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After touring the US for several years as a grotesque cautionary exhibit, the wreckage of Little Bastard, the cursed car that legendary actor James Dean died in, vanished without a trace.
The last photo of James Dean, taken just hours before his death.
James Dean, the 24-year-old actor known for his work in silver screen classics from the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema such as Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden, was killed on September 30, 1955 when he collided with another vehicle in his silver Porsche 550 Spyder.
Dean had just finished filming Giant, during which Warner Bros. Studios had forbidden him from racing, so he was eager to get back out on the road.
He was breaking in the new car, which he had nicknamed “Little Bastard,” on the way to races in Salinas, California. Rolf Wütherich, a Porsche mechanic who was helping Dean prepare the car for the weekend sports car races, was in the passenger seat. Dean’s friend Bill Hickman, a stunt driver for Warner Bros., and photographer Sanford H. Roth were following far behind in Dean’s Ford station wagon.
Dean was pulled over and ticketed near Bakersfield for going 65 mph in a 55 mph zone, but that didn’t deter him from testing the Spyder’s limits.
Dean left Hickman and the station wagon in his dust as he headed down Route 466 (now Route 46) for Paso Robles, where they planned to meet for dinner that evening.
As Dean approached the junction of Route 46 and Route 41, a 23-year-old college student named Donald Turnupseed was turning into the intersection. He never saw the low-profile Spyder, and Dean was going too fast to stop.
Dean tried to swerve, but collided almost head on with Turnupseed’s 1950 Ford Tudor.
The impact sent Turnupseed’s heavy Ford sliding 39 feet down the highway, but the Spyder, a much lighter car, was propelled into the air. A witness reported it doing cartwheels and smashing into the ground several times.
When it finally stopped, Little Bastard was little more than a crumpled pile of aluminum and steel.
Wütherich was thrown from the wreck and survived, but Dean was not so fortunate. He was trapped in the car, his foot crushed between the clutch and break pedal, badly injured. His neck and arms were broken, jaw fractured, and had massive internal and external injuries.
Passersby stopped to help in any way they could. A woman with nursing experience checked Dean for a pulse, found it very weak.
She said Dean’s death “appeared to have been instantaneous.”
Hickman reached the scene about 10 minutes after the collision and pried Dean from the wreck.
In The Death of James Dean, author Warren Beath wrote that Dean died in Hickman’s arms.
Wütherich and Turnupseed both survived the crash.
Dean was pronounced dead an hour when he finally arrived at the hospital an hour later.
His funeral was held in his home town of Fairmount, Indiana. It was closed-casket to conceal his severe injuries.
James Dean poses in a coffin seven months before his death
James Dean’s Last Sports Car
The wreckage of the Little Bastard was bought by Dr. William F. Eschrich, a racer who had competed against Dean several times that year. Eschrich stripped out the mechanical parts for use in his Lotus IX race car.
He gave the mangled remains to George Barris, the Hollywood “King of the Kustomizers” who created the Munster Koach and Drag-U-La casket dragster for The Munsters television series, as well as the original 1966 Batmobile.
Barris originally planned to rebuild the car, but he discovered the frame was too badly damaged. Instead, he welded some aluminum sheet metal over the damaged areas to stabilize the wreck and turned it into a traveling exhibit.
In 1956, he loaned it to the Los Angeles chapter of the National Safety Council for a local car show, where it was displayed as “James Dean’s Last Sports Car.”
Little Bastard on display in 1966
For the next several years Barris showcased the car at car shows and other events around the country.
Then, in 1960, Little Bastard disappeared.
Barris claimed the Spyder was returning from a traffic safety show in Florida in a locked semi trailer, but by the time it arrived in California and he opened the trailer doors, the car was gone.
The story seemed a bit too convenient.
In his book James Dean: At Speed, author Lee Raskin wrote that he believes that as pop culture was becoming more interested in American-made big block muscle cars, interest in Dean’s Porsche was fading.
Barris probably wasn’t making money with the exhibit anymore, and Raskin believes he invented the story of the car’s disappearance so he could retire the wreck while still perpetuating the legend – especially on the anniversary of Dean’s death.
George Barris with the Little Bastard replica he made for the 1997 film James Dean: Race with Destiny
The Curse of Little Bastard
Little Bastard may have vanished, but it seemed the car was still causing trouble.
In his 1974 book Cars of the Stars, Barris claimed that Little Bastard’s parts had cursed the cars they were used in, having been involved in numerous accidents resulting in serious injuries and death to both drivers and spectators.
According to Barris, after Eschrich poached the parts from Little Bastard, he was involved in an accident while racing his Lotus with Dean’s Porche engine. During that same race, Barris claimed, another driver named Dr. McHenry was also using parts from Little Bastard when he lost control of the vehicle and struck a tree.
Eschrich did have a very minor accident, and McHenry really was using parts loaned to him from Eschrich when he wrapped his car around a tree and died.
Beyond that, the only other evidence of a possible curse, as far as researchers have been able to tell, was a strange fire on March 11, 1959. The Spyder was being stored in a garage in Fresno in preparation for an upcoming safety exhibit when it mysteriously caught fire.
Two of the car’s tires burned and the paint was scorched, but there was no other damage to the car, nor the surrounding cars or the building. The cause was never determined.
Of course, that’s not exactly proof that James Dean’s Porsche was infused with some dark force, but it does become a bit more unsettling when you find out Dean was warned about the car by Jedi a week before his death.
Dean encountered British actor Sir Alec Guinness, best known for his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy, outside a restaurant in Hollywood on September 23, 1955. Dean introduced himself and showed off his new car that he had just traded his Porsche Speedster for two days earlier.
Guinness said the Spyder looked “sinister.”
“If you get in that car,” Guinness told Dean, “you will be found dead in it by this next next week.”
Dean was dead seven days later.
Where is Little Bastard Now?
The whereabouts of the Little Bastard are still a mystery, but one man may have the answer. In 2005, 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 declined to reveal the location of the building until an agreement was signed that he would receive a portion of the reward money.
Volo made it clear they would will only pay if the museum gains legal possession of the car, and since the ownership of the car and the building it may be hidden in is unclear, they couldn’t come to an agreement.
We may never know the final resting place of Little Bastard, but the “cursed” parts are accounted for. The family of the late Dr. Eschrich still has the engine, and a Porsche collector in Massachusetts currently owns the transaxle assembly.
Neither have reported any further misfortune attributed to the parts.
James Dean in his final Film, Giant, 1955