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The Worldwide Search for the James Dean pre-A Speedster

Wallace Wyss, an American auto historian, is letting it be known that he is on the trail of the James Dean pre-A Speedster. 

Not the car Dean was killed in,which was a 550 Spyder, but the pre-A 1955  rear-engined Speedster he owned before he bought the Porsche 550 Spyder that he had his fatal accident in Sept. 30, 1955 in Cholame, CA.
Dean's first Porsche is described as a 1955 glacier white 356 Speedster Super 1500. Dean purchased  the car brand new from John von Neumann's Hollywood's Competition Motors. One account says the dealership was lambasted after the accident Dean had in the Spyder for selling that car to him; ironically implying he wasn’t ready for a pure racing-only car (though in those days you could drive a car with a racing windscreen on the street; in fact Wyss remembers seeing  LeMans racing 275Ps on the street in California as late as 1972)

Over time, Dean raced the Speedster at Palm Springs and Santa Barbara and, during the race,  had collisions with other drivers, whereupon he  hastily had the car repaired before the studios, who always wrote in an anti-racing clause in his contract, realized how aggressive a driver he was.  Dean wasn’t permitted to compete when filming, but the moment filming ended, he could be counted on to be on his way to another race.

Dean's Porsche was what gear heads refer to as a “pre-A” Speedster in that it predated the 356A models. The car featured round taillights (two per side) affectionately called “beehive” taillights, as opposed to the horizontal teardrop shaped lights found on 356A Speedsters.  What upholstery it had is more chancy as an identifier. who would expect it to have the same upholstery 60 years later? 

The car featured the first of the Super engines with a three-piece crankshaft. It was still what mechanics call a pushrod engine, not the four-cam Carrera engine, which was found in only a few Speedsters (which are now worth a million each if you go by the latest auction results). It would be a miracle, when found, if it it still has the same engine block as the Super engine was new in those days and not super reliable.

Wallace Wyss is author of a book series that started with the title 'Incredible Barn Finds', which tell the stories of valuable cars once bought for a song. He told us  he is hoping to uncover the whereabouts of Dean's white Speedster for his next book in the series (scheduled for release in the spring 2016).

Dean only owned his Speedster for a short time. In addition to $3,500 cash, Dean traded in that Speedster for the silver, mid-engined 550 Spyder best known as "Little Bastard." Ironically, Dean’s roommate at the time, Lew Bracker, purchased the ex-Dean Speedster from the dealer, but after a few months, traded it for another Speedster with a hotter engine. From there, Dean’s Speedster may have gone through as many as half a dozen owners. Considering 60 years has passed, five owners would be Wyss' minimum guess.

Wyss says: “Whoever finds it first has the problem of finding first of finding out  if it is for sale. If it isn't I think an owner would be loathe to have it inspected. If it is, Wyss says, there is a whole laundry list of details to check out. Once you submit the SN to a Speedster Registry, it would tell what color the body was, the upholstery and carpeting as well but more important if such a chassis number was built as a Speedster and what serial number the engine had."

 


Photo © Warner Bros

"I don't think it's possible to identify it without partial dis-assembly," Wyss says, "and what owner is going to let you do that?"   

Then again, if one figures the car will be worth X amount more if it is the fabled car, it might be worth paying the seller a non-refundable "Research" fee to check those details out.

For instance, Wyss says, it has been photographed running in races  without the Speedster emblem so when the emblem was put back on by a later owner, maybe it was  mounted slightly to the front or rear of its original location  in which case  duplicate old holes would still be visible. "No one would have bothered to fill in the old holes from the inside," he reasons. 

Wyss is hoping to locate the Speedster in time to end his chapter on his search for the car which is scheduled to be in his fourth barn finds book. “I don’t want to buy it,” Wyss notes, (he used to broker exotics but that was in the ‘80s when he was married to an airline employee and had a “marry me, fly free” card) saying “but I am sure that, if the owner can document who he bought it from, and I can establish a chain-of-ownership to the owner after Bracker, and that owner can name the owner after him, it might be possible to work one's way  up to the present owner, whereupon it will be authenticated."

A real irony is that the car may be in a foreign country, where James Dean is less known. "It could be like Johnny Halliday is here," says  Wyss, "the biggest recording star you never heard of in America where he was the Elvis Presley of France."

Anyone with a clue can contact Wyss by sending him an email at Photojournalistpro@gmail.com

     
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