In Classic Hollywood Myths we take a look at all the myths about the Golden Age of Hollywood. What really happened? Are these ‘urban legends’ true or false? Classic Hollywood Central looks into it!
Myth: James Dean’s car was cursed
Legendary Classic Hollywood actor James Dean was a big fan of car racing. For insurance reasons, he was not allowed to race during the filming of his last movie Giant. But after filming wrapped, James immediately bought a dream car: a silver 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder. It was one of only 90 cars in that series. James was so proud of the car, which he nicknamed The Little Bastard, that he showed it off to everybody. But not everyone responded enthusiastically. Both Alec Guiness and Eartha Kitt said to James that the car would be the death of him. Friends like Nick Adams and Ursula Andress refused to get in the car altogether. James Dean died in a car crash only 9 days after purchasing the car, while on his way to a racing event in Salinas. Contrary to popular reports, he was not speeding. The other driver, coming from an opposite direction and making a left hand turn across Dean’s lane, simply failed to see Dean’s low slung car in the dusk light.
After James’ death, more tragic and strange things reportedly happened to the car which lead to the myth that the car was cursed. These are the persistent stories offered as proof that the car was bad luck:
-First, the remainder of the car was sold to a Dr. Eschrich, who had competed against James in a race a few months earlier. He used the engine and mechanical parts for his own car and loaned some other parts of the car to a Dr. Troy McHenry. They both competed at the Pomono Sports Car Races, where Dr. Eschrich was mildly injured when his car rolled while taking a curve during his next race and Dr. McHenry was killed when his car spun out of control and hit a tree.
-Auto customizer George Barris got the car’s mangled body. While the car was stored at Barris’ shop, a young man who was attempting to steal the steering wheel received a gash on his arm down to the bone on a piece of the car’s jagged metal. Another tried to steal a piece of the blood soaked upholstery and got injured as well.
-Two of The Little Bastard’s surviving tires were sold to a young man and they simultaneously blew out on a highway, sending the man’s vehicle into a ditch.
-Between 1957 and 1960 the car was exhibitioned at national auto shows and safety exhibits. While being transported, the truck driver died when The Little Bastard fell off the flat bed and crushed him to death.
-In 1959 The Little Bastard’s body was stored in a garage unit between exhibitions and the unit caught fire. The car was barely harmed and nobody was injured.
-On the fourth anniversary of Dean’s death, the Little Bastard was on display at Sacramento High School, when the bolts holding the car down snapped. The car careened off of the display stand and broke the hip of a fifteen-year-old boy.
-The car mysteriously disappeared in 1960. The Little Bastard was returning from a traffic safety exhibit in Florida in a sealed truck. The car was being shipped back in a sealed boxcar. When the train arrived in Los Angeles, George Barris signed the manifest and verified that the seal was intact—but the boxcar was empty.
True or False:
Most of these stories originate from a 1974 book called Cars of the Stars, written by none other than George Barris. As the owner of the (missing) body of James Dean’s car and the author of the book, he had significant financial interest in creating a mythical curse. Still some stories can actually be corroborated. Dr Eschrich’s injury and Dr. McHenry’s death while using parts of the car are true. The fire in the garage where The Little Bastard was stalled is also true and verifiable.
Every other story is hearsay. When researching the other stories it stands out that none of the other victims’ names, like that of the truck driver who supposedly died when the car crushed him, are known. It is therefore impossible to say whether these stories are true or if they’re just a part of creating the myth surrounding the car. James Dean biographer Lee Raskin even doubts if the car truly disappeared or if it simply lost its fan-appeal and that Barris decided a disappearance would perpetuate the myth.
Still, it’s true that Dean’s friends had a bad feeling about The Little Bastard and warned him about it. Dr. McHenry’s and Dr. Eschrich may be the only victims of the car after James Dean, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing. So True or False? That’s for you to decide.