When legendary Hollywood star James Dean wasn’t acting, he was behind the wheel of something fast. After all, his passion in life wasn’t appearing on the silver screen; it was, and always had been since his youth, racing. That enthusiasm ultimately led to his untimely death in 1955 following a head-on collision in the Porsche 550 Spyder he had owned for just nine days.
Dean’s accident solidified both him and the Porsche in automotive and entertainment lore, his name synonymous with a rapid climb to fame from a midwestern town, and the Porsche with his death. Now, you can own a piece of that story as what’s reported to be the gearbox from Dean’s 550 Spyder has been listed unexpectedly on Bring a Trailer. Just know what you’re getting yourself into if you do buy it.
Following Dean’s infamous crash, the insurance company rightfully wrote the car off as a total loss. The car was supposedly then sold to a Los Angeles doctor named William Eschrich who would repurpose the Porsche’s 108-horsepower, aircooled, 1.5-liter engine in his Chapman-engineered Lotus Mark IX (it would later be nicknamed “Potus”).
Additional parts were reportedly loaned from Eschrich to a surgeon and fellow racer named Troy McHenry, who owned a Spyder and wanted to have several spare parts on hand—a smart move considering Porsche only produced 90 total units between 1953 and 1956. McHenry would reuse the suspension from Dean’s “Little Bastard,” as it had been nicknamed prior to the fatal accident, in his own 550 Spyder.
With parts of Dean’s Porsche fitted to their cars, McHenry and Eschrich both set out to race one another at the Pomona Sports Car Races in October 1956. While Eschrich’s Lotus battled for the lead with another driver’s Spyder, it hit a patch of gravel and was taken out of the race, injuring the doctor. McHenry also found trouble as, during the race, the car’s steering failed, leading to a fatal collision with a tree.
The remains of Dean’s Spyder following the 1955 crash.
The remains of Dean’s car were then purchased by George Barris, the man who originally customized the Spyder for him prior to the 1955 crash. Barris reportedly bought the vehicle with intentions to rebuild it, but later found it was beyond repair and instead looked to make the most out of its infamy.
Barris would loan the car to the National Safety Council where it would be sent on a number of tours across the U.S. between 1957 and 1959. Reportedly, the car would undergo further seemingly supernatural events—a fire that burned down the garage housing the Porsche without damaging the car; the Spyder falling off of its mount at a safety exhibit at a high school; two tires salvaged from the wreck which blew out simultaneously (causing a crash); and the car crushing the driver of a transport truck during a freak accident that ejected him from the vehicle. Barris would later report that the car’s remains disappeared during transportation.
Dean and Wütherich the day of the fatal accident.
Dean’s Porsche-trained factory mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, was in the car with him the day of the crash and was thrown free from the wreckage. He spent months recovering but survived the crash and would eventually move back to Germany to work at Porsche’s testing department. In 1981, Wütherich signed a contract for a television show to discuss the specifics of the crash but was abruptly killed after losing control of his car and colliding with a house.
But most notable is the prediction foretold by British actor Alec Guinness, who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy. He recalled in his diary meeting Dean about two days after he bought the Spyder while at a restaurant in California. Dean was eager to show off his new sports car and told Guinness that he could hit 150 miles per hour, prompting Guinness to usher a rather grim warning: “If you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week.” I don’t have to tell you what happened next.
The transaxle now featured on Bring a Trailer was eventually rebuilt following its fabled past and eventually packed away in a wooden crate for more than three decades. While it is an undoubtedly rare and interesting part, it stirs quite a bit of controversy and has so many superstitions attached to it. But if you are in the market for such a rare piece, be prepared to pay. At the time of writing, the gearbox has been bid up to $100,000 with 12 days remaining.
“People say racing is dangerous, but I’ll take my chances on a track any day instead of the highway,” Dean said famously in a public service announcement for the National Safety Council just weeks prior to his death. “Take it easy driving, the life you save might be mine.”
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