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James Dean Car Crash



The death of Hollywood actor James Dean occurred on September 30, 1955, near Cholame, California. Dean had previously competed in several auto racing events, and was traveling to a sports car racing competition when his car crashed at the junction of California State Route 46 (former 466) and California State Route 41. He was just 24 years old.


On September 30, 1955, Dean and his Porsche factory-trained mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, were at Competition Motors in Hollywood preparing the "Little Bastard" for the weekend sports car races at Salinas. Dean originally intended to tow the Porsche behind his Ford station wagon, driven by Hickman and accompanied by professional photographer Sanford H. Roth, who was planning a photo story of Dean at the races for Collier's magazine. Because the Spyder did not have enough "break-in" miles prior to the race, Wütherich recommended that Dean drive it to Salinas to get more "seat time" behind the wheel. The group had coffee and doughnuts at the Hollywood Ranch Market on Vine Street across from Competition Motors before leaving around 1:15 p.m. PST. They stopped for gas at a Mobil station on Ventura Blvd. at Beverly Glen Blvd. in Sherman Oaks around 2:00 p.m. The group then headed north on the Golden State Freeway and then over the "Grapevine" toward Bakersfield.


At 3:30 p.m., Dean was stopped by California Highway Patrolman O.V. Hunter at Mettler Station on Wheeler Ridge, just south of Bakersfield, for driving 65 mph in a 55 mph zone. Hickman, following the Spyder in the Ford with the trailer, was also ticketed for driving 20 mph over the limit, as the speed limit for all vehicles towing a trailer was 45 mph. After receiving the citations, Dean and Hickman turned left onto SR 166/33 to avoid going through Bakersfield's slow 25 mph downtown district. SR 166/33 was a known short-cut for sports car drivers going to Salinas, called "the racer's road", which took them directly to Blackwells Corner at U.S. Route 466 (later SR 46). At Blackwells Corner, Dean stopped briefly for refreshments and met up with fellow racers Lance Reventlow and Bruce Kessler, who were also on their way to Salinas in Reventlow's Mercedes-Benz 300 SL coupe. As Reventlow and Kessler were leaving, they all agreed to meet for dinner in Paso Robles.



At approximately 5:15 p.m., Dean and Hickman left Blackwells Corner, driving west on Route 466 toward Paso Robles, approximately 60 miles away. Dean accelerated in the "Little Bastard" and left the Ford station wagon far behind. At approximately 5:45 p.m., a black-and-white 1950 Ford Tudor driven at high speed was headed east on Route 466 just west of the junction near Shandon. Its driver, 23-year-old US Navy veteran and Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, made a left turn onto Route 41 headed north, toward Fresno. As Turnupseed's Ford crossed over the center line, Dean (clearly seeing an imminent crash) apparently tried to steer the Spyder in a "side stepping" racing maneuver, but with insufficient time and space, the two cars collided almost head-on. A witness, John Robert White, reportedly saw the Spyder smash into the ground two or three times in cartwheels, and landing in a gully beside the shoulder of the road, northwest of the junction. The velocity of the impact sent the much-heavier Ford broad-sliding 39 feet down Route 466 in the opposing lane. The collision was witnessed by several passersby who stopped to help. A woman with nursing experience attended to Dean and detected a weak pulse in his neck, but according to the woman, "death appeared to have been instantaneous".


California Highway Patrol (CHP) Captain Ernest Tripke and his partner, Corporal Ronald Nelson were called to the scene. Before Tripke and Nelson arrived, Dean had been extricated from the Spyder's mangled cockpit, his left foot having been crushed between the clutch pedal and the brake pedal. He was severely injured as his vehicle took the brunt of the crash, suffering a broken neck and massive internal and external injuries. Nelson witnessed an unconscious and dying Dean being placed into an ambulance, and a barely conscious Wütherich, who had been thrown from the Spyder, lying on the shoulder of the road next to the wrecked vehicle. Dean and Wütherich were taken in the same ambulance to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, 28 miles away. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at 6:20 p.m. by the attending emergency room physician, Dr. Robert Bossert. The cause of death listed on James Dean's death certificate is listed as a broken neck, multiple fractures of the upper and lower jaw, both right and left arms broken, and internal injuries. Warren Beath wrote that Dean had died in the arms of his friend, Bill Hickman. Despite reports of Dean's speed being around 85 mph, Nelson estimated that the actual speed was around 55 mph, based on the wreckage and position of Dean's body.



Wütherich survived with a broken jaw and serious hip and femur injuries that required immediate surgery. Turnupseed was only slightly injured with facial bruises and a bloodied nose. After being interviewed by the CHP, Turnupseed hitch-hiked in the dark to his home in Tulare. Hickman and Roth arrived at the scene approximately ten minutes after the crash. Hickman assisted in extricating Dean from the wreckage. Roth took photographs of the crash scene later acquired by Seita Ohnishi, a retired Japanese businessman who erected a memorial near the site.


The "curse" of James Dean's car, the "Little Bastard", has become part of America's cultural mythology. Warren Beath, a James Dean archivist and author, believes the source of the myth is George Barris, the self-described "King of the Kustomizers", who says he was the first to purchase the wrecked car. Barris promoted the "curse" after he placed the wreck on public display in 1956. Over the years, Barris described a mysterious series of accidents, not all of them car crashes, that occurred from 1956 to 1960 involving the "Little Bastard", resulting in serious injuries to spectators and even a truck driver's death. Raskin states many claims regarding the "curse" appear to have been based on Barris' 1974 book, Cars of the Stars.



Some sources give Dean's last known words — uttered right before the impact when Wütherich told Dean to slow down as the Ford Tudor pulled into their lane — as, "That guy's gotta stop ... He'll see us". Raskin believes that any report about Dean and Wütherich communicating prior to the crash is pure conjecture. According to the coroner's deposition taken of Wütherich in the hospital, and later in a 1960 interview given to an official Porsche magazine, Christophorus, he could not recall any of the exact moments leading up to and after the crash.


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