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						Dean 550 Trans

James Dean’s 550 Spyder Transaxle

By Dean Larson

Photos: Seller, BringaTrailer.com

One of the most iconic actors of Hollywood’s golden age, James Dean both lived and died in a spectacular fashion. It’s been nearly 66 years since Dean’s last ride in his 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder, and still the circumstances of his death and the fate of the “Little Bastard” Porsche are captivating. The recent appearance of a Porsche 550 transaxle stamped 10 046 on BringaTrailer.com reminds us that the accident on Route 466 all those years ago didn’t mark the end for the Little Bastard, and tangible artifacts from that fateful day are still out there.

James Dean’s acting career was really hitting its stride by 1955. Dean was then 24 years old and had gained notoriety as a good-looking actor who embodied the themes of youth disillusionment, the rebel spirit and social estrangement. After a short stint of minor roles, Dean’s first big break had came in the film East of Eden, where he played a bean grower named Cal Trask. More doors opened for Dean after East of Eden, and he next gave the defining performance of his life as the rebellious L.A. teenager Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause. But Dean wanted to avoid pigeonholing himself to this sort of role, and next sought a much different role as Jett Rink, a ranch hand who strikes it rich by discovering crude oil in the film Giant. Unfortunately, Giant would prove to be Dean’s last film, and he wouldn’t live to see his last two films in their final versions.

Young and flush with cash from his recent acting roles, Dean had picked up road racing in his spare time. He purchased a Triumph Tiger, and then a Porsche 356 Speedster and started road racing in novice classes. He did quite well at his first outing at Palm Springs, and again a month later at Bakersfield. Next, Dean was running fourth place at Santa Barbara when his Speedster lost a piston, forcing him to settle for a DNF. He took the engine to Competition Motors in Hollywood to be rebuilt, but instead opted to trade the car and $3,000 cash for a new 550 Spyder (silver with dark blue tail stripes), one of several that had just arrived at the dealership. Along with the cars, came a young Porsche mechanic by the name of Rolf Wütherich, who Dean quickly befriended.

Dean soon had the 550 customized his race number 130, and the signature “Little Bastard” across the tail, but Wütherich advised him that the car was not ready to be raced yet, and that he should log at least 1,500 miles on the car to break the engine in before race day. Despite hot-rodding around Hollywood from sun up till sun down, the car still only had 800 miles on it, so Dean decided he would drive the car to his next planned outing, which was Salinas in early October. Dean left Hollywood the day before the race with Wütherich in the passenger seat and friends following in their tow vehicle, but the commute was one he wouldn’t complete.

Dean and Wütherich were a little over half way to Salinas approaching the split of Highway 41 and Route 466 when a Ford Tudor driven by 23-year-old Donald Turnupseed crossed into Dean’s lane to proceed on 41. Believing he could drive around the Ford, Dean accelerated, but collided with Turnupseed regardless. Dean was essentially dead on impact, while Wütherich was ejected from the Spyder into a nearby field. Wütherich suffered a broken jaw and nearly lost his leg, while Turnupseed walked away with only minor injuries. Turnupseed would be found innocent of any wrongdoing given the speed Dean was believed to be traveling.

Dean’s Spyder was pretty much destroyed in the accident, its aluminum bodywork and ladder chassis buckling from the wreck. The engine and transaxle were unharmed though, and a fellow Spyder owner named Dr. William Eschrich purchased the car and removed those items. Trailing arms from the car were purchased by another Spyder owner, and what remained of the car was eventually purchased by George Barris. Barris famously loaned the wreck to the Greater Los Angeles Safety Counsel, who campaigned it across the country under the banner “This Accident Could Have Been Avoided.” As the story goes, the Spyder was stolen from a railcar years later while on tour, and we can only guess what happened to it from there.

So what do we really have here then? According to Porsche documentation, the four-speed transaxle bearing the number 10 046 is indeed the one fit in James Dean’s Porsche, chassis number 550-0055 when new, and its ownership history is well recorded. Eschrich kept the transaxle for a while and had mechanic Al Cadrobii rebuild it some years later. From there, it was purchased by Jim Barrington, who likely sold it to the current seller. The magnesium-case transaxle is currently fit on a steel display stand with axles, brake drums, and a starter.

Obviously this piece has a lot of value given that it was originally installed in a 550 Spyder, but the connection to James Dean is what’s going to drive this into the stratosphere. In terms of a conversation piece, you’ll struggle to find a better one. But what’s really exciting is the idea of one day rejoining it with engine number 90 059, wouldn’t that be something? Or even being the owner of such a piece if the chassis of this car were to ever turn up… We can dream right?

See the Porsche 550 transaxle here on BringaTrailer.com.

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