There wasn’t much left of the car when it was all over. Its silver body was twisted and mangled, parts torn and crushed like a flimsy soda can; its passenger, thrown clear through the windshield, was not much better off. Its driver, trapped in the cockpit of the car, even worse still. James Dean died only moments after the crash in the arms of stuntman and good friend Bill Hickman, who had been following several miles behind him in another car, and pulled Dean out of the wreckage. Hickman would later talk about how haunted he was by the sound of Dean’s last breath leaving his lungs. He wasn’t able to sleep for days. The passenger, mechanic and another close friend of Dean’s, Rolf Wütherich, would survive the accident, but with grave injuries. In a sad twist of fate, he would die 26 years later in another car accident back home in Germany. The other driver, also a very young man, was fortunate enough to sustain very minor injuries, though he was understandably traumatized by the crash.
That was September 30, 1955, and the day had begun as a happy one. Dean was traveling alongside his friends Hickman and Wütherich, to participate in the Salinas Road Race over the following two days. A photographer, Sanford Roth, was doing a story on Dean, and he had come along for the ride. The original plan had been to transport Little Bastard to the race in a trailer behind a larger, sturdier car, but the mechanic in the group, Wütherich, suggested that they drive the little racing car to the event, to give Dean a chance to really settle in and be comfortable behind the wheel, while he himself rode in the passenger seat. Little Bastard was very new, delivered only the week prior, and Dean had really only had the chance to drive it a little around Hollywood. The racing team all agreed it would help them in the race if Dean were more familiar with how the car drives, and so they did.
He was undeterred by the words of the young English actor he had met a week prior, warning him to never drive in the car. “Please do not get into that car, because if you do, if you get into that car at all, it’s now Thursday, 10 o’clock at night, and by 10 o’clock at night next Thursday, you’ll be dead if you get into that car.’ Alec Guinness, overcome by a dire sense of apprehension, was very serious in his concern. Dean just laughed.
Hickman followed behind with Roth, hauling the empty trailer behind him. They met with some friends along the way and made plans to meet up again later that evening. The only hitch in their day was the speeding tickets issued to both Dean and Hickman for going 10 mph and 20 mph over, respectively. It has been reported that Dean was traveling 85 mph at the time of the crash, though one of the California Highway Patrol officers called to the scene, Ron Nelson, estimated it was much closer to 55 mph based on the forensic evidence at the scene. More relevant to the accident, perhaps, was that Little Bastard, as a race car, was very low to the ground and very light. The other driver in the collision, Donald Turnupseed, was driving the much taller 1950 Ford Tudor, didn’t see Dean’s car approaching due to its unusually small size on a road vehicle, and made a turn that he thought was safe. He would later be affirmed as innocent of wrongdoing in this case. Dean saw the accident coming, judging by the defensive maneuver he had begun to initiate, but there just wasn’t time. It all happened too fast, and the cars collided virtually head-on.
James Dean was only 24 years old when he died in that car accident. He had already enjoyed a promising acting career in Hollywood for several years by that point, starring in movies with titles that people still recognize today – East of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause – and with an even brighter future spread out ahead of him. He had become fascinated with racing and had driven his first race only six months earlier.
He seems to have chosen the delightfully scandalous name for his new Porsche 550 Spyder, “Little Bastard,” for at least two reasons. It’s known that Bill Hickman and Dean were good friends, and referred to each other teasingly as “Little Bastard” and “Big Bastard,” and perhaps it was an affectionate reference to that. It’s also known that Jack L. Warner, Warner Brothers President and man who had apparently had enough of Dean’s antics, had referred to Dean as “a little bastard” over a dispute on the set of East of Eden, and Dean decided to wear that mantle with pride. Most likely, it was a little bit of both that led to his nickname for his car, lovingly emblazoned on the back of the car in an elegant script.
No one really knows when the curse began, if Dean was victim to the curse or if his death somehow initiated it. Some of the tales of the legendary curse include that two of Little Bastard’s tires were sold after the accident and exploded in unison during a race, sending car and driver into the ditch. A storage facility where Little Bastard was being kept mysteriously caught fire. The car’s body, being transported to an exhibition, fell and killed a transport driver. The car broke the legs of one man and the hip of another as it fell off various places. It killed a doctor who was using its engine. It simply vanished one day and no one has seen it since.
Alec Guinness truly did prophesy that Dean would die in the car inside a week, he’s spoken and written about it extensively, and it could be said that perhaps he sensed the curse, if he didn’t simply have a foreboding flash of his new friend’s fate, but other than very little ultimately can be corroborated. The vast majority of the stories are just that, stories. Despite numerous attempts by experts throughout the years, they cannot be verified.
In reality, after Dean’s death the car was considered a “write off” and its carcass was sold through a salvage yard. Automobile customizer George Barris has claimed he was the first to own the car, and was witness to the curse, and in fact most of the stories about the curse of Little Bastard originate in his book Cars of the Stars, published 14 years after the alleged disappearance of Little Bastard.
It was in fact a racer who had competed against Dean in the past, Dr. William F. Eschrich, who purchased the car from a salvage yard, stripped it, and gave the car’s broken shell to Barris. Eschrich then loaned several other parts to his good friend Dr. Troy McHenry, and installed Little Bastard’s engine in his own race car. Over the following year he used the engine in seven races, and had one minor collision with another car in which no one was seriously harmed. Dr. McHenry wasn’t so lucky, unfortunately; he had driven the race with an arm of Little Bastard which secured the back of the car, and suffered a fatal crash into a tree. This crash, of course, was not mechanically caused by the car part in question, in fact could not have been, and McHenry’s tragic death is the only one in any way related to Little Bastard aside from that of Dean himself.
The car’s innards are still out there: there’s a small piece of metal stolen off LB while in storage immediately after the accident now in a private collection, and a transaxle assembly (presently owned by Ghost Adventures alumnus Zak Bagans), and the engine still belongs to the Eschrich family; none of it causing death or destruction to their owners, nor fires, nor mysteriously vanishing from sealed boxcars.
This is not the story of a curse; it’s the story of a fraud.
Barris’ name comes up a lot in relation to the curse, and there’s a good reason for that.
George Barris was the “King of Kustomizers” and he truly earned that name. He did the custom work for many Hollywood productions, and over his career he designed and built the 1966 Batmobile and the Munster’s Dragula among many, many other recognizable cars from television and cinema. His studio was next to Dean’s friend and artist responsible for the scroll of “Little Bastard” across Little Bastard’s rear, Dean Jeffries, and Barris had in fact worked at a distance with Dean on the set of Rebel Without A Cause. Despite Barris’ claims to the contrary, that appears to be as close as he had been to Dean. After acquiring the shell of Little Bastard, Barris’ intention was to rebuild the car, but that turned out to be prohibitively difficult given the state of the remains. Instead he welded metal over portions of the shell for stability, and simulated damage by manually beating it. From this he created a display, which was toured around and for a long time was profitable.
There actually was a fire at a storage facility that was housing Little Bastard. It was a very small fire; Little Bastard was scarcely damaged, the property and other vehicles stored there were not damaged at all. There were no injuries.
Little Bastard – or, more accurately, the shell that contained some pieces of the original Little Bastard and parts that certainly were not – “disappeared” out of our world and into the realms of legend in 1960. Barris alleges upon its return from a Florida exhibition via train, he signed for the car and opened the sealed box car it had been transported in, only to find it empty. He has offered a reward of one million dollars for anyone who can locate the remains of Little Bastard, but no one has come forth.
Respected Porche historian and Dean scholar Lee Raskin believes that the reason Little Bastard’s shell has never surfaced is because it no longer exists. Outright calling Barris a “fraud”, he believes that Barris fabricated and played up the legend for profit, and when the profits began to run dry, he arranged for it to vanish, adding to the air of mystery surrounding the car and securing its place in legend, alongside his role as owner of the accursed vehicle. He considers, and the evidence certainly favors his view, the curse to be entirely manufactured by Barris, who was simply profiting off the tragedy.
Are there cursed and haunted cars? Perhaps. The Most Evil Car in America, a 1964 Dodge 330, is said to possess its owners and cause them to kill, ending in their own suicides. Bonnie and Clyde’s Ford V8, in which they were slain in a shoot-out with federal agents during the Great Depression, is allegedly haunted, as is the car in which JFK died. A grey figure is regularly seen standing next to it in the month of November in the museum where it resides. The esoteric world of haunted and cursed objects is out there, alive and well and deeply mysterious, even if Little Bastard is not among their ranks.
Beath, Warren Newton. The Death of James Dean. Grove Press, 1986.
Berg, Nik. “The Curse of James Dean’s ‘Little Bastard’ Porsche 550 Spyder.” Hagerty UK, 14 December 2020. Retrieved 1 March 2022.
Coombs, Cathy. “The Unexpected and Early Death of Promising Actor James Dean.” Medium, Medium, 10 February 2022. Retrieved 1 March 2022.
“Famous Cursed & Haunted Cars: Most Famous Spooky Cars.” Famous Cursed & Haunted Cars | Most Famous Spooky Cars. Retrieved 1 March 2022.
Fitzgerald, Craig. “Cursed Cars: James Dean’s Haunted ‘Little Bastard’ Porsche 550.” BestRide, 29 October 2019. Retrieved 1 March 2022.
Hintz, Charlie. “Little Bastard: The Disappearance of James Dean’s Cursed Car.” Cult of Weird, 26 September 2020. Retrieved 1 March 2022.
“James Dean Unpublished Crash Site Photograph’s Up for Auction.” Old Cars Weekly, Old Cars Weekly, 8 August 2019. Retrieved 1 March 2022.
JP. “‘Little Bastard’: the Silver Spyder Porsche/Dean Mystery Revisited.” The Selvedge Yard, 5 December 2014. Retrieved 1 March 2022.
Lerner, Preston. “What Really Happened to James Dean’s ‘Cursed’ Porsche.” CMG Worldwide. Retrieved 1 March 2022.
Parker, Ryan. “Alec Guinness Warned James Dean About His Car One Week Before Deadly Crash.” The Hollywood Reporter, The Hollywood Reporter, 11 July 2017. Retrieved 1 March 2022.
ABOUT EM HILKER
Obsessed with all things dark and weird from a young age, E. Madelyne Hilker has used every opportunity to steep herself in mysterious lore, and is working on her first novel Hallow Earth. She works as a new media producer by day and crochets like a madwoman by night. Maddy lives in small town Ontario, Canada with her family and a large collection of houseplants.