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Tim's Forza History Class

James Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder

By Tim DeLong- 06-03-2015



With the recent Porsche expansion pack for Forza Horizon 2 creating such a stir, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at one of the most famous and mysterious Porsches in history. The Porsche 550 Spyder of James Dean.

For those of you too young to remember, James Dean was the Paul Walker of 1950’s Hollywood. Dean was a celebrated actor and heartthrob with a passion for speed. When Dean wasn’t shooting a film, he could be found at the race track. Dean was an accomplished driver having competed in several amature races in and around California. Dean’s rather cocky attitude on and off the set gained him the nickname “Little Bastard”, a name he proudly displayed across the back of his 550 Spyder.

There is a story that when Dean met English actor Alec Guinness, most famously known for his portrayal of Obi Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars movies, Dean insisted on showing off his new 550 Spyder. Guinness told Dean that he felt there was something sinister about the car and added that "If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week." That chance meeting between Guinness and Dean took place exactly seven days before Dean’s fatal crash.

Dean’s 550 Spyder was a potent little race car. Since the 550 was designed to function both as a road and race car, it was the privateer racer’s choice from 1955 to the mid 1960’s. 550 Spyders were a popular choice for winning races and championships across Europe and the U.S.

With its lightweight aluminum construction and 91.4 cu. in. 4 cylinder engine producing just over 100 HP, the 550 was known in racing circles as “The Giant Killer” for its ability to win overall against much larger displacement cars in higher classes.

The 550 is available to us in the Porsche pack for Forza 4 on the Xbox 360. Once again, Turn 10 did an outstanding job of replicating the 550’s performance. It is definitely a driver’s car. The 550 handles like it’s on rails, but momentum is key. The four cylinder in the 550 is not exactly a torque monster. It will get you to about 140 mph, but it will take some time to get there.

Most 550’s left Porsche’s Stuttgart factory painted silver. If you chose to have spears of color on the rear fenders of your 550, they were also painted at the factory and were usually red, yellow, white, or blue.

On September 30th 1955, Dean and his Porsche mechanic, Rolf Wutherich were traveling to Salinas California from Hollywood for a weekend of racing. Dean and Wutherich were traveling at approximately 85 mph when a 23 year old college student made a left turn in his Ford Tudor directly into the 550’s path. The little Porsche was sent airborne and tumbled to a stop along a fence. Dean and Wutherich were rushed to the hospital. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival and Wutherich survived but with several broken bones and lacerations.

The crumpled Porsche was purchased by renowned Hollywood car customizer George Barris, creator of the Munster’s koach, The original TV series Batmobile and several other radical customs. Purportedly a local Doctor purchased the engine for use in his race car. He was killed in an accident in his first race after putting Dean’s engine in his car. Barris then loaned the car to the National Safety Council to tour around the U.S. to car shows and other events to be displayed as a warning against speeding on public roads.

The folklore surrounding the Little Bastard gets strange at this point. There are several stories of people setting up the car on display and getting injured or killed. There are also stories of people breaking off small pieces of the aluminum body while viewing the display and meeting a grisly demise shortly after. Very few, if any, of these stories can be substantiated, but they do make for good folklore. Perhaps the strangest rumor it that the car was sent from Florida back to Hollywood via either rail or truck, I’ve read both. The car was placed in a sealed and locked trailer or rail car, but when it arrived in California the lock was still in place, yet the car was gone. Many believe that this was simply a media stunt by Barris to add to the mystery of the Dean Porsche.

In 2005 Volo Auto Museum and George Barris offered 1 million dollars to anyone who could lead them to the infamous 550. To date, no one has come forward.

 

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