The Curse of the "Black Widow Spyder"

A part from James Dean's Porsche resurfaces, but strange legends about the car persist

Although not widely reported outside of automotive publications, a piece of the Porsche 550 Spyder involved in the crash that killed movie star James Dean in 1955 resurfaced last fall. The transaxle assembly had passed from one collector to another for decades before disappearing around 1990. But Porsche collector and parts trader Don Ahearn discovered the piece, confirmed by the identification number 10046 stamped onto it, in a crate in rural Massachusetts. Although transaxle assembly is the only surviving part of Dean’s car whose whereabouts are known, its rediscovery resurrected the strange story of what became of the car after the fatal collision that took Dean’s life.

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.

“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.”

When the small, light car collided with a much larger vehicle on a rural road a little more than a week later, the accident left the Porsche crumbled into a mangled silver ball. Yet many of its 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.

The tale of what became of those parts was the stuff of legend—utterly bizarre legends.

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. Less than a year later, the two men, driving two cars both equipped with parts from the doomed Porsche, crashed into each other, killing McHenry.

After the chassis fell from the truck transporting it to Barris in Los Angeles, allegedly breaking the legs of a bystander (though the story may be apocryphal), Barris donated the wreckage to the Greater Los Angeles Safety Council for use in a safe driving campaign. At the time, investigators had concluded that Dean was speeding, and therefore unsafe driving caused the crash. Later investigators concluded that speed was not a factor.

Nevertheless, the legend of the “cursed” Porsche was born, along with the ridiculous nickname of the “Black Widow Spyder.” Some even speculated—without any evidence—that Porsche had manufactured the car with steel used in the Double Phaeton that had carried the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife to their doom in 1914, sparking World War I.

The Greater Los Angeles Safety Council sent the wreckage on a morbid tour of the United States. At each stop, the curious were invited to pay 50 cents to sit behind the wheel, in the spot where Dean died. The car circled the United States for four years, playing host to countless paying patrons, from the macabre death enthusiasts to the infatuated fans looking to commune with their fallen idol. The spectacle helped inspire the infamous 1973 novel Crash by J. G. Ballard and the 1996 movie adaptation, in which wealthy people become sexually aroused by car crashes and plan to reenact James Dean’s death to fulfill their fetish.

However, in 1960, the wreckage of the Porsche 550 disappeared while en route back to Los Angeles. A person or persons unknown hijacked the car and made off with it. Although rumors persist about its whereabouts, the chassis has never been seen again. The two most likely possibilities: First, that the chassis was broken up and sold on the black market to obsessives and the morbid. If that were the case, some of the parts should have shown up by now. The more likely possibility is that a wealthy collector spirited it away, though after 60 years it must have passed through more than one illegal owner by now.

The rest of the parts have vanished into the mists of time. Because only the chassis, the transaxle assembly, and the engine bore serial numbers, the provenance of the other parts could not be proven, and they likely passed into private collections and family history and even the garbage bin. The engine was last seen in the late 1980s, when it disappeared into an unnamed private collection. Where it is, or whether it still exists, remains a mystery.

The darker question, however, revolves around the transformation of a car into a memento mori. Imagine paying to sit on the toilet where Elvis died. And yet not only did tens of thousands pay to sit where Dean died, someone was interested enough—whether through morbid darkness or through obsessive love—to actually steal the car, a strange parallel to the report at Dean’s funeral that someone had broken open the casket before burial to commune with his corpse. Dean’s longtime friend William Bast suspected the vandal to be Dean’s personal assistant, Jack Simmons, who had spent years infatuated with the dead man and trying and failing to steal a kiss.

Mementos of the famous dead are perpetually popular, both for their historical significance and the lingering folk belief that objects touched by the dead absorb something of their essence and power. Ford’s Theater in Georgetown displays relics of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination there. The Smithsonian preserves Jackie Kennedy’s clothes from the day her husband died, his brains still staining the pink fabric. The Catholic Church made a fetish of such relics, from the bones of saints to the most famous relic of all, the Shroud of Turin, a medieval forgery believers claim is the death shroud of Jesus. But a whole car has to be one of the largest. Even photographs of the car command interest. Original photos of the wreckage used in court proceedings after Dean’s death were auctioned in 2019 and brought $22,000.

Truth be told, I’m not sure whether it’s worse to imagine that someone stole and harbored the wreckage out of a macabre fascination with death or an equally intense idol worship. It’s rare that the best-case scenario is simply a cynical desire to own something historic and valuable. Of course, even in that scenario that uneasy question remains: Why do we afford these kinds of relics such value?