Was actor James Dean’s car cursed? It may sound like an odd question, but many strange theories have been developed throughout the years since the Hollywood icon’s deadly 1955 collision in a Porsche 550 Spyder. Movie buffs and car aficionados alike have found plenty of intrigue about the car and the alleged curse it carried. Read on for the background details and some of the stories and rumors surrounding the infamous Porsche and its celebrated, yet doomed, passenger.
An Afternoon Drive Turned To Tragedy
On September 30, 1955, Tinseltown actor James Dean and a friend took a drive along Route 466 in Cholame, California, an unincorporated community in San Luis Obispo County. They rode in Dean’s recently-acquired 1955 Porsche Spyder, a silver two-door convertible, on the way to participate in a race.
Without warning, Dean lost control of the speeding automobile and slammed head-on into another car, a Ford coupe drove by a 23-year-old student named Donald Turnupseed as he attempted to turn the Ford left across Route 41. Dean, traveling at an estimated 85 miles an hour, was unable to avoid hitting Turnupseed’s car. This is thought to be the last photo taken of Dean before his death.
A Promising Hollywood Star, Gone In An Instant
The impact sent Dean’s Porsche high into the air. As the vehicle came down to the ground, it landed back on its wheels in a gully. Turnupseed’s Ford coupe slid 39 feet down the road and he received facial bruises and a bloodied nose. Dean’s passenger was injured but survived.
Dean was pinned inside the Porsche with his neck broken. Unconscious, he was placed into an ambulance and transported to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, nearly 30 miles away. The film star was pronounced dead on arrival at 6:20 pm.
The “Rebel Without A Cause” Was Attracted To Car Racing
James Dean had gotten into racing the year before he lost his life in that tragic wreck, and he showed a lot of promise. After getting paid for his first lead role, in 1954’s East of Eden, Dean bought three sports cars. Included in his purchase was a 1955 Porsche 356 speedster, which he drove to a second-place finish in that year’s Palm Springs Road Race.
Soon after buying the 356, however, Dean traded it up for the doomed 550 Spyder. He planned to race it in the Salinas Road Races but never had the chance.
Dean nicknamed his new purchase after his friend, Warner Bros. stunt driver Bill Hickman, called Dean. By the terms of his contract, he was banned from all racing during filming and calling the car such a cheeky name was a way to defiantly show the studio that he’d return to the sport as soon as shooting was over.
He had a custom car painter named Dean Jeffries paint the nickname on the rear of the Porsche, and the number 130 on the front hood.
Words Of Warning From A Fellow Actor
On September 23, 1955, two days after purchasing the Spyder, Dean spotted the British actor Alec Guinness outside the Villa Capri restaurant in Hollywood. Dean introduced himself and showed off his new acquisition. Guinness (pictured here) thought the car looked “sinister” and was struck with a bad feeling.
He later wrote of the encounter, “[E]xhausted, hungry, feeling a little ill-tempered in spite of Dean’s kindness, I heard myself saying in a voice I could hardly recognize as my own: ‘Please never get in it… if you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week.'” Dean laughed in response but was dead exactly seven days later.
Dean’s Death Made Him A Legend
Only 24 years old, James Dean was a rapidly rising celebrity. His death instantly catapulted him into legendary status. The Los Angeles Times called Dean “one of Hollywood’s brightest new motion-picture stars” and said that his recent co-star Elizabeth Taylor was in total disbelief. “‘I can’t believe it; I’m just stunned,’ was all she could say,” reported the paper.
As is the case when any major celebrity dies, people could not stop talking about it. This was certainly true when Dean passed away. Stories were told and repeated, and they changed over the years so that it became difficult to tell which were true and which were a myth.
A Doctor Bought The Porsche For Parts
According to Lee Raskin, author of James Dean: On the Road to Salinas, the Porsche was written off as a loss by the insurance company and then purchased for $1,092 by a doctor named William F. Eschrich. He was a racing enthusiast and wanted to put the Spyder parts into other cars.
Sadly, the doctor was about to experience a tragedy, one that some people related to his purchase of the car. This only fueled the rumors that James Dean’s car was cursed.
Another Fatal Accident
The next bizarre twist in the story of James Dean’s supposedly cursed Porsche is that after buying it, William Eschrid decided to race a friend. He and the friend, another doctor named Troy McHenry, raced each other in cars that each had parts from the Spyder.
Eschrid sustained serious injuries when his car locked up and rolled over as he attempted to make a turn. McHenry lost control of his vehicle and hit a tree. He was killed on impact. The Spokane Daily Chronicle reported the story on October 24, 1956, with the headline “Hint Of ‘Legend’ Linked To Crash.” Pictured here is James Dean’s crash site.
Enter George Barris, “King Of The Kustomizers”
George Barris was a celebrated car customizer who was famous for creating the Batmobile for the 1960s television series (pictured) as well as many other iconic Hollywood custom cars. He called himself the “King of the Kustomizers” and said that he had customized the car for Dean, a claim that has been disputed.
Regardless of who customized the Spyder, Barris ended up with the mangled car body after William Eschrich had stripped it of its engine and other drivetrain components.
Barris Claimed The Car Was Cursed
According to the “King of the Kustomizers” George Barris, who later wrote a book called Cars of the Stars, there was an odd incident as he transported the wreckage of the Porsche to his shop. The vehicle somehow slipped off its trailer and broke a mechanic’s leg.
And after Barris sold two of the 550’s tires, they supposedly blew out simultaneously and caused the new owner to run off the road and into a ditch. Pictured here is Barris with a replica of the car.
More Bizarre Events
The stories about the allegedly cursed car are far from over. During the time that Barris was in possession of the car, thieves allegedly broke into his shop in order to steal parts from him.
Barris reported that one of them had their arms shredded as they tried to steal the steering wheel and that the other was hurt while attempting to remove the custom tartan seat (still with Dean’s bloodstains on it).
Barris Put The Car On Display
George Barris wanted to rebuild the Porsche but was unable to do so because of the condition it was in. Instead, he put the wreckage of the car on display, loaning it to the Los Angeles chapter of the National Safety Council for a car show.
The ghoulish exhibit was called “James Dean’s Last Sports Car” and it toured California from 1957 to 1959, appearing at car shows, bowling alleys, movie theaters, and safety demonstrations.
A Suspicious Fire
Although some of Barris’ claims about the Spyder’s supposed curse aren’t proven, some other strange occurrences are well documented. For example, The Fresno Bee reported on March 12, 1959, that the car caught fire while housed in a garage in Fresno.
The car was the only vehicle that sustained any damage. “The cause of the fire is unknown. It burned two tires and scorched the paint on the vehicle,” said the newspaper.
Vanished Into Thin Air?
Perhaps just as mysterious as all of the unfortunate tragedies surrounding James Dean’s legendary Porsche Spyder is the way it vanished in 1960. Throughout the years, Barris would recount his final bizarre experience with the wrecked car.
According to Barris, the car was being transported from a traffic safety exhibit in Miami in a sealed boxcar. When the train carrying its eerie cargo arrived in Los Angeles, Barris signed for it. However, he found the sealed boxcar empty.
A Million-Dollar Offer For The Car
In 2005, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dean’s death, Volo Auto Museum in Chicago created this tribute car. It also made a very enticing offer to the public: one million dollars for the return of the legendary Porsche. Surely someone would come forward with the wreckage, right?
A decade passed with plenty of dead-end tips coming in. That is, until 2015. Then, the museum got a call that rekindled interest in the mystery of the car.
A Call From Washington State
A man named Shawn Reilly, from Whatcom County, Washington called to report something very interesting. When he was six years old, his dad was a carpenter and had brought him along on a job one day. They met a few men at a building, which still stands today. The men wanted Reilly’s dad to hide a wrecked sports car behind a wall.
Reilly feels certain that one of the people there that day was George Barris. The museum asked him to take a lie detector test about his memory of the events, and he passed it with flying colors. Pictured is James Dean from Rebel Without a Cause, 1955.
Still A Mystery
According to Volo Museum Director Brian Grams, he’s never been presented with physical proof of the missing car’s existence or documents naming its owner. Grams says that ownership needs to be sorted out before he can make good on that $1 million offer to buy the car.
And that might take a while, considering that the “King Of The Kustomizers” George Barris is now deceased. In the meantime, the location of the fake wall that might conceal the wreckage of James Dean’s sports car has remained a secret.
Barris Died Shortly After The Promising Tip Came In
George Barris, who is considered by many to be the last legal owner of James Dean’s 550, did not weigh in on the matter when it hit the news in late 2015. And the building’s current owner claims to know nothing about what’s hidden behind the walls.
Barris passed away just a month after Shawn Reilly came forward with his tip about the Porsche’s potential whereabouts, making the task of establishing legal ownership that much more difficult. Pictured here is Barris in 1999.
The Eschrich Family Has Not Approached The Museum
Despite the body of the car still missing, the location of the car’s engine is known. The Spyder’s 4-Cam engine and original California Owner’s Registration are still in the hands of the late Dr. Eschrich’s family.
They have not approached Volo Museum with any claims of ownership, however, even though attorney Lee Raskin, the author of James Dean: On the Road to Salinas, believes they own the entire vehicle because they have the original registration.
A Road Construction Worker Grabbed A Piece Of The Wreckage
Although the car’s whereabouts are still a mystery, one man has a belt-buckle sized piece of the aluminum body. Harry Camby was an 18-year-old road construction worker at the time of Deans’ death. He and his work crew stopped into a restaurant near the wreck site just hours after the fatal crash. Everyone was talking about it, and a waitress revealed that the totaled car was next door in a service garage.
Camby snuck in and grabbed some pieces, which were later verified by George Barris. The chunk here has an estimated sale price of $5,000 for anyone brave enough to own a piece of the car.
Crash Site Photos Auctioned
A collection of rare, never published photos of the car crash scene that ended James Dean’s life were put up for auction in August of 2019. The images were taken by the attorney hired to defend Donald Turnupseed, the Ford Custom driver, in court and were sold by his son, who has had them in his possession since.
The collection included 12 overhead views of the junction of Route 466 and Route 41 and 18 ground-level shots. The archive of photos sold for more than $22,000.