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Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Curse of Little Bastard

By Henry Biggs

James Dean, Hollywood's most enduring rebel would have marked his 75th birthday yesterday had he not died in one of the most famous car crashes in history.

Although he died before Elvis Presley had his first hit, Dean's rebellious image has always been associated with rock 'n' roll and he was idolised by musicians like Presley, Bob Dylan and John Lennon, who is quoted as saying "without James Dean, the Beatles would never have existed."

James Dean at the wheel of Little BastardJust 24 years old when he died, Dean's death was seen as so untimely that a considerable mystique has grown up around the crash and the car, a 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder.

Born on February 8 1931, in Marion, Indiana, Dean was a natural born racer. In 1955 the film star acquired a Porsche 550 Spyder, one of only 90 built and had legendary car customiser George Barris paint the racing number 130 on the doors and 'Little Bastard' on the back, the nickname Dean had been given by Bill Hickman, his language coach on Giant, Dean's third starring role and final film.

Known as a speed demon, Dean had been banned from racing by the studio during the filming of Giant but with that out of the way he was free to compete again. The Porsche was in fact just a stopgap for Dean as after delivery of a Lotus Mk. X sports-racer he had ordered was delayed and he wanted a car in which to compete at the races in Salinas, California on October 1 1955. Ironically, while on the set of Giant, Dean recorded an infomercial for the American National Safety Council urging young drivers to slow down, saying: "Remember, slow down. The life you save might be mine."

Proud of his new purchase, Dean was eager to show off his silver Stuttgart sportscar to friends but his purchase didn't go down well. Eartha Kitt, a friend of Dean's from his New York days begged him to sell it and the actress Ursula Andress refused to go for a ride in it. Dean then took the car to Villa Capri, a famous Hollywood restaurant to show his new purchase to the owner, a friend of his. The owner told Dean: "That car will kill you, it is too dangerous." Perhaps the most chilling premonition came from Alec Guinness whom Dean bumped into at the restaurant. When he saw the Spyder he allegedly told Dean: "Never get in that car. It is September 23rd, nine o'clock, Friday night, if you drive that car, you will be dead at this time next week." Even Barris himself expressed foreboding, claiming he felt: "a weird feeling of impending doom". As ever, Dean shrugged off his friends' concerns saying that he was destined to die in a speeding car.

True to Guinness' prediction, on the morning of September 30 1955, Dean died in a car smash with massive head injuries and a broken neck. More than 3,000 people attended his funeral in Fairmount, Indiana and Dean was nominated posthumously for two Academy Awards, for his performances in East of Eden and Giant.

The Curse
The nickname Dean gave to his Porsche 550 SpyderBut the car's association with death didn't end with Dean. Barris bought the car back for parts and installed the engine and transmission into two separate race cars, both owned by wealthy doctors. Racing for the first time with the new parts at Pamona Fairgrounds in California on October 2 1956, Troy McHenry lost control of his Spyder, leaving the track and hitting a tree. He was killed instantly.

Unwilling to sell any more parts from the wreck, Barris was persuaded by the California Highway Patrol to lend them the car for a travelling exhibition on the dangers of speeding. While being transported to Salinas, the place Dean was driving to before he died, the truck carrying the Porsche lost control and crashed. The driver was thrown clear only to be crushed when the Spyder fell from the transporter and crushed him. The car came off the back of transporters twice more, once on a busy freeway, snapping in two. The final straw for Barris came when the 550, on display in New Orleans, inexplicably broke into eleven pieces. Crated up in Miami, the car was placed on a truck for the journey back to California but both truck and cargo vanished en route and 'Little Bastard' was never seen again.

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