The following article is presented for entertainment purposes only. It is not intended as scholarly research and is not a final authority on the subject.
Everybody likes a good ghost story, or, at least, I do. This is not exactly a ghost story, but it is eerie. Today, we’re going to talk about Little Bastard, the car in which James Dean died. First, though, let’s talk a little bit about the man himself.
The first time I saw a picture of James Dean, I had to know who he was. He had this mystique, this air of cool about him.
Back in those dinosaur pre-internet days, it took a trip to the library to find out James Dean died tragically in a car crash at the age of twenty-four. This research expedition took place in the ice-age of VHS. I hauled my cookies down to the video rental store (remember those?) and rented, in turn, East of Eden, Rebel without a Cause, and Giant, which were the only films Dean made in his short career.
Giant, Dean’s final film, was released posthumously. Dean had just finished on-location shooting of Giant when he was killed. He’d returned to California and bought a Porsche Spyder. He nicknamed the Spyder “Little Bastard.”
Dean’s friends later claimed Little Bastard gave them an eerie feeling. They recall Dean laughing them off, claiming he was destined to die in a fiery car crash anyway. Sometimes things have a spooky way of coming true. The video below contains chilling road safety message from James Dean.
The day was September 30, 1955. James Dean was cruising at a high rate of speed toward Salinas, California and the car races. Rolf Wuentherich, a top Porsche mechanic, rode shotgun. At Blackwells Corner, a driver made a left turn in front of Dean, who was going too fast to stop. Bam! Just like that, it was all over. Wuentherich and the driver of the other car survived, but Dean perished. A quick google will turn up an image of the crash. You’ll see why I didn’t post one here if you choose to go looking.
This is where the curse of Little Bastard begins.
Barris’s Garage bought the car for parts. A mechanic, who was unloading the wreckage, suffered a broken leg–or two–as he was unloading Little Bastard and the car slipped. Souvenir seeking fans weren’t any luckier. A young man trying to steal a piece of bloody upholstery from Little Bastard ripped open his arm on the wreckage.
A physician who bought the Spyder’s engine was killed in car race while driving a car powered by Little Bastard’s motor. In the same race, another car in which Little Bastard’s drive train had been placed rolled over. The driver of that vehicle escaped with his life.
Little Bastard’s heavy duty racing tires, which survived the Dean crash intact, were sold to a sports car enthusiast. He put them on his car and went for a drive. The tires blew simultaneously, and almost killed the driver.
The Safety Exhibits
Barris was persuaded by the California Highway Patrol to let them use the car for a safety exhibit, and Little Bastard was stored in a garage. The garage went up in flames. Every car was destroyed, except for Little Bastard, which suffered bubbled paint and two damaged tires.
At a display at a Sacramento high school, Little Bastard fell off its pedestal and broke a student’s hip.
I’m just talking about a few instances here. There’s quite a bit more if you care to research.
The mishaps kept rolling on until 1960. Little Bastard was lent to the Florida Highway Patrol for a safety exhibit—boy, these people loved their safety exhibits, didn’t they?
After the exhibit ended, Little Bastard was crated and sent back to Barris. Somewhere, along the open highway between Florida and California, Little Bastard disappeared forever.
Some people think Little Bastard was destined to bring bad fortune to all who were associated with it, including Dean’s friends and acquaintances.
1968—Nick Adams was hired to dub his voice for Dean’s in several scenes of Giant. He died of a paraldehyde overdose in 1968.
1968—Rolf Wuetherich, the mechanic riding with Dean in the fatal crash, stabbed his wife fourteen times in a murder/suicide attempt. He pled insanity and later died in a car crash.
1976 — Sal Mineo, James Dean’s co-star in Rebel without a Cause, was stabbed to death.
If you want to read more about Little Bastard and other curious Dean death facts online, try Warren Beath’s The Death of James Dean website. I got the idea for this blog post from The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits by Rosemary Guiley.
Did the terror of James Dean’s last moments stay with Little Bastard? Perhaps the car was cursed by his bitterness over dying just as his career was about to explode. Or was the car cursed before Dean even bought it? I guess we, even the naysayers among us, will never know for sure.
If you’ve never seen East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, or Giant, pick one and watch it. James Dean had a lot of talent. It would have been interesting to see him grow as an actor. Those who knew James Dean predicted he would have gotten into directing his own films had he lived. Some people say he would have been Easy Rider.
Instead, he’ll be young and beautiful forever in our collective conscience. Let’s raise our coffee cups to James Dean. I swear, I find a man who’s prettier than me absolutely irresistible. Long live, gorgeous.