After touring the US for several years as a grotesque cautionary exhibit, the wreckage of the car that legendary actor James Dean died in vanished without a trace.
The wreckage of James Dean’s car, with sheet metal added by George Barris to provide stability.
James Dean was killed on September 30, 1955 when he collided with another vehicle doing a reported 85 mph in his brand new Porsche 550 Spyder. He was breaking in the new car on the way to weekend sports car races in Salinas, California. Upon impact, the silver Spyder, which Dean had nicknamed Little Bastard, was reduced to a crumpled pile of aluminum and steel. His passenger, factory-trained Porsche mechanic Rolf Wütherich, was thrown from the wreck and survived. Dean was trapped inside the car, his foot crushed between the clutch and break pedal. A nurse passing by stopped to assist, and said she had felt a weak pulse. Dean’s friend Bill Hickman, a stunt driver for Warner Bros. Studios, had been following about ten minutes behind. When he reached the scene of the accident, he pried Dean from the wreck. It was said that Dean died in his arms. When the actor finally arrived at the hospital an hour later, he was pronounced dead.
He had a closed-casket funeral to conceal his severe injuries in his hometown of Fairmount, Indiana.
The wreckage of the Little Bastard was bought by Dr. William F. Eschrich, who stripped out the mechanical parts for use in his Lotus IX race car. He then gave the mangled remains to George Barris, the Hollywood customiser who created the Munster Koach and Drag-U-La casket dragster for The Munsters television series, the original 1966 Batmobile, and many others. For the next several years Barris showcased the car at car shows and other events, calling the exhibit “James Dean’s Last Sports Car.”
Then, while returning from a show in Florida in 1960, the Little Bastard disappeared. Barris claimed that when he opened the semi trailer it was being transported in, he found it empty. Many believe morbid curiosity had run its course and Barris invented the story to retire the wreckage while perpetuating the legend.
In his 1974 book Cars of the Stars Barris alleged that there had been numerous incidents involving fatal accidents and other serious injuries, such as Dr. Eschrich dying while racing the Lotus powered by the engine he removed from the Little Bastard. While a few minor mishaps have been corroborated, researchers have found no evidence to support most of Barris’ claims.
The whereabouts of the Little Bastard are still a mystery, but one man may have the answer. On the 50th anniversary of Dean’s death, the Volo Auto Museum in Illinois offered $1 million for the car. 10 years later, a few months after an episode of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded aired which featured the disappearance, a man contacted the museum. He claimed that, at the age of 6, he had accompanied his father and another man as they hid the car behind a false wall in a building in Whatcom County, Washington.
The man remembered some key bits of overheard conversation that lent credence to his claim, and he passed a polygraph test. However, he has declined to reveal the location of the building until he has a signed deal for a portion of the reward money. The museum will only pay if it gains legal possession of the car, and ownership is in question. Barris owned it in 1960 when it vanished, but if it is walled up in a building in Washington somewhere, who owns it now?
The last photo of James Dean, taken just hours before his death.