No, James Dean's Porsche Was Not Cursed
Supernatural stories about Dean's Spyder abound, but the ghostly tales are little more than profitable fiction. Here's the real story of how a legend grew out of tragedy.
It’s been called the most cursed car in history, responsible for a trail of death and injury stretching across the twentieth century. But is James Dean’s Porsche Spyder really possessed by a supernatural evil? I didn’t think it would be necessary to explain why the so-called “curse” of Dean’s Porsche isn’t real, but the persistence of the myth across TV, YouTube, podcasting, and social media, where it is the most popular topic associated with James Dean, suggests that we need a clear explanation of where this false claim came from and why it isn’t true. I’ve discussed elements of the “curse” in various essays and articles, but it’s time to tie it all together and explain how a modern hoax turned into an ancient evil.
(Note: This essay contains some material originally published in my previous Substack essays and on my website.)
James Dean already owned a Porsche when he impulsively took the advice of a friend to trade it in for a newer, faster model, purchasing the 550 on September 21, 1955 for $7,000, paid for by trading in his old Porsche and borrowing $3,700 against his upcoming movie earnings. He had the car painted with his racing number and the moniker “Little Bastard,” after the nickname Warner Bros. studio boss Jack Warner had angrily bestowed on him.
Within hours of taking receipt of the car, Dean’s friends sensed trouble. Recalling his penchant for almost recklessly fast driving, several warned him that he risked crashing the small, lightweight sports car. “He certainly did drive fast,” Joan Collins recalled, “even recklessly, but with the summer wind blowing through the open windows and the radio blaring, it was exhilarating.”
The young English actor Alec Guinness met Dean shortly after Dean got the Porsche. Guinness told a reporter a few days later that he and Dean had had dinner, after which Dean showed him the Porsche. Guiness said that Dean had told him that all of his friends had begged him not to buy the car for fear he would drive it too fast and die. Several of Dean’s friends confirmed that they had indeed warned him.
A few days later, Dean’s estranged friend Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira, sent Dean a postcard containing a publicity photo of herself next to an open grave with the caption “Wish you were here.” She meant it as a reply to the picture of Dean in a coffin published in Life magazine, but he thought she wished him dead. He called her on September 29 to ask why she wanted him dead, and she told him it was only a joke. He hung up, and a few hours later, he took off for Salinas in his Porsche.
When the small, light car collided with a much larger vehicle on a rural road at twilight on September 30, the accident left the Porsche crumbled into a mangled silver ball, its driver dead, and its passenger badly injured. Yet many of the car’s parts were undamaged. The wreckage was sent to San Luis Obispo, where George Barris purchased its remains. He disassembled the car and sold off its undamaged parts.
It is at this point, with James Dean dead, that we leave the realm of actual fact and enter the bizarre world of conspiracy theory, supernatural fantasy, and capitalism.
At first, no one thought to blame the car for Dean’s death. The authorities, using the crude methods of 1950s and intuition about Dean’s driving, claimed he had been speeding at 100 miles an hour, had caused the crash, and thus implied he deserved his fate. He was to blame, either from recklessness, or, as fans believed, from a supernatural vendetta. Forty years would pass before better scientific tools proved hat Dean had not been speeding, had indeed been driving safely, and the other driver had been at fault, turning left into oncoming traffic without seeing Dean’s low, shiny car in the declining sunlight. But in early 1956, with Dean’s death now an object lesson in how speed kills, spawned efforts to absolve him of blame. Citing Vampira’s postcard sent to Dean before his death, the February 1956 issue of Whisper proclaimed that Nurmi, Dean’s “Black Madonna,” had cursed him with witchcraft, causing him to die, a claim given wider report when Hearst’s American Weekly repeated the story to its 50 million readers—nearly one-third of the country in those days.
In the meantime, somebody else died.
After acquiring the wreck of the Porsche, George Barris sold the engine to Dr. William Eschrich, a racing enthusiast who installed it into his own car, hoping that a Porsche engine would give his vehicle added power. Barris sold some of the other parts to Eschrich’s friend Troy McHenry, who used them in rebuilding his own racing vehicle. He donated the chassis to the Greater Los Angeles Safety Council for use in a safe driving campaign. In October 1956, the Eschrich and McHenry, driving two cars both equipped with parts from the doomed Porsche, crashed into each other, killing McHenry. A reporter, Aline Mosby, was there to cover Dean’s “cult” of fans who had come to see the pieces of his car. Those fans called the double accident a “jinx,” but the surviving driver noted that the recycled parts played no role in either accident. Indeed, another serious accident had occurred during the same race, injuring the driver, but because the car had no connection to Dean’s, it was simply ignored with no consideration given to the unsafe racing conditions of the time. The story was a one-day wonder, and life went on.
The next year, Whisper’s December issue added another supernatural wrinkle with an article entitled “James Dean: The Ghost of Polonio Pass,” which reported the story of a man who claimed to have seen James Dean’s ghost along the empty road near where he died, either variously standing on the side of the road or driving past in his spectral Porsche. Thanks to this article, the car acquired a bit of its own more traditional supernatural aura to complement the “jinx” fans believed Dean’s vengeful spirit imparted to it. However, the car chassis disappeared in 1960 while returning to L.A. from Florida, where it was on tour as a warning against speeding. Barris told contradictory stories about the car’s disappearance, sometimes claiming it vanished from a truck, sometimes from a train. He never showed the public any documentation to prove how he had shipped it when it went missing. The supernatural stories remained primarily centered on James Dean, such as the popular 1969 news report that Sal Mineo had conjured James Dean’s vengeful ghost via Ouija board.
That’s where thing stood until 1974, when Barris expanded the “jinx” story into a full-on supernatural curse tale in his book Cars of the Stars, written with Jack Scagnetti, by the addition of many doubtful and outright fabricated details. A story about the car rolling from its mount and crushing the hip of a teenager at a school event, for example, left no record in any newspaper, where such an event might have at least been of local interest. Similarly, Barris’s stories about the Porsche breaking in half enroute to another appearance, causing a fatal car accident, or that in New Orleans, it disintegrated into eleven pieces are belied by the documentary evidence that it was whole and intact until the day it disappeared in 1960. However, the car really was scorched by a fire that broke out in the petrol garage where Barris had stored it in preparation for an appearance in Fresno. “The only answer seems to be that the car was cursed,” Barris said. Yet no record of any of these misfortunes exists outside of Barris’s book, and the author, who claimed to be a believer in “psychic sciences,” almost certainly fabricated them.
DC Comics adapted the falsified story for a 1975 comic, Ghosts #44, depicting James Dean’s ghost hovering over scenes of death and injury. They called it “James Dean’s Curse on Wheels” and claimed the “weird hand of fate” took Dean to a “destiny with death.” The comic attributed at least four deaths to the cursed car, though only two (Dean’s and McHenry’s) actually happened. Where Barris had left the nature of the curse ambiguous, DC explicitly identified the car as possessed by a supernatural evil with a drive to kill. After depicting Dean’s ghost driving the car’s spectral image over his own grave, the comic asked: “Was the strange, sinister force that bore the film star to his death still guiding it? Having been satisfied with its quota of killings, did some supernatural force remove it from earth?”
Perhaps inspired by the supernatural curse stories, in a televised interview in the 1970s, Alec Guinness now began to claim that he had issued a prophetic warning to Dean about his impending death, a warning obtained through psychic premonition. Suddenly, his previous recollection that Dean had been the one who told him that everyone Dean knew had warned him he would die was reversed. As Guinness put it in his 1985 autobiography, he had come to remember saying, “It is now ten o’clock, Friday the 23rd of September, 1955. If you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week.” Oddly, he didn’t remember saying that in the weeks after Dean died, nor did Dean mention it, despite rather openly bragging about how many people told him he would die in the car.
The final part of the supernatural history of the “curse” of the Porsche spider fell into place in 1990, fittingly with yet another hoax. An apparently pseudonymous author named Ron Smith published “The Car, the Star—and the Curse That Linked Them” in the August issue of the Robb Report. The article was full of sensational supernatural claims, from a wizard in L.A. who claimed Dean had joined his coven to a story supposedly related by Judy Garland about attending a séance in Dean’s apartment, held around the coffin Dean supposedly slept in. None of the supernatural stories in the article appeared prior to it, and all of the people quoted were either long dead or appear never to have existed. But the Robb Report was a prestigious lifestyle publication for the wealthy, so it carried weight, and Smith was careful to mix in stories that had appeared elsewhere alongside his howlers. He strip-mined Barris’s legendry for his article, not from Barris’s now-forgotten book but from the summary given in Warren Beath’s 1985 book The Death of James Dean, and Smith couldn’t help embellishing. The fictitious teenager with a broken hip in the summer of 1959 became a baroque claim that the Porsche “moved by itself” on September 30, 1959, rolled off its display mount, and crushed the legs of a 15-year-old dressed in a James Dean costume. Needless to say, there is no record of this story anywhere prior to Smith inventing it. The wizard, by the way, supposedly said that Dean’s ghost visited him to confirm that the Porsche had a supernatural curse on it.
Smith also claimed that a Viennese professor named Karl Unster had developed an obsession with the car in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had died in 1914, and in 1968 he sought the remains of the car at a junkyard in Germany, believing that in 1954 and 1955 Porsche had salvaged the steel to make its sportscars. His research led to the false conclusion that Franz Ferdinand’s car provided the steel for the Porsche 550 Spyder in which James Dean died, transferring the Habsburg curse to Dean’s successors. Unster died right after discovering the source of the cursed Porsche’s steel (but of course) and leaving behind a cryptic message: “Is it possible for an evil ‘spirit’ or ‘force’ to enter into, and become part of, an inanimate object?” The story was, of course, fiction, and no Karl Unster taught at the University of Vienna. Smith built his claim on an old story he almost certainly read about Franz Ferdinand’s car in Frank Edward’s Stranger Than Science (1953), itself repeating in a mixed-up way a hoax from the 1920s. Edward is probably Smith’s source because Smith repeats errors Edward made in transcribing the older 1920s newspaper article.
The Los Angeles Times Syndicate sent the Robb Report article to newspapers across the country, where the article quickly became the public face of the legend of Dean’s supernaturally cursed car. George Barris liked the article so much he autographed copies of the Robb Report for fans.
I twice asked the current editors of the Robb Report if they had any information about the pseudonymous “Ron Smith,” or whether the magazine had commissioned a hoax or had been taken in by a fraud. Twice the Robb Report declined to answer.
Since 1990, no new major curse claims have emerged, but first cable TV and then the internet and podcasting have turned recycling these old ghost stories into an industry unto itself. Someone publishes an article, makes a YouTube video, or records a podcast about the “curse” roughly twice a week. References to the curse, Guinness’s imaginary premonition, or other supernatural connections abound in even serious media articles about James Dean. And yet the story was never more than an opportunistic, media-driven narrative that subsisted on tragedy, coincidence, fabrication, and a steadfast refusal among those writing about James Dean to ever check facts.