THE CURSE OF LITTLE BASTARD – JAMES DEAN’S EVIL CAR
Posted June 29, 2015on:
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The idea of cursed and haunted cars is nothing new. The vehicle in which the Emperor Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie, were assassinated in Sarajevo in June 1914 – thus sparking an apocalyptic World War – was reputed to be cursed for instance. Does a car get such a reputation because of events surrounding it? Or, as in the case of James Dean’s porsche, can the vehicle itself actually be considered to be evil? Certainly there were plenty of people around at the time who shuddered at the sight of Dean’s latest acquisition and believed nothing good could result from it. Was that because of the car? Or because the combination of fearless young men and fast cars can be a recipe for disaster?
Nearly 60 years after his untimely death, James Dean remains one of the most iconic actors ever to come out of Hollywood. This in spite of the fact that he only made 3 films, and he died at the ridiculously young age of 24. When someone dies young we are always left with the feeling of “what could have been”, and certainly in Dean’s case, he had all the potential to go on to become a hugely talented and successful actor. In the epic film Giant, he more than held his own against the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. But it was with the teenage angst film Rebel Without A Cause that Dean is arguably best known.
The concept of the teenager was largely unknown before the 1950s. Prior to that you were either an Adult or a Child, there was no in-between. But the mid-1950s saw “the youth explosion”, when suddenly young people demanded a culture all of their own. It is usually accepted that this was a backlash against the staid austerity (certainly in Britain that would have been the case) of the post-war years. Young people felt the older generation were trying to hang onto a time that had gone, and were sick of the constant harping back to the War years. In Britain it resulted in the Angry Young Men, playwrights like John Osborne who raged against the old-fashioned genteel state of the theatre, and brought in gritty kitchen-sink drama’s. In his lonely bedsit, Colin Wilson wrote The Outsider, which focussed on people who felt at odds with mainstream society.
In America young people were sick of the staidness of the music scene and cinema, and brought in their own. Rock N Roll was born. It’s hard to see now why a harmless, jolly little number like Rock Around The Clock would spark a youth rebellion, but it did. When the film in which the song appeared was shown in cinema’s, youngsters ripped out the seats so that they could dance more freely. In Rebel Without A Cause, James Dean seemed to speak for disenchanted youngsters everywhere. With his quiffed hair, leather jacket, and brooding good looks, he must have seemed the ultimate image of Young Cool.
James Dean’s greatest passion though was for racing-cars. He was even banned from indulging in speed driving whilst working on a film, as the producers feared (quite rightly as it turned out) what would happen to him. In September 1955, Dean acquired a new car, a Porsche 550 Spyder. Dean had it customised for him by George Barris, who would later go on to build the legendary Batmobile in the 1960s TV series. It is said that it was Dean’s language coach, Bill Hickman, who nicknamed it Little Bastard, after an insult that had once been flung at Dean by Warner Brothers studio head, Jack Warner. The name seemed fitting for this hell vehicle somehow.
Dean may have been thrilled with his new acquisition, but his friends and acquaintances were less so. His current date, Ursula Andress, refused to get in it. An ex-girlfriend, cult star Maila Nurmi (Vampira), left a note on the windscreen urging him not to drive it. A few days before his death, Dean met fellow actor Alec Guinness outside the Villa Capri restaurant in Los Angeles, and showed off his pride and joy, with it’s tartan seats, and ability to reach 150 mph.
Sir Alec’s response probably wasn’t what Dean wanted to hear. Guinness said the car was “sinister”, and with awful accuracy predicted “If you get in that car, you will be dead in it by this time next week”.
On 30 September 1955, Dean, accompanied by his mechanic, Rolf Wutherich, were driving the car to a race in Salinas, California. They were pulled over for speeding at 3:30 PM, and Dean signed the speeding ticket. It was to be his last autograph. Shortly afterwards, at 5:15 PM, whilst driving down Route 466, another young man, Donald Turnupseed, inexplicably swerved his car directly into Dean’s path. Dean tried to swerve out of his way, but the cars smashed head-on. The Porsche was flipped up into the air. Dean was pulled from the wreckage, but died on arrival at hospital at 6:20 PM. Wutherich had a broken jaw, but survived. Turnupseed got away with minor injuries.
George Barris bought the remains of Little Bastard for $2500. A few days after the fatal crash, whilst he was transporting it, the car slipped loose of it’s trailer, rolled away, and crushed a mechanic’s leg. The legend of the curse of Little Bastard gained momentum. Barris broke the car up into parts, and sold them off. Troy McHenry brought the engine, and William Eschrid the drivetrain. McHenry and Eschrid took part in the same race, which resulted in McHenry losing control of his vehicle, and running into a tree. He was killed instantly. Meanwhile, Eschrid’s wheels locked. Fortunately, although he sustained serious injuries, he lived to tell the tale.
One customer bought two of Little Bastard’s tyres. Both blew out at exactly the same time. The rest of the car was back at Barris’s shop. A couple of opportunistic thieves broken in, hoping to get the seats and the steering-wheel. Both managed to injure themselves in the process. By this point Barriss must have been absolutely sick of the damned thing. He hoped to hide it away, but the California Highway Patrol wanted to exhibit it, as a lesson in road safety. The police stored it in a garage, prior to exhibition. Perhaps needless to say by now, the garage burnt down. Little Bastard was unscathed.
Undeterred, the cops took the car to a high school, to teach the kids about road safety. Little Bastard fell off it’s display, and crushed a student’s hip. Transporting the car to another venue, the driver of the truck was thrown from his cab. He was killed instantly. Even the cops had had enough of it by now. They asked Barriss if he wanted it back, and arranged to return it to him … and that’s the last we hear of Little Bastard. The car mysteriously disappeared at that point, and has never been heard of since. There have of course been urban legends about Little Bastard over the years. Of bits of it turning up on eBay for instance, but I have no idea how true those stories are. Although going by it’s history, frankly I think you would be mad to buy any of it.
So was there a curse on James Dean’s car? Some have hinted darkly that Dean got involved with the Occult when he was seeing queen of the goths, Maila Nurmi, that he ended their relationship when he grew concerned that it might be bad for his public image, and that she cursed his car as a result. This seems a bit unfair when Maila left an anxious note on his windscreen warning him not to drive it! Certainly the car seemed to have an effect on his acting colleagues. Actors can be a notoriously superstitious bunch, and something about Little Bastard clearly made them wary.
Could it be simply the lethal combination of a reckless young man, hooked on speeding, behind the wheel of a very powerful car? Dean himself was philosophical about all the warnings he got, saying that he believed it was quite likely he’d die in a car accident anyway. It’s not even clear though if Dean was speeding when he died. Some have said that he was exceeding 80 mph, others have said he was driving as slow as 20. The detail of Turnupseed suddenly swerving across to him sounds like a freak accident.
Was it simply the car itself that was evil? This is a tricky one, as for many of us it’s hard to see how a lifeless object can actively be evil. A car is like a gun or a computer, it needs someone to operate it. And yet clearly something about Little Bastard repelled people. Whatever the truth of the matter, all we can hope is that all parts of Little Bastard have long since disappeared. Meanwhile, it is said, the ghost of a young actor has occasionally been seen speeding in a phantom Porsche along California’s highways …