James Dean and his Speedster

 
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Photo © Warner Bros

James Dean and his Speedster

James Dean had a strong interest in fast cars and motor racing and in 1954, after securing the co-starring role of Cal Trask in East of Eden, Dean purchased a 1955 Triumph Tiger T110, 650 cc motorcycle and later, a used red, 1953 MG TD sports car. In March 1955, Dean decided to develop his motor racing career and traded in the MG for a new 1955 Porsche Super Speedster purchased from John von Neumann at Competition Motors in Hollywood. Speedsters were in short supply, and Dean's celebrity almost certainly moved him to the head of the waiting list.

James Dean's Speedster was white with black interior with a VIN No of 80126 and the 1500 Super engine was No 41014. It was a fairly standard configuration with 'baby moon' hub caps (removed for racing) small bumper horns. It had the optional mesh stone guards fitted on the headlights and black California numberplates with yellow letters.


Photo © Frank Worth, CMG Worldwide Inc.

In his new Porsche Speedster, at his Sunset Plaza Apartment, Hollywood, CA


© Frank Worth / CMG Worldwide Inc.

James Dean's Speedster had no rear view mirrors, which explains why he had to take care when reversing


© Frank Worth / CMG Worldwide Inc.


Photos © Sanford Roth

James Dean washing his Porsche Speedster at Sherman Oaks


Photo © Seita Ohnishi / Sanford Roth

Within 10 days of purchasing of the car, he put 1,000 miles on his Speedster, much of it on Mulholland Drive, where difficult curves on the coastal range crest were a breeding ground for would-be racers and some real ones as well.


Photo © Warner Bros.

click on any image to enlarge


Photo © Bob D'Olivio

Just before filming began on Rebel Without a Cause, Dean entered his new Speedster into its first road race at Palm Springs on March 26th and 27th 1955.


From 'James Dean at Speed © Lee Raskin

His victory in Saturday's under-1500-cc production race gained him entry into the next day's under-1500-cc main event. James took 3rd position, winning the production class.


From 'James Dean at Speed © Chad White

James Dean driving his Porsche Speedster 23F at Palm Springs


Photo © Wilson Springer

James Dean talking with Ed Kretz at Palm Springs, March 27, 1955


Photo © Wilson Springer

James Dean takes a moment with his Speedster

To come first in his first race encouraged him to do more and he next raced the Speedster at Minter Field, Bakersfield on April 30th and May 1st finishing first in the production class and third overall. On Sunday, Dean was again in the under-1500-cc main event due to his class win on Saturday. After a race-long duel, Dean was barely nosed out by another Porsche Super for production class honors.


© Frank Worth / CMG Worldwide Inc.


Photo © John Edgar / Edgar Motorsport Archives

Santa Barbara, May 27, 1955

His final race with the Speedster was at Santa Barbara on the Memorial Day weekend at the end of May. The Santa Barbara Saturday program had Dean entered in Race 2 for Production cars.

Salinas Registration Page 2

However, research by Edgar and Lynch found that he could not have done this as he was filming on this day. He actually took part in a mixed race for modified and production cars on the Sunday as several photos confirm.


Photo © John Edgar / Edgar Motorsport Archives

The 10-lap under-1500-cc mixed race on Sunday was for less experienced drivers. Dean started in eighteenth position, but worked his way up to 4th by the fifth lap. Pushing hard to make up time, Dean over-revved his engine and blew a piston. He did not finish the race.


Photo © John Edgar / Edgar Motorsport Archives

 

Two useful articles used as source information:

James Dean - Porsches & Posterity by William Edgar (pdf download)

James Dean's Last Race - by William Edgar & Michael T Lynch (pdf download)


Photo © Frank Worth, CMG Worldwide Inc.


Photo © Frank Worth, CMG Worldwide Inc.

James Dean with his racing helment and trophies

He enjoyed racing and was pleased with his success - at one point in his life James Dean confessed that, “racing is the only time I feel whole.”


© Gus Vignolle / Motor Racing

© Warner Bros.

The fatal crash

His brief career was put on hold when Warner Brothers barred him from all racing during the production of Giant. Dean had finished shooting his scenes and the movie was in post-production when he decided he wanted to race again. He traded in his Speedster at Competition Motors for a new, more powerful and faster 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder on September 21st and entered the upcoming Salinas Road Race event scheduled for October 1st and 2nd

He planned to travel to Salinas on September 30th accompanied by stunt coordinator Bill Hickman, Collier's photographer Sanford Roth, and Rolf Wütherich, his German mechanic who prepared Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder "Little Bastard" car.

Wütherich encouraged Dean to drive the car from Los Angeles to Salinas to break it in, and accompanied Dean in the Porsche. At 3:30 pm, both Dean and Hickman, who was driving behind the Porsche, were ticketed for speeding.

As the group traveled to the event via U.S. Route 466, at approximately 5:45 pm PST, a 1950 Ford Tudor pulled out in front of Dean who was unable to stop in time and crashed into the Ford. The Tudor driver, Donald Turnupseed, escaped with minor injuries. Wütherich had catapulted from the severely mangled Porsche, while a trapped Dean sustained numerous fatal injuries. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival shortly after he arrived by ambulance at the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital at 6:20 pm.


Photo © Warner Bros.

James Byron Dean
(February 8, 1931 – September 30, 1955)

For more information on James Dean's racing career, I would direct you to "James Dean at Speed" written in 2005 by Lee Raskin.

Lee is a respected Porsche and James Dean historian and author who has been kind enough to help me correct some errors on this page.

I understand Lee is soon to publish a sequel to this book to commemorate the 60th anniversary of James Dean's death. It will be called "James Dean: on the road to Salinas" and will be featured in our books section.

     
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