlike his father, Donald Turnupseed was likeable, but not outgoing,
Paggi said. “You could never get close to Don.” The business owner was
quiet even before the crash, Paggi said. The accident probably caused
Turnupseed to be more private still, Paggi said. “More than likely,” he
Wütherich, after having several complicated surgeries on his hip and femur, went back to West Germany in 1957 with psychological and legal problems. He worked for Porsche’s testing department and international rally and racing teams during the 1960s. He died in July 1981, in Kupferzell, West Germany, in another auto accident when he lost control of his car and crashed into a residence. Like Dean in the previous crash, Wütherich had to be extricated from the wreck and died at the accident scene. He was 53 years old.
That “Little Bastard” not only killed James Dean, but killed and maimed others who came in contact with it causing many to say that the damn thing was cursed. George Barris, who customized the 550 originally, bought the wrecked carcass of “Little Bastard” for $2500 and soon after it slipped off its trailer and broke a mechanics leg.
Not long after Barris sold the engine and drivetrain to Troy McHenry and William Eschrid. While the two were both racing against one another in cars that had parts from the “Little Bastard,” McHenry lost control and hit a tree, killing him instantly and Eschrid was seriously injured when his car suddenly locked up and rolled over while going into a turn.
Barris still had two tires from the 550 which were untouched in Dean’s accident. He sold them and not long after, both blew out simultaneously causing the new owner’s car to run off the road. Barris had kept the car in his possession sans the sold parts and it caught the attention of two would-be thieves. One of the thieves arms was torn open trying to steal the steering wheel while the other was injured trying to remove the bloodstained tartan seat.
Due to all the incidents involving “Little Bastard,” Barris decided to hide the car but was convinced by the California Highway Patrol to lend the cursed heap to a highway safety exhibit. The first exhibit was unsuccessful as the garage that housed the car caught fire and burned to the ground. Mysteriously the car suffered virtually no damage from the fire. The next exhibition at a local high school ended abruptly when the car fell off its display and broke a nearby student’s hip.
The curse continued when the “Little Bastard” was being transported when the truck carrying the car lost control which caused the driver to fall out and somehow get crushed by the car after it fell off the back. The car fell off of two more transport trucks while travelling on the freeway fortunately not injuring anyone. The CHP decided that it had had enough of the “Little Bastard” and while transporting the car to Barris, the car mysteriously vanished and has not been seen since.
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