It was September 30, 1955, when film icon James Dean, aged just 24, died after his Porsche 550 Spyder crashed head-on into a Ford Custom Tudor coupe at the intersection of Highways 41 onto State Route 466.
That day Dean was headed to Salinas for an upcoming road race. His race mechanic, Rolf Wuetherich, was with him in the Spyder, while actor Bill Hickman and photographer Stan Roth were in another car behind.
America’s rebel without a cause liked to drive fast and had previously competed in several auto racing events. Just hours before the accident he was given a speeding ticket by a California Highway Patrol trooper for doing 65 in a 45mph zone. Warren Beath, the author of ‘The Death of James Dean,’ wrote that at the time of the collision Dean was traveling in excess of 75mph.
Donald Turnupseed was the man behind the wheel of the Ford Custom Tudor coupe that crashed head-on into Dean’s Spyder. Turnupseed survived and suffered only minor cuts and bruises. Dean’s race mechanic, Wuetherich, was thrown from the car but suffered a broken leg, broken jaw, and internal injuries that weren’t serious. He went on to die in another car crash in 1981. It was James Dean who suffered fatal injuries including broken neck, broken jaw, fractures of the arms and other injuries. He died within minutes of the crash.
Dean had made just three films before he died and only East of Eden had been released. But his tragic death made him front page news and when Rebel Without a Cause came out a month after his death he became – and remains – an American icon, his moody good looks and his rebellious disdain for authority defining the youth of post-war America. He died while still filming Giant but its release confirmed his star status, reports the Telegraph.
Many people who knew Dean thought that the car, known as ‘The Little Bastard’, was too dangerous for him and warned him not to race it, but he was determined to participate in the races at Salinas, CA. His girlfriend, Ursula Andress, refused to even get into the car, and Sir Alec Guinness warned him not to drive the car, saying that he would die behind its wheel.
A week before the accident happened, the future Obi-Wan Kenobi was in California for the first time. Together with his female companion, Thelma Moss, who was wearing trousers, he was trying to find a restaurant that allowed in women wearing trousers. They tried their luck in three different restaurants but failed to find seating because of Thelma’s trousers. They finally found a restaurant called the Villa Capri that did, but there was no available table and they decided to leave.
Their luck changed when James Dean, who happened to be at the same restaurant, invited them to join him. Before they went inside Dean asked them to go with him into the courtyard to show them his brand new racing car, Porsche 550 Spyder, that was parked there.
‘The sports car looked sinister to me’, Sir Alec Guinness wrote. “How fast can you go in that?” I asked. “I can do 150 in it,” he replied. Exhausted, 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 just laughed and said, “Oh, shucks! Don’t be so mean!”
It was September 23, 1955, when Sir Alec Guinness warned the 24-year-old that he would die in the Porsche 550 Spyder.
Seven days later, James Dean tragically lost his life after his Porsche 550 Spyder crashed head-on into a Ford Custom Tudor coupe.