At 5:45 PM on this day in 1955, 24-year-old actor James Dean is killed in Cholame, California, when the Porsche he is driving hits a Ford Tudor sedan at an intersection. The driver of the other car, 23-year-old California Polytechnic State University student Donald Turnupseed, was dazed but mostly uninjured; Dean’s passenger, German Porsche mechanic Rolf Wütherich was badly injured but survived. Only one of Dean’s movies, “East of Eden,” had been released at the time of his death (“Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant” opened shortly afterward), but he was already on his way to superstardom–and the crash made him a legend.
James Dean loved racing cars, and in fact he and his brand-new, $7000 Porsche Spyder convertible were on their way to a race in Salinas, 90 miles south of San Francisco. Witnesses maintained that Dean hadn’t been speeding at the time of the accident–in fact, Turnupseed had made a left turn right into the Spyder’s path–but some people point out that he must have been driving awfully fast: He’d gotten a speeding ticket in Bakersfield, 150 miles from the crash site, at 3:30 p.m. and then had stopped at a diner for a Coke, which meant that he’d covered quite a distance in a relatively short period of time. Still, the gathering twilight and the glare from the setting sun would have made it impossible for Turnupseed to see the Porsche coming no matter how fast it was going. Rumor has it that Dean’s car, which he’d nicknamed the Little Bastard, was cursed. After the accident, the car rolled off the back of a truck and crushed the legs of a mechanic standing nearby. Later, after a used-car dealer sold its parts to buyers all over the country, the strange incidents multiplied: The car’s engine, transmission and tires were all transplanted into cars that were subsequently involved in deadly crashes, and a truck carrying the Spyder’s chassis to a highway-safety exhibition skidded off the road, killing its driver. The remains of the car vanished from the scene of that accident and haven’t been seen since. Wütherich, whose feelings of guilt after the car accident never abated, tried to commit suicide twice during the 1960s–and in 1967, he stabbed his wife 14 times with a kitchen knife in a failed murder/suicide–and he died in a drunk-driving accident in 1981. Turnupseed died of lung cancer in 1981.