Death of James Dean

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Death of James Dean
DateSeptember 30, 1955 (1955-09-30)
LocationAt the junction of California State Route 46 and California State Route 41 near Cholame, California
CauseCar crash
DeathsJames Dean
Non-fatal injuries

Hollywood actor James Dean was killed at age 24 in an auto accident on September 30, 1955, near Cholame, California. He had previously competed in several auto racing events, and was traveling to a sports car racing competition when he crashed his car at the junction of California State Route 46 (former 466) and California State Route 41.

Racing career background[edit]

In April 1954, after securing the co-starring role of Cal Trask in East of Eden, James Dean purchased a 1955 Triumph Tiger T110 650 cc motorcycle and, later, a used red 1953 MG TD sports car.[1] In March 1955, Dean traded the MG for a new 1955 Porsche Speedster purchased from Competition Motors in Hollywood, California. He traded the Triumph T110 for a 1955 Triumph TR5 Trophy three days after filming wrapped on East of Eden.[1] Just before filming began on Rebel Without a Cause, Dean competed in the Palm Springs Road Races with the Speedster on March 26–27. He finished first overall in Saturday's novice class, and second overall in the Sunday main event. Dean also raced the Speedster at Bakersfield on May 1–2, finishing first in class and third overall. His final race with the Speedster was at Santa Barbara on Memorial Day, May 30, where he started in the eighteenth position, worked his way up to fourth, before over-revving his engine and blowing a piston. He did not finish the race.[2]

Dean and his Porsche Speedster 23F at Palm Springs Races March 1955

During the filming of Giant from June through mid-September, Warner Brothers had barred Dean from all racing activities. In July, Dean put down a deposit on a new Lotus Mark IX sports racer with Jay Chamberlain, a dealer in Burbank. Dean was told that the Lotus delivery would be delayed until autumn. On September 21, as Dean was finishing Giant, he suddenly traded in his Speedster at Competition Motors for a new, more powerful and faster 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder and entered the upcoming Salinas Road Race event scheduled for October 1–2. He also purchased a new 1955 Ford Country Squire station wagon to use for towing the "Little Bastard" to and from the races on an open wheel car trailer.[3]: 101–102 

According to Lee Raskin, Porsche historian and author of James Dean: At Speed, Dean asked custom car painter and pinstriper Dean Jeffries to paint "Little Bastard" on the car:

Dean Jeffries, who had a paint shop next to [George] Barris, did the customizing work which consisted of: painting '130' in black non-permanent paint on the front hood, doors and rear deck lid. He also painted "Little Bastard" in script across the rear cowling. The red leather bucket seats and red tail stripes were original. The tail stripes were painted by the Stuttgart factory, which was customary on the Spyders for racing ID.[4]

Purportedly, Dean had been given the nickname "Little Bastard" by Bill Hickman, a Warner Bros. stunt driver whom Dean befriended. Hickman was part of Dean's group driving to the Salinas Road Races on September 30, 1955. Hickman says he called Dean "little bastard", and Dean called Hickman "big bastard". Another version of the "Little Bastard" origin – corroborated by two of Dean's close friends, Phil Stern and Lew Bracker – is that Warner Bros. president Jack L. Warner had once referred to Dean as a little bastard after he refused to vacate his temporary East of Eden trailer on the studio's lot. And Dean wanted to get "even" with Warner by naming his race car "Little Bastard" and defiantly show that despite the racing ban during all filming, he would be racing the "Little Bastard" in between projects.[3]: 106 

Car crash[edit]

Approximate key locations of Dean's fatal trip[a]
Dean leaves the Hollywood Ranch Market near Vine Street and Fountain Avenue in Hollywood
Dean stops at a gas station on Ventura and Beverly Glen Blvds. in Sherman Oaks
Dean is pulled over for speeding in Mettler
Dean uses State Route 166/State Route 33, passing through Maricopa
Dean stops in Blackwells Corner
Crash site at the junction of State Route 46 and State Route 41
Paso Robles, intended stop for dinner
Salinas, intended destination
Junction of state highways 46 (former 466) and 41 as it looked in 2007

On September 30, 1955, Dean and his Porsche factory-trained mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, were at Competition Motors in Hollywood preparing the "Little Bastard" for the weekend sports car races at Salinas. Dean originally intended to tow the Porsche behind his 1955 Ford Country Squire station wagon, driven by Hickman and accompanied by professional photographer Sanford H. Roth, who was planning a photo story of Dean at the races for Collier's magazine. Because the Spyder did not have enough "break-in" miles prior to the race, Wütherich recommended that Dean drive it to Salinas to get more "seat time" behind the wheel. The group had coffee and donuts at the Hollywood Ranch Market on Vine Street across from Competition Motors before leaving around 1:15 p.m. PST. They stopped for gas at a Mobil station on Ventura Boulevard at Beverly Glen Boulevard in Sherman Oaks around 2:00 pm. The group then headed north on the Golden State Highway (U.S. Route 99, now part of Interstate 5[a]) and then over the "Grapevine" toward Bakersfield.[3]: 111–115 

At 3:30 pm, Dean was stopped by California Highway Patrolman Otie V. Hunter at Mettler Station, south of Bakersfield, for driving 65 mph (105 km/h) in a 55 mph (89 km/h) zone.[5][6] Hickman, following the Spyder in the Ford Country Squire with the trailer, was also ticketed for driving 20 mph (32 km/h) over the limit, as the speed limit for all vehicles towing a trailer was 45 mph (72 km/h). After receiving the citations, Dean and Hickman headed west onto SR 166/33 to avoid going through Bakersfield's slow 25 mph (40 km/h) downtown district. SR 166/33 was a known short-cut for sports car drivers going to Salinas, called "the racer's road", which took them directly to Blackwells Corner at U.S. Route 466 (later SR 46). Dean author and expert Warren Beath disagrees, citing Rolf Wuetherich's inquest deposition, wherein he specifically states they went through Bakersfield and turned left on 466. O. V. Hunter, in his testimony, says Dean continued on to Bakersfield. Beath, who lives in Bakersfield, points out that Highway 99 does not go through downtown Bakersfield but skirts the city on the east side. At Blackwells Corner, Dean stopped briefly for refreshments and met up with fellow racers Lance Reventlow and Bruce Kessler, who were also on their way to Salinas in Reventlow's Mercedes-Benz 300 SL coupe. As Reventlow and Kessler were leaving, they all agreed to meet for dinner in Paso Robles.[3]: 116–118 

At approximately 5:15 pm, Dean and Hickman left Blackwells Corner, driving west on Route 466 toward Paso Robles, approximately 60 miles (97 km) away. Dean accelerated in the "Little Bastard" and left the Ford station wagon far behind. Further along on Route 466, the Porsche crested Polonio Pass and headed down the long Antelope Grade, passing cars along the way toward the junction of Route 466 and Route 41. At approximately 5:45 pm, a two-tone black and white 1950 Ford Tudor was headed east on Route 466 just west of the junction near Shandon.[7]: 44 [8] Its driver, 23-year-old US Navy veteran and Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed,[9][10][11] made a left turn onto Route 41 headed north, toward Fresno. As Turnupseed's Ford crossed over the center line, Dean (clearly seeing an imminent crash) apparently tried to steer the Spyder in a "side stepping" racing maneuver, but with insufficient time and space, the two cars collided almost head-on. A witness, John Robert White, reportedly saw the Spyder smash into the ground two or three times in cartwheels,[7]: 47  and landing in a gully beside the shoulder of the road, northwest of the junction. The velocity of the impact sent the much-heavier Ford broad-sliding 39 feet (12 m) down Route 466 in the opposing lane.[3]: 122–127  The collision was witnessed by several passers-by who stopped to help. A woman with nursing experience attended to Dean and detected a weak pulse in his neck.[12]

California Highway Patrol (CHP) Captain Ernest Tripke and his partner, Corporal Ronald Nelson were called to the scene.[13] Before Tripke and Nelson arrived, Dean had been extricated from the Spyder's mangled cockpit, his left foot having been crushed between the clutch pedal and the brake pedal. He was severely injured as his vehicle took the brunt of the crash, suffering a broken neck and massive internal and external injuries. Nelson witnessed an unconscious and dying Dean being placed into an ambulance, and a barely conscious Wütherich, who had been thrown from the Spyder, lying on the shoulder of the road next to the wrecked vehicle. Dean and Wütherich were taken in the same ambulance to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, 28 miles (45 km) away. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at 6:20 p.m. by the attending emergency room physician, Dr. Robert Bossert. The cause of death listed on James Dean's death certificate is listed as a broken neck, multiple fractures of the upper and lower jaw, both right and left arms broken, and internal injuries.[3]: 129  Warren Beath wrote that Dean had died in the arms of his friend, Bill Hickman.[14] Despite reports of Dean's speed being around 85 mph (137 km/h), Nelson estimated that the actual speed was around 55 mph (89 km/h), based on the wreckage and position of Dean's body.[13]

Wütherich survived with a broken jaw and serious hip and femur injuries that required immediate surgery. Turnupseed was only slightly injured with facial bruises and a bloodied nose. After being interviewed by the CHP, Turnupseed hitch-hiked in the dark to his home in Tulare. Hickman and Roth arrived at the scene approximately ten minutes after the crash. Hickman assisted in extricating Dean from the wreckage. Roth took photographs of the crash scene later acquired by Seita Ohnishi, a retired Japanese businessman who erected a memorial near the site.[3]: 138, 135 

Some sources give Dean's last known words – uttered right before the impact when Wütherich told Dean to slow down as the Ford Tudor pulled into their lane – as, "That guy's gotta stop ... He'll see us".[15] Raskin believes that any report about Dean and Wütherich communicating prior to the crash is pure conjecture. According to the coroner's deposition taken of Wütherich in the hospital, and later in a 1960 interview given to an official Porsche magazine, Christophorus, he could not recall any of the exact moments leading up to and after the crash.[3]: 138 

Inquest and aftermath[edit]

The official sheriff-coroner called for an inquest, held at the council chambers in San Luis Obispo on October 11, 1955, where Turnupseed told the jury that he did not see the low-profile Spyder until after he was turning left onto Route 41. After other testimony by the CHP and witnesses, the coroner's jury came back with a verdict of "accidental death with no criminal intent", finding Turnupseed not guilty of any contributory wrongdoing in the death of Dean.[16]: 116 

Although not charged with any offense, Turnupseed had nevertheless been dealt a devastating blow that would haunt him for the rest of his life.[17] He granted just one interview to the Tulare Advance-Register newspaper immediately following the crash, but after that he refused to speak publicly about it. Turnupseed went on to own and operate a very successful family electrical contracting business in Tulare. He died at the age of 63 from lung cancer in 1995.[18]

Wütherich, after having several complicated surgeries on his hip and femur, went back to West Germany in 1957 with psychological and legal problems. He worked for Porsche's testing department and international rally and racing teams during the 1960s. He died in July 1981, in Kupferzell, West Germany, in another auto collision when he lost control of his car and crashed into a residence. Like Dean, Wütherich had to be extricated from the wreck and died at the scene. He was 53 years old.[3]: 138 

While filming Giant, Dean also filmed a short public service announcement with actor Gig Young for the National Safety Council. It featured Dean dressed as Jett Rink talking about how driving fast on the highway can be more dangerous than racing on the track. At the end of the segment, instead of saying the catchphrase "The life you save may be your own", Dean ad-libbed the line "The life you might save might be mine".[19]

Funeral and memorial[edit]

James Dean Memorial in Cholame. Dean died approximately one mile east of this tree.

Dean's funeral was held on October 8, 1955, at the Fairmount Friends Church in Fairmount, Indiana. The coffin remained closed to conceal the severe injuries to his upper torso and face. An estimated 600 mourners were in attendance, while another 2,400 fans gathered outside the church during the procession. Dean's body is buried at Park Cemetery in Fairmount, less than a mile from where he grew up on his aunt and uncle's farm.

In 1977, a memorial to Dean was erected in Cholame, California. The stylized sculpture is composed of stainless steel around a tree of heaven growing in front of the former Cholame post office building. The sculpture was designed in Japan and transported to Cholame, accompanied by the project's benefactor, the aforementioned Seita Ohnishi of Kobe. Ohnishi chose the site after examining the location of the crash scene less than a mile away. The original Highway 41 and 46 junction where the collision occurred has shifted slightly as the two roadways were realigned over the decades to make them safer. On September 30, 2005, the junction at Highways 46 and 41 was dedicated as the James Dean Memorial Junction as part of the State of California's official commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his death.[20]

The dates and hours of Dean's birth and death are etched into the sculpture, along with a handwritten description by Dean's friend William Bast of one of Dean's favorite lines from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince: "What is essential is invisible to the eye." It also includes an infinity symbol next to the date of his death, to indicate that he will never be forgotten.

Dean's grave in his hometown, Fairmount, Indiana.

"Curse" of Dean's car[edit]

The "curse" of James Dean's car, the "Little Bastard", has become part of America's cultural mythology. Before the car had been involved in any crash, the curse may have already started. In his 1985 autobiography, Blessings in Disguise, British actor Sir Alec Guinness relates that on his first night in L.A, on Friday, September 23, 1955, after leaving a restaurant with no table available and setting out to look elsewhere,[21] he and his friend Thelma Moss met James Dean, who invited them to dine with him at his table at the place they had just left, and showed them his Red Porsche, with Dean saying "It's just been delivered". A hungry and exhausted Guinness then warned Dean to never go into the car: "Please, never get in it. It is now ten o'clock, Friday the 23rd of September, 1955. If you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week." The following Friday, his prediction would come true.[22]

After the fatal crash, Warren Beath, a James Dean archivist and author, attributes the existence of the curse to George Barris, the self-described "King of the Kustomizers",[23] who says he was the first to purchase the wrecked car. Barris promoted the "curse" after he placed the wreck on public display in 1956. Over the years, Barris described a mysterious series of accidents and car crashes, that occurred from 1956 to 1960 involving the "Little Bastard", resulting in serious injuries to spectators and even a truck driver's death.[16]: 50–51  Raskin states many claims regarding the "curse" appear to have been based on Barris' 1974 book, Cars of the Stars.[24]: 20–23 [3]: 130, 133–134 

Raskin's 2005 book James Dean: At Speed states that the wrecked Spyder was declared as a total loss by the insurance company, which paid Dean's father, Winton, the fair market value as a settlement. The insurance company, in turn, through a salvage yard in Burbank, sold the Spyder to a Dr. William F. Eschrich. Eschrich, who had competed against Dean in his own sports car at three race events during 1955, dismantled the engine and mechanical parts and installed the Porsche 4-cam engine in his Lotus IX race car chassis. Eschrich then raced the Porsche-powered Lotus, which he called a "Potus", at seven California Sports Car Club events during 1956. At the Pomona Sports Car Races on October 21, 1956, Eschrich, driving this car, was involved in a minor "shunt" with another driver.[3]: 131–134 

Barris' Cars of the Stars states that a Dr. McHenry, "driving a car powered by the engine from Dean's car, was killed when his vehicle went out of control and struck a tree in the first race in which the motor had been used since Dean's mishap. Another doctor, William F. Eschrid [sic] of Burbank, was injured in the same race when his car, which contained the drivetrain from Dean's car, rolled over."[24]: 21–22  Eschrich, interviewed a day after McHenry's fatal crash, said he had loaned the Dean transmission and several other parts to McHenry: "I don't believe he was using the transmission when he crashed, but he was using the back swinging arms which holds the rear end."[16][25] McHenry appears to have the distinction of being the only bona fide victim of the "curse".[16]: 151 

Raskin states that although Barris may have customized several cars for Rebel Without a Cause, he never customized any of Dean's personal cars and neither of his Porsches.[3]: 74  Lew Bracker, Dean's best friend in Los Angeles and fellow Porsche racer, maintains that Barris was not involved with Dean's racing activities; he was never considered to be part of Dean's "inner circle" invited to go to Salinas on September 30, 1955.[3]: 113  It is not known exactly how Barris knew Eschrich, but he was given the Spyder's mangled body after Eschrich had stripped out the Porsche. In 1956, Barris announced that he was going to rebuild the "Little Bastard", but that proved to be a Herculean task as the wrecked chassis had no remaining integral strength. Instead, Barris decided to weld aluminum sheet metal over the caved-in left front fender and cockpit area. He proceeded to beat on the aluminum panels with a 2x4 to try to simulate what would appear to be collision damage.[3]: 133  Later in 1956, Barris loaned out the "Little Bastard" to the Los Angeles chapter of the National Safety Council for a local rod and custom car show. The gruesome display was promoted as: "James Dean's Last Sports Car". During 1957–1959, the exhibit was toured in various rod and custom car shows, movie theatres, bowling alleys, and highway safety displays throughout California.[3]: 134 

There are few stories associated with the "curse" that can be corroborated. For example, a wire service story on March 12, 1959, reported that the "Little Bastard", temporarily stored in a garage at 3158 Hamilton Avenue in Fresno, caught fire "awaiting display as a safety exhibit in a coming sports and custom automobile show". However, on May 12, 1959, The Fresno Bee, reported that the fire occurred on the night of March 11 and only slight damage occurred to the Spyder without any damage to other cars or property in the garage. No one was injured: "The cause of the fire is unknown. It burned two tires and scorched the paint on the vehicle."[16]: 51  Later that year, the "Little Bastard" toured national auto shows and traffic safety exhibitions. Legend also holds that the "Little Bastard" mysteriously disappeared in 1960. According to Barris, the Spyder was returning from a traffic safety exhibit in Florida in a sealed truck. In Barris' book and in many TV interviews, he said the "Little Bastard" was being shipped back in a sealed boxcar. When the train arrived in Los Angeles, Barris said he signed the manifest and verified that the seal was intact—but the boxcar was empty.[16]: 51 

Raskin believes that Barris' "Little Bastard" side show had lost its fan appeal just as the 1960s pop culture began to focus on "big block" Muscle Cars.[26] Raskin also believes that Barris opted to misplace the "Little Bastard". The mysterious disappearance stories were Barris' way of perpetuating the Dean myth, especially on the milestone anniversaries of Dean's death.[3]: 133–134 

Although the legendary "Little Bastard" seemingly has disappeared from sight, Historic Auto Attractions in Roscoe, Illinois, claims to have an original piece of Dean's Spyder on display (a small chunk of aluminum, a few square inches in size) that was prised-off and stolen from an area near the broken windscreen while the Spyder was being stored in the Cholame Garage following the crash. Also, in 2005, for the 50th anniversary of Dean's death, the Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Illinois, announced they were displaying what was purported to be the passenger door of the "Little Bastard". Volo and Barris offered $1,000,000 to anyone who could prove that they owned the remains of the "Little Bastard". No one came forth to claim the prize.[3]

The 4-Cam Porsche engine (#90059), along with the original California Owner's Registration (a.k.a. CA Pink Slip) listing the engine number, is still in the possession of the family of the late Dr. Eschrich. The Porsche's transaxle assembly (#10046), is currently owned by Porsche collector and restorer Jack Styles in Massachusetts. Raskin originally documented and published all the serial numbers (VINs) for the Spyder (chassis, engine, transmission); as well as for his 356 Super Speedster. To date, neither of Dean's Porsches have been located.[27][28]


On February 15, 2009, all three of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers who dealt with Dean on the day of his death – Officer Otie Hunter, who ticketed Dean for speeding, and Officers Ernie Tripke and Ronald Nelson, who investigated the fatal crash – participated and shared their memories of that fateful day in an SCVTV documentary titled The Stuff of Legend: James Dean's Final Ride, co-produced by the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.[29]


  1. ^ a b Please note that the West Side Freeway segment of Interstate 5 through the Central Valley from Wheeler Ridge north to Sacramento, bypassing Mettler and Bakersfield to the west, was not built until the 1970s.


  1. ^ a b Wasef, Basem; Leno, Jay (2007), Legendary Motorcycles, Motorbooks International, pp. 13–19, ISBN 978-0-7603-3070-8, retrieved 2012-05-20
  2. ^ Raskin, Lee (2005). James Dean: At Speed. Phoenix, Ariz.: David Bull. pp. 47–48, 68–71, 73–74, 78–81, 83–86. ISBN 978-1-893618-49-7.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Raskin, Lee (2006). James Dean: At Speed. David Bull Publishing. ISBN 978-1-893618-49-7. OCLC 1085998138.
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  5. ^ Hunter, O. V. (State Traffic Officer, California Highway Patrol), September 30, 1955. Form 215 (Notice to Appear) number D730248 issued on that date to Dean. Picture of yellow copy viewed October 4, 2017.
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  8. ^ Keith Elliot Greenberg (1 August 2015). Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die – James Dean's Final Hours: James Dean's Final Hours. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. p. 144. ISBN 978-1-4950-5041-1. OCLC 907104147.
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  11. ^ Dixon, Wheeler W. (1999). Disaster and Memory: Celebrity Culture and the Crisis of Hollywood Cinema. Columbia University Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-231-11317-5. OCLC 475539750.
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  14. ^ Beath 2007, p. 51
  15. ^ Frascella, Lawrence; Weisel, Al (2005). Live fast, die young: the wild ride of making Rebel without a cause. Simon & Schuster. p. 233. ISBN 978-0-7432-6082-4. OCLC 1022713571.
  16. ^ a b c d e f Beath, Warren Newton; Wheeldon, Paula (2005). James Dean In Death: A Popular Encyclopedia of a Celebrity Phenomenon. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-2000-1. OCLC 936695433.
  17. ^ Riese, Randall (1991). The Unabridged James Dean: His Life from A to Z. Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books. p. 534. ISBN 0-8092-4061-0.
  18. ^ (1995, July 13/14). "Obituary: Turnupseed, Donald", Tulare Advance-Register
  19. ^ YouTube
  20. ^ "Satellite view of 35°44'05.0"N 120°17'04.0"W". Google maps. Google Map Data. 15 June 2022. Retrieved 15 June 2022.
  21. ^ Eyes On Cinema. Alec Guinness warned James Dean one week before his death: "Please, do not get into that car!"
  22. ^ Guinness, Alec.Blessings in Disguise, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1985, pp. 34-35.ISBN 0-394-55237-7
  23. ^ Barris, Brett; Nason, Douglas (2015). King of the Kustomizers: The Art of George Barris. Last Gasp. ISBN 978-0-86719-809-6. OCLC 907449846.
  24. ^ a b Barris, George; Scagnetti, Jack (1974). Cars of the Stars. Jonathan David Publishers. ISBN 978-0-8246-0166-9. OCLC 914721.
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  29. ^ "The Stuff of Legend: James Dean's Final Ride". Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. February 15, 2009. Retrieved October 1, 2018.

Coordinates: 35°44′04″N 120°17′04″W / 35.73444°N 120.28444°W / 35.73444; -120.28444