Americas,  Charlotte,  United States

James Dean’s Little Bastard: Curse or Conspiracy?

Last official photograph of James Dean on September 30, 1955 before the accident. Rolf Wutherich is seen as the passenger.
Last official photograph of James Dean on September 30, 1955 before the accident. Rolf Wutherich is seen as the passenger.

There are opposing views on the Porsche 550 Spyder that James Dean was driving, and ultimately crashed, on September 30, 1955. His death was nearly instant but the rumors and conspiracies involving his cursed car have lasted for 56 years. We may never know what really happened but we can look at all the stories surrounding the Porsche dubbed “Little Bastard”.

On a beautiful day in Cholame, California, Donald Turnupseed was driving a Ford coupe on U.S. Route 466. As Donald turned at an intersection, Dean’s car smashed almost in a head-on collision with the Ford at 5:45 PM. Donald walked away with only minor injuries, as did Dean’s passenger, Rolf Wutherich, who was flown from the car due to the impact. Dean himself was not as lucky as the impact occurred on the driver side of the small Spyder. Dean was pronounced dead upon arrival at the Paso Robles Hospital with substantial injuries including a broken neck.

These were the facts from the accident. No one really knows who was at fault but early reports stated that Dean was speeding. However recent reports and evidence have suggested that he was driving at only 55 mph, the speed limit on Route 466. While it has been suggested that he may have speeding, nothing has been proven as of yet about that. It has also been suggested that it was Wutherich who driving the car, maybe this rumor was spread to protect Dean’s image, but one source claims this is not true as Dean’s foot had been crushed between the clutch and the break of the car.

One thing we know for sure is that the car is currently missing and has been since 1960. To theorise further the whereabouts of the car we must explore what happened to it between 1955 and 1960, although there are different versions of the story.

After the accident and investigation, the Porsche 550 Spyder was sold at auction for $2,500 in 1955 to a George Barris. Barris was known for his custom body work for Hollywood films so Dean contacted him initially to add the number 130 onto the car, as well as adding “Little Bastard” located at the rear below the Porsche emblem. One source, Lee Raskin, a leading expert on Porsches and James Dean, states that Barris claimed to do the work to the car but it was in fact a neighboring paint shop where Dean Jeffries did all the work. A receipt of the work was later produced proving Jeffries was in fact the one who customized Little Bastard.

Story Number 1:

After purchasing the mangled remains of the car, Barris then salvaged all the parts of the car that were unharmed and sold them off for a price. The first part sold was the transmission bought by a Troy McHenry. McHenry installed the transmission in his own Porsche Spyder and crashed his vehicle during a race at the Ponoma road races at the Los Angeles County fairgrounds. After losing control and striking a tree, McHenry was pronounced dead at the scene. The second part was the 547 engine from Little Bastard sold to a William Eschrich (or Eschrid or Echrich depending on which source you refer to). After Eschrid installed the engine into his own car, he was seriously injured in an accident which he fortunately survived. Two rear tires were sold to an unnamed man who returned to Barris telling him that both tires blew out at the same exact time sending him out of control and off the road. The rear fender was also reportedly sold but no information about the person who bought the part ever came forward.

So is it cursed? Barris started thinking it was so he stopped selling parts to buyers and instead allowed the California Highway Patrol to use the car in a traveling safety exhibit. Once in the possession of the CHP, the cursed car continued its reign of terror. First, the garage where Little Bastard was being stored before the exhibit started caught fire, damaging other vehicles but never touching the Spyder. Next is the story that the driver of the truck who was transporting the car lost control, fell out of the truck, and then Little Bastard rolled off the back of the truck crushing and killing the driver. Another report tells of when the car was on display at a high school when it fell off its display and injured a student attending the exhibit. Other reports of the car falling off transport trucks exist but none of those stories include anyone being injured.

Suffice it to say, the California Highway Patrol had enough of the cursed car at this point and decided to return it to Barris. Except the car never made it back. Rumors of the car being stolen from the transport truck started circulating but the strangest part was that the truck never changed weight between any weigh station. This is surprising considering the transport was traveling from Florida, where the last exhibit was held, back to California, which is a near 3000 mile journey. Most people agree that the car never left Florida.

Story Number 2:

Some people may have a hard time believing in all of the strange happenings involving Little Bastard above, just as Lee Raskin does. He claims that Barris only ever bought the car as a way to earn profits and once the novelty of Dean’s death started wearing off, Barris began creating stories to continue making money.

The first part of the story that changes is that Eschrich (the guy above who nobody can agree on his name) took the engine, transmission, suspension, and other various parts from the car before it was ever sold to Barris. This means that McHenry never purchased any parts. But, it should be noted that according to Raskin, McHenry did purchase the transmission from Eschrich but had not installed it before his death, the only part that was installed on McHenry’s car from Little Bastard was the back swing arms.

What this means is that when Barris bought the car, it was only the managed shell that once was Little Bastard. Barris decided to try and resurrect the Spyder by welding aluminum over the severely damaged areas and then loaned it to the Los Angeles Safety Council (not the CHP) for the exhibit. The stories of all the injuries, deaths and mishaps while on exhibit are all made up propaganda, according to Raskin. The car did make it to Florida, Miami in fact. Another agreeing aspect of the story is that the car never made it back to California. Raskin also goes on to state that Barris probably junked it, not because of the worn off novelty but because it was falling apart as the aluminum weld job was never meant to last. He goes on to say that Barris made up the story that Little Bastard just vanished into thin air.

Raskin has gone on record to say that Barris has been discredited by Porsche and James Dean historians and archivists.

So is Little Bastard cursed or was it a conspiracy? We may never know the truth. Even eyewitnesses at the scene of the accident have changed their stories over time, including who was driving the Spyder at the time and the speed of Little Bastard at the time of impact. All we have today are the parts owned still by the Eschrich family, a missing shell of car No. 130, and the death of a teenage icon. It’s up to you to decide which theory you believe.