Yes, it’s a bit macabre. It’s also an incredible piece of automotive and pop culture history. So in a strange way it isn’t surprising that the four-speed transaxle from James Dean’s 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder—the car he was driving when he was killed on September 30, 1955—sold for a stunning $387,000 on Bring a Trailer last weekend (including fees).
The wrecked car was stripped for parts after Dean’s tragic accident. Some components went to other racers, while the mangled shell was bought by George Barris, and sent on a morbid road safety tour before apparently disappearing for good in 1960.
Porsche broker Don Ahearn acquired the transaxle in March 2020 from Jack Styles, who stored it in a crate for 30 years. It is now fitted to a steel display stand with axles, axle tubes, drum brake assemblies, and a starter. The sale includes a copy of a letter from Porsche verifying its origin, along with a documentation file. The transaxle features a split magnesium case designed to house four forward gears and reverse as well as a differential. The display also features a hydraulic clutch release lever, swing-axle tubes, aluminum drum brake assemblies, and a starter motor.
Warner Brothers had barred James Dean from motorsport activities while filming the movie Giant during the summer of 1955. With production of the film nearing completion, Dean made plans to replace his Speedster with a new 550 Spyder in order to further his efforts in SCCA racing. He purchased chassis no. 550-0055 from Competition Motors in Hollywood on September 21 and had the number 130 and the nickname “Little Bastard” applied to the body.
Fellow actor Alec Guinness saw the car in Los Angeles and immediately had an ominous feeling about it. He later wrote, “The sports car looked sinister to me … exhausted, hungry, feeling a little ill-tempered in spite of Dean’s kindness. I heard myself saying in a voice I could hardly recognize as my own, ‘Please never get in it … if you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week.’”
Dean, on his way to a race in Salinas, California, was killed instantly when he collided with a 1950 Ford Custom. He was 24. Miraculously, mechanic Rolf Wütherich, a passenger in the car, survived the crash but suffered serious injuries.
Unpublished photos from the Porsche crash were sold at auction in 2019, providing further proof of the public’s insatiable fascination with anything and everything related to Dean and his death.
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