James Dean: Life in the fast lane


By AGENCY

The Porsche 550 Spyder nicknamed 'Little Bastard' was James Dean's (right, with mechanic) undoing. — Photos: Porsche AG/dpa

He was born 90 years ago and made only three movies, yet James Dean is still an icon of teen rebellion today. The actor died in a car accident in 1955 aged just 24, his love of speed proving to be his undoing.


Siegfried Tesche sees several reasons for Dean's enthusiasm for cars and motorsport. "There was a motorcycle shop in his neighbourhood where he spent a lot of time," says the author of the book Motor Legends – James Dean.

"His uncle took him with him on his motorcycle early on," Tesche says. And when Dean was 16, his uncle gave him a CZ 125 motorcycle that was capable of reaching 80km/h.

"All his life he was enthusiastic about motorcycles, even if he was not allowed to ride a motorcycle while filming," Tesche says.

The craze for fast cars soon followed. During his school and college days, Dean drove a 49er Ford Sedan and a Chevrolet. In 1954, he bought an MG TD.

After James Dean (second from left), many Hollywood stars like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Patrick Dempsey tried their hand at driving professional racing cars. After James Dean (second from left), many Hollywood stars like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Patrick Dempsey tried their hand at driving professional racing cars.

When Porsche began achieving racing successes in the early 1950s, Dean became interested in the German sports car maker. The fledgling company supported motorsport to become better known, following a motto of "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday."

In the United States at the time, especially in California, there were many small races held at airfields which attracted large entries of enthusiastic amateur racers. It was ideal territory for underdogs like Dean.

However, sports cars were expensive and Dean didn't have much money. It was the start of 1955 and after some success in movies he could afford one. That was a 70-hp Porsche 356 1500 Super Speedster. Dean drove the Porsche in his first race in March 1955.

"James Dean realised early on that small, light, strong and agile cars were competitive in their class and could beat big, heavy cars. That certainly impressed him, ” says Tesche.

Then the actor heard about a new Porsche, the 550 Spyder. Thanks to an advance payment from his studio, he bought the 108hp, open top car on Sept 21, 1955.

James Dean made quite the dust storm in the 356 Speedster at the Palm Springs Road Race at the end of March 1955. James Dean made quite the dust storm in the 356 Speedster at the Palm Springs Road Race at the end of March 1955.

“The Porsche importer on the west coast, Johnny von Neumann, initially had reservations because the Spyder was more of a racing car than a road car and not easy to drive, ” says Tesche.

Within six days, Dean had had two minor accidents and needed to get the car repaired. The Spyder was given the racing number 130 and the nickname “Little Bastard".

Then on Sept 30 while driving the Spyder to a race in Salinas, California, Dean crashed into another car on the highway and was killed.

Frank Jung, head of the corporate archive at Porsche, sees the 550 Spyder as a very special vehicle in the company's history.

“It was the first thoroughbred and uncompromising racing car from Porsche that was approved for road use. Strong and with a very good power-to-weight ratio, it drove successfully against stronger established brands, ” he says.

A 550 Spyder waiting in front of the famous New York skyline in 1953 before being shipped to the infamous Carrera Panamericana race.A 550 Spyder waiting in front of the famous New York skyline in 1953 before being shipped to the infamous Carrera Panamericana race.

"James Dean was a representative of the rebellious generation of young people, so the 550 Spyder suited him well, it was his automotive counterpart," Jung says.

“The fact that he drove a Porsche had a strong impact on the brand, ” according to design professor and brand expert Paolo Tumminelli.

“In choosing his vehicles, he rebelled against the establishment. In the United States at the time it was almost grotesque to drive small cars with small engines."

Anyone who drove a Porsche could feel like a rebel – just like James Dean.

There are many stories about Dean's crashed Porsche; the whereabouts of many parts of the car, which was badly damaged in the accident, is unclear.

But like its driver, the car is a legend. Last year, the transmission and rear axle of Dean's Spyder reappeared in the United States and was sold at an online auction for almost US$400, 000 (RM1, 644, 250). – dpa/Fabian Hoberg

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