Sixty years after they disappeared and 65 years after the nighttime crash that claimed the life of actor James Dean, parts traceable to the 1955 Porsche 550 Speedster that Dean was driving that evening have been found.
Porsche collector and U.S. businessman Don Ahearn revealed the discovery of the parts, which include the Porsche’s chassis, engine, and gearbox/transaxle. The transaxle is stamped with the correct factory serial number #10046. According to a release, the assembly may be the only documented and provable part of the James Dean-affiliated vehicle that exists today.
James Dean purchased his Porsche 550 Spyder from Competition Motors in Hollywood, California.Photo courtesy of Don Ahearn
The transaxle has been in continuous, documented ownership and it has been authenticated by experts as far back as 1984 as being the original component to the 550 owned by Dean.
The parts were found in rural Massachusetts after being stored in a wooden crate and hidden from view for over 30 years. That still leaves 30 years of their existence unaccounted for.
In September 1955, Dean had famed vehicle designer George Barris racing stripes, the number 130, and the words “Little Bastard” on his 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder. Little Bastard was Dean’s nickname on the set of the film “Giant”, a movie he co-starred with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in about the life of a Texas cattle rancher.
Filming wrapped on “Giant” and a week later, on September 30, 1955, Dean and mechanic Rolf Wütherich hopped in the Porsche and, after having breakfast at Hollywood Ranch Market on Vine Street in Hollywood, which is across from Competition Motors, headed up to Salinas, California for a race.
Dean had the car custom painted shortly before his death.Photo courtesy of Don Ahearn
Dean and Wütherich, along with Bill Hickman and Stanford Roth who was following behind in a 1955 Ford Country Squire station wagon, stopped for gas at the Mobil station on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, California.
On the way, Dean received a speeding ticket – something quite on-brand for an actor Hollywood who portrayed the rebel without a cause. He was caught doing 65 mph in a 55 mph zone.
At approximately 5:45 p.m. that day, a driver of a Ford Turdor coupe turned in front of the Porsche, which was being driven by Wütherich at the time. Wütherich reacted by attempting to steer the Spyder away from the impending collision but it was too late. Dean’s Porsche flipped up into the air and landed back on its wheels in a gully northwest of the junction, near Cholame, at the intersection of State Routes 41 and 46 (now James Dean Memorial Junction).
Dean passed away shortly after the crash. Wütherich survived the crash though he suffered debilitating injuries. He would die in another crash years later.
Following Dean’s death, the car was taking around the country and displayed.Photo courtesy of Don Ahearn
The car was sold for parts and eventually wound up in the hands of famed car designer George Barris, who is most known for designing the car used by the Munster family in “The Munsters”. Barris sold the drivetrain and the engine to race car drivers Troy McHenry and William Eschrid.
It is rumoring that the powertrain, which is thought of as being cursed, remains in California. McHenry was behind the wheel when, during a race using another 550 with the donor engine in it, the car locked up going into a turn. McHenry lost control and crashed into a tree. He was killed instantly.
After spending some time as a show car that warned against the hazards of driving recklessly, and being invoiced in several unfortunate incidents – everything from falling on a student and breaking their hip to being caught up in a barn fire – in 1960 the body of Dean’s Porsche was on its way back to L.A. The driver of the truck hauling it back to L.A. lost control of the rig. It flipped and the 550 came loose, landing on the driver and killing him instantly.
From there, the whereabouts of the 550 and its remaining parts were unknown. Over the decades, there have been rumors about the whereabouts of the car. Polygraphs have been taken and investigations have been undertaken. But, so far, those efforts have come up empty handed.
The transaxle is currently mounted in a display stand that was custom-fabricated for it. In the future, the current owner expects to sell the piece of a museum or collector.