Silver-screen icon James Dean was only 24 years old when he died in a terrible car crash. And his untimely passing only served to further cement his legendary status – both as a movie star and as a figurehead of American youth. Not everyone succumbed to the wreck in which Dean perished, though. You see, there had been a passenger in the car with him: mechanic Rolf Wütherich, who miraculously survived the incident. Wütherich was close enough, too, to hear Dean’s final words. But just what did the actor utter in his last minutes on Earth?
What’s more, cars had been a passion of Dean’s well before the accident. After finishing filming on East of Eden in 1954, he had even started buying up vehicles in preparation to become a racer. And in March 1955 he competed in his first racing competition, where he did very well – finishing second overall.
Dean went on to take part in another race in May 1955, although a piston blowing in his car ultimately meant he couldn’t finish. And despite the fact that he had only gotten started in his new career, this would also end up being his last event. During the making of the movie Giant, you see, he had been banned by Warner Bros. from taking to the track.
Ultimately, though, Dean wanted to get back in the game, and so he planned to compete in a Californian race in October 1955. In preparation, then, he took to the road in his Porsche Spyder alongside photographer Sanford Roth, stunt coordinator Bill Hickman and mechanic Rolf Wütherich. Wütherich had previously told Dean to break in the car by driving it beforehand.
Dean was also ticketed for speeding mere hours before the crash on September 30, as apparently he had been driving 65 mph in a 55 mph zone. Hickman, who had been in the car behind, also received a ticket. Then, after that, both vehicles headed down a shortcut named “the racer’s road.” And Dean, going faster than Hickman, tragically collided head-on with another car at 5:45 p.m.
Dean’s Porsche was hit so hard by the impact, in fact, that according to witnesses it cartwheeled into the air several times before crashing to the ground. Owing to the heavier weight of his own car, however, the other driver, U.S. Navy veteran and student Donald Turnupseed, suffered only slight injuries in the accident. Wütherich, meanwhile, was thrown from the Spyder and knocked unconscious.
A female passerby with medical experience then ran to the scene of the crash along with other witnesses. Unfortunately, though, she reported finding only a weak pulse in Dean; for all intents and purposes, he appeared to be deceased. An ambulance subsequently arrived and took both the actor and Wütherich to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital. And, sadly, Dean was pronounced dead on arrival that evening.
Dean’s funeral took place on October 8, 1955, in Fairmount, where the young man had grown up. The coffin was closed during the event, as the injuries to the actor’s body were too severe to be displayed to mourners. And there were plenty grieving the star’s passing; about 600 people gathered in the Fairmount Friends Church, with at least 2,400 more waiting outside.
The loss of Dean also had a sizeable impact on the American film industry. He even ended up being nominated for an Oscar twice after his passing for both East of Eden and Giant. And owing to his all-too-brief time on Earth, Dean also came to embody the “live fast, die young” ethos of the time.
However, many urban legends – some of them actually true – surround Dean’s untimely demise. For instance, much has been made of the idea that the car he died in – the Porsche 550 Spyder that he and his friends called “Little Bastard” – was haunted or cursed in some way.
And in 1977 Alec Guinness shared a story that seemingly gave weight to the “cursed car” theory. On the BBC’s Parkinson talk show, the Star Wars actor claimed that he’d met Dean a week prior to the crash and had tried to warn him away from his approaching fate.
Guinness said that he’d encountered Dean after having been turned away from a busy Hollywood restaurant. According to the veteran actor, he had subsequently heard the sound of someone running down the street and had turned around to see the young actor. And after that, Guinness revealed that Dean had introduced himself, saying, “I was in that restaurant, and you couldn’t get a table. My name is James Dean. Would you please come and join me?”
In addition, Dean apparently wanted to show the older man his newly bought Porsche Spyder. Guinness remembered, “There, in the courtyard of this little restaurant, was this little silver thing – very smart [and] all done up in cellophane with a bunch of roses tied to its bonnet.” And, as he went on to recount, he had then asked Dean how fast the car went.
Supposedly, the Rebel Without a Cause star replied that the car could go up to 150 mph, although he added that he hadn’t actually driven it yet. Guinness later claimed, however, that, at this point, “some strange thing [had come] over [him]… some almost different voice.” During his appearance on Parkinson, he added, “I said [to Dean], ‘Look, I won’t join your table unless you want me to, but I must say something: please do not get into that car.’”
According to Guinness, he had also told Dean, “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.” And yet, as we know, Dean didn’t take the ominous warning seriously.
Guinness concluded, “And [Dean] was dead the following Thursday afternoon in that car. It was one of those odd things. It was a very, very odd, spooky experience. I liked him very much, too. I would have loved to have known him more.” But were there really supernatural forces at play?
Well, over the years, rumors have spread that many people with links to the Porsche Spyder have all met tragic ends. Reportedly, a Porsche racer named Dr. Troy McHenry bought a cheap steering component from Dean’s ruined vehicle. This element is said to have failed at a crucial moment, however, and the resulting crash saw McHenry killed.
Car customizer George Barris also apparently had a run-in with the remains of the infamous vehicle. The story goes that after Barris bought the wrecked Spyder, the car slid off the tow truck and onto him – resulting in two broken legs. He is also said to have sold two of the Porsche’s tires; ultimately, though, these allegedly blew on a race track and almost killed another person.
Then, after that, Barris reportedly decided to exhibit the shattered car as part of a California Highway Patrol safety show. Yet, according to legend, the garage into which Little Bastard was moved soon burned to the ground, leaving nothing but ash, debris – and the vehicle sitting there almost completely unscathed.
Another death is said to have followed, too. One tale claims that driver George Barkuis had been transporting the ruined Porsche to another exhibition when his truck skidded – dislodging the car it was carrying. The Spyder then allegedly fell on top of Barkuis and killed him. In fact, Dean’s former vehicle purportedly fell off trucks on at least two more occasions after that.
And to add to the creepiness of it all, no one actually knows what became of the car’s remains. In 1960, you see, Little Bastard was apparently being shipped from Miami to Los Angeles when it simply disappeared. Its exact fate is still unknown, too, although people have since come forward with stories of elaborate theft.
Many have claimed, however, that the vast majority of the “curse” story was simply made up by Barris to promote his own career as a car customizer. Indeed, few of the tales about the Spyder have actually ever been traced back to reputable sources. The only report of death or injury linked to the vehicle that has been confirmed as true is the one about McHenry.
However, whether or not you believe in the curse, it does seem as though Dean was extraordinarily unlucky on the night that he died. You see, while the crash in which the star was involved is sometimes described as a “high-speed” one, he may have actually been going at a significantly slower pace than was previously assumed.
In 2005 Britain’s Channel 5 aired a documentary entitled The Day That James Dean Died. And during the broadcast, computer technology was used to determine that the Spyder was only traveling at about 70mph just prior to the accident. Furthermore, when the actor crashed, he was seemingly in the process of trying to avoid Turnupseed’s car. All in all, then, the apparent facts of the matter were contrary to what many people had once thought.
The last surviving person who witnessed the car crash, Don Dooley, was also interviewed for the documentary. And, interestingly, Dooley had always claimed that he had seen Wütherich behind the wheel of the car at the moment of impact – not Dean. Specifically, he asserted, “The man in the plaid shirt, the mechanic, was doing the driving.”
Back in the 1950s when the inquest into the accident took place, however, Dooley’s testimony about Wütherich was dismissed. And, in fact, the computer simulation also concluded that the mechanic was almost certainly not in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash. Instead, the force of the impact had been so great that it had essentially caused Dean and Wütherich to switch places.
Then, in 2018, another documentary about the fatal crash entitled Autopsy: The Last Hours of James Dean made a shocking claim. According to forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Hunter, who was interviewed for the show, the young actor may have survived the ordeal if the paramedics at the scene had fitted him with a neck brace.
Hunter declared during the documentary, “If this accident [had] happened today, [Dean] would have been put into a neck brace before being placed into the ambulance. James Dean’s broken neck was unsupported, and we will never know what impact the ambulance accident had on his chance of survival.”
Arguably, though, the person who knew the most about the accident was Wütherich. After all, he had been sitting right there in the car while it had all happened. The idea that he had been the real driver of the doomed Porsche was a persistent one, too. Other witnesses claimed that this was the case, you see, while Wütherich had also been found lying next to the driver’s side of the car after the crash.
And it’s also thanks to Wütherich that the world knows Dean’s apparent last words. According to the unfortunate passenger, the actor had referred to the oncoming Turnupseed mere moments before the smash, saying, “That guy’s gotta stop… He’ll see us.” Perhaps he was trying to reassure Wütherich in that moment; as history shows, though, his assessment was wrong.
Not everyone is convinced by Wütherich’s revelation, however. For example, James Dean expert Lee Raskin – who investigated the crash extensively – believes that the mechanic shouldn’t have been able to remember any pre-crash conversation. Wütherich also apparently told officials that he couldn’t recollect anything that had gone on immediately prior to the accident.
Yet when Wütherich was interviewed by Christophorus magazine in 1960, he not only detailed the fatal crash but also the events leading up to it. For instance, the passenger remembered that although Dean was ticketed for speeding, he was traveling at only 5 mph over the limit just before his demise. He said, too, that the actor “was a very well-behaved driver on the road.”
According to Wütherich, then, the only person who bore responsibility for the crash was Turnupseed. Yes, while the other driver may genuinely have not seen the Spyder owing to the mirror shine of its metallic paint, it had apparently been him and not Dean who had caused the collision. Dean, the mechanic said, must have erroneously assumed that Turnupseed had spotted him, and that was why he died.
Unfortunately, Wütherich’s life was virtually ruined as a result of surviving the crash that killed a Hollywood megastar. Although exact details are unknown, some accounts claim that, for years, he was sent letters blaming him for the accident. Wütherich is also said to have turned to alcohol in order to try and help himself through the aftermath of the ordeal.
But things got worse. Wütherich married four times – with his last spouse being a woman called Doris. And after attempting suicide on one occasion, the mechanic subsequently took a weapon and began stabbing his wife while she slept. Luckily, Doris survived, and after Wütherich was declared guilty of attempted manslaughter he was ultimately sent to a psychiatric hospital.
Eventually, Wütherich was released from the ward and went back to working on cars. Then, in July 1981, he agreed to feature in a German TV show discussing the death of James Dean – although this never actually came to pass. While drunk later that month, he spun his car out of control and died after crashing into a wall.
In fact, there were many uncanny similarities between the deaths of Dean and Wütherich. Both had perished in car crashes, obviously. The two men had also needed to be pulled out of their respective wrecks, while both had also died at the scene instead of in a hospital. And Wütherich also passed at a relatively young age – just 53.
It’s said, too, that Turnupseed was also haunted by the Dean crash for his whole life. Indeed, save for one interview right after the incident, he absolutely refused to speak anything of it to the media. The veteran ultimately passed away of lung cancer in 1995 and was survived by a large family, including two sons, a daughter, a stepson and five grandkids.
But even six decades after that fateful accident, Dean’s legacy lives on. In 2019, for example, a company called Magic City Films declared that it planned to use the actor’s image to create a new computer-generated “performance” in a war film. And while this announcement was met with mild horror, it nevertheless proved that Dean still had some sway as a silver-screen icon.
Meanwhile, the piece of road where the car crash occurred is now a field, while the highways themselves have been made a lot safer. It’s just a shame that it all came too late, as the Dean incident not only claimed one life but also seemingly ruined some others. Perhaps that’s why the alleged curse of Little Bastard still endures.