Live Fast, Die Young

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This is a 1956 Porsche 550 Spyder. And, up front, I’m going to give you full permission to skip this one if you want, because it’s going to get weird. Why? Well, the reason is certainly not that this the most expensive piece of Forgotten Metal yet- these things usually fetch over a million dollars at auction. Nor is it that this car is extremely rare- you’re looking at one of only 90 in existence. No, it’s none of that. See, when I said weird, I meant the supernatural side of weird. And it involves everyone’s favorite rebel: James Dean.

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Okay- couple disclaimers up front. First, this might not technically be a Porsche 550. The Spyder is, for better or for worse, one of the most copied cars ever made and, given their scarcity, it’s easy to see why. This results in a great many “replicars” running around, pretending to be the real thing, fooling everyone. Some are easy to spot, some aren’t, which is why you should take this 550 with a grain of salt. That said, the car is registered to the state of New York as a 1956 model, and Classic Car Club’s website makes no mention of this being a replica. So that’s that out of the way. Second is the fact that the story I’m about to tell is, in parts, pretty spotty, as is the norm with the paranormal. I’m going to try and be as full disclosure as possible, and at least one authority on the subject is pretty dismissive of it. But at the end of the day, it’s a good story regardless of its legitimacy, and to me that makes it worth telling.

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Something you find when reading about James Dean is the repetition of a few words and phrases. Cultural icon. Adored by women and men alike. Teenage disillusionment. If anything, the guy knew how to write a Match.com profile. He was, in an era of stiff upper lip conservatism, effortlessly cool. He was also, as it turns out, an avid auto racer, a hobby which his garage reflected. Dean owned, over the course of his life, an MG TD, a Porsche 356 (pictured below) and a variety of Triumph motorcycles, names that are as iconic in the car world as East of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause are in Hollywood. He did pretty well on the track too, podium finishing- and sometimes winning- events up and down the California coast.

While filming one of his most iconic movies, Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean got rid of his 356 in favor of Porsche’s new 550. Now, the 550 already had garnered itself quite a reputation as a highly successful racing car. As a matter of fact, the cars won the first race they were entered into, handily knocking the established Jaguar D-Types and Mercedes 300 SLRs down a few pegs. And they did it at one of Germany’s most difficult and infamous tracks: the Nurburgring. In the rain. The little Porsche didn’t stop there, either. Wins at LeMans and the 1956 Targa Floria can also be found in it’s trophy cabinet. Once you take a look at the engineering that went into the 550, all of this success starts to make sense.

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Early 550s were powered by the 100 horsepower, 1500cc horizontally opposed four cylinder out of the 356. Later iterations, such as this one, had even more power by virtue of their larger bore and shorter stroke 4-cam. This particular example is good for 140 horsepower routed through a 4 speed manual. That may not sound like much by today’s standards, but bear in mind that this car only weighs about 1300 pounds. It’s like that BMW from a few days ago: the power figures may be modest, but at the same there isn’t so much weight for that power to ferry around. The result is a lighter, more agile driving experience. It also, to return to the James Dean storyline, made the car a more than a little dangerous.

Dean decided that his incredibly rare new car was too ubiquitous for his devil-may-care persona, so he decided to have some visual modifications added to the 550. He brought it to a man named George Barris. Barris was famous for a great many movie cars, including the Monkeemobile and original Batmobile. Barris trimmed the rear fenders of Dean’s Porsche in red, added tartan red seats, and painted the number “130” on the hood, doors, and engine cover. Dean’s language coach, Bill Hickman, christened the car “Little Bastard,” a name which was later pinstriped on the back. I know. What a life. Here’s where things start to get a little spooky. In September of 1955, James Dean had lunch with actor Alec Guinness, who later went on to play Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars trilogy that’s okay to talk about. Upon seeing Little Bastard, Guinness said the car had a “sinister” appearance, and remarked, “If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.” Dean was dead less than seven days later.

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While filming Giant, Warner Brothers restricted Dean from racing, as it was, understandably, quite dangerous. Also understandable was the rebel’s eagerness to get back on the track and, after the filming wrapped, that’s exactly what he did. He was entered into a race in Salinas, California on the weekend of September 30, 1955. While driving there in the 550, Dean allegedly collided with another car at about 85 miles per hour at the intersection of Route 466 and Route 41. The Porsche flipped multiple times, landing on its wheels in a ditch. Dean died from his gruesome injuries on the way to the hospital, and that was the unfortunate and too-soon end of a beloved young actor. The car’s story, however, wasn’t quite over yet.

George Barris bought the remains of the car back for $2500. Not long after, the wreckage slipped off a trailer and broke a mechanic’s leg. That, in itself, isn’t that strange. But then Barris sold the engine and drivetrain out of the wrecked car to two racing car drivers named Troy McHenry and William Eschrid. The two drivers used some of the salvageable parts from Little Bastard in their cars, and soon after, raced against one another. Eschrid was seriously injured when his car suddenly seized up and rolled over in a turn. McHenry was killed when his car lost control, hitting a tree. Barris also sold two of the Porsche’s wheels, wheels which would later go on to simultaneously blow out, sending the owner careening off the road. The rest of the car was the object of a would-be robbery not long after. I say would-be because one of the potential thief’s arms was sliced open while trying to steal the steering wheel, and another was injured trying to remove the car’s seat.

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The California Highway Patrol then got involved, as they wanted to use the car in their effort to dissuade people from speeding. This push was composed of two individual events. At the first, the garage in which the event was held caught fire, burning to the ground. The Porsche, inexplicably, survived with almost no damage. The second event was at a local high school, in which the car toppled off its display and onto a student, breaking his hip. Still not convinced? While transporting Little Bastard, a flatbed driver lost control of his truck, fell out onto the road, and was somehow run over by the Porsche. At this point, the California Highway Patrol decided that it had had quite enough of this little car, and put it on a truck to be driven back to George Barris. When they arrived at the garage and opened up the truck’s trailer, Little Bastard was gone. Vanished into thin air. To this day it has yet to be found.

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That’s the story. Now, it’s worth noting that many authorities on the subject, namely Lee Raskin, a Porsche historian and author of “James Dean: At Speed” (a great read if you get the chance) take issue with more than a few elements of the tale I just wove. Raskin says that Barris didn’t know Dean nearly as well, and was not responsible for the car’s visual modifications. He goes on to state that the stories of death and possession that follow the car around are wildly overblown, and are simply Barris tastelessly cashing in on James Dean’s unfortunate death. To me, that’s fair enough. Do I believe all the evil and superstition that follows this car around like a shadow? Do I believe that James Dean’s ghost was somehow possessing Little Bastard after the crash? Do I believe that the Porsche 550 Spyder has a taste for human blood? In a word, no. But I still maintain what I said at the beginning of this exceptionally long post (again, sorry about that). Little Bastard’s story is a great one worth telling, a classic in any gearhead’s mental library. It’s an entertaining story about a great car, and a piece of Hollywood’s long and pockmarked history. I’ll leave you with this: a PSA James Dean filmed a few weeks before his death on the topic of- what else?- safe driving. The last words out of his mouth are these, “take it easy driving. The life you might save might be mine.”

Additional Thoughts:

  • People get pretty into 550 replicas, with some selling at upwards of $300,000.
  • The first two production 550s came with removable hardtops for better aerodynamics. Otherwise, they were all convertibles, all the time.
  • Due to its small stature and big racing wins, the 550 was nicknamed the “Giant Killer” in some circles.
  • Because so many European racing cars of the era were painted silver, teams would paint the rear fenders of their 550s different colors, so that the cars would be more easily identifiable from the pits.
  • There are conflicting reports as to where the name “Little Bastard” came from. Some say that “Big Bastard” was James Dean’s nickname for his language coach, Bill Hickman, while “Little Bastard” was Hickman’s nickname for Dean. Another account states that Jack Warner (of Warner Brothers) once called Dean a “Little Bastard” after the actor refused to leave his trailer on the East of Eden set. The name of the car was Dean’s attempt to get even.
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2 thoughts on “Live Fast, Die Young

  1. Pingback: Forgotten Places: London Motor Museum | Forgotten metal

  2. Pingback: Law of Jante | Forgotten metal

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