James Dean and His Cursed Car. A DragonKing Dark Feature Article

By: Karl Stern (@wiwcool, karl@whenitwascool.com)

Episode 147 of the DragonKing Dark Podcast featured the story of the car that killed James Dean. That might seem like an odd way of phrasing a sentence. Wouldn’t one normally say, “DragonKing Dark featured a story on the wreck that killed James Dean?” and I would normally agree. However, it seems as though the death of James Dean and the story of his custom Porsche Spyder with the number 130 painted on the hood and doors, has taken on a life of it’s own. Or should I say, has taken a few lives of it’s own.

The curse of James Dean's Porsche Spider has become part of pop culture lore. George Barris seems to be the source of the story of the curse. George Barris was known as the "King of the Kustomizers". You might recognize George Barris’ name, he is also famous for customizing the Ford Futura which became the Batmobile in the 1966 Batman television series.

Barris placed the wreckage of James Dean’s car on public display in 1956. The car was already one of the most famous in Americana since James Dean died in it but I suppose Barris must have thought he’d stoke the fire a little with a tale of what happened to the car after the James Dean wreck. Over the years, Barris described a series of accidents that occurred from 1956 to 1960 involving the Porsche Spyder, resulting in serious injuries to spectators, a truck driver's death, broken bones, and more. George Barris released a book in 1974 called Cars of the Stars which may be the origins for much of the curse story.

Just a few of the alleged incidents surrounding the curse include:

  • Two doctors raced their cars with wreckage engine and chassis. One hit a tree killing him instantly. The other was seriously injured when his car rolled going around a curve in the race.

  • Two tires from the wreck went to a New Yorker which blew out simultaneously causing another crash.

  • A souvenir seeker ripped his arm open on jagged metal while attempting to steal the steering wheel.

  • A Fresno, CA garage caught fire destroying everything except the wreckage of the Spyder.

  • Two separate fatal accidents involving tow trucks transporting the Spyder took place.

Several other incidents are covered in detail in the DragonKing Dark Podcast - Episode 147 - James Dean Cursed Car.

The wrecked Porsche Spyder was declared as a total loss by the insurance company, which paid off to James Dean's father, Winton. The insurance company, via a salvage yard in Burbank, California, sold the Spyder to Dr. William F. Eschrich. Eschrich, an autoracer like Dean, used parts from the car in his Lotus IX race car. Eschrich then raced the Porsche-powered Lotus 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 accident with another driver.

George Barris' book states that 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. Eschrich of Burbank, was injured in the same race when his car, which contained the drivetrain from Dean's car, rolled over." Eschrich, interviewed a day after McHenry's fatal accident, 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."

George Barris knew William Eschrich and 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 car but soon realized the damage was too substantial. In 1956, Barris loaned out the car to the Los Angeles chapter of the National Safety Council for a local rod and custom car show. The display was promoted as: "James Dean's Last Sports Car". During 1957–1959, the exhibit toured various car shows and highway safety displays throughout California.

There are several stories associated with the supposed curse that can be corroborated. A wire service story on March 12, 1959, reported that the car stored in a garage in Fresno, caught fire "awaiting display as a safety exhibit in a coming sports and custom automobile show". No one was injured: "The cause of the fire is unknown. It burned two tires and scorched the paint on the vehicle." Later that year, the car was shown at national auto shows and traffic safety exhibitions. The curse story also claims that the car mysteriously disappeared in 1960. According to George Barris, the Spyder was returning from a traffic safety exhibit in Florida in a truck but when the truck reached California the car had disappeared.

Although the legendary James Dean death car seemingly disappeared, Historic Auto Attractions in Roscoe, Illinois, claims to have an original piece of it on display - a small chunk of aluminum, that was pried off and stolen while the Spyder was being stored in the Cholame Garage following the accident. 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 cars passenger door. Volo and George Barris offered $1 million to anyone who could prove that they owned the remains of the car. No one came forth to claim the prize and, to date, the whereabouts of the car remain unknown.

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