James Dean Death in a Car Accident

September 30, 1955

Little Bastard
Hulton Archive/Stringer/Archive Photos/Getty Images

On September 30, 1955, actor James Dean was driving his brand new Porsche 550 Spyder to an auto rally in Salinas, California when he was involved in a head-on collision with a 1950 Ford Tutor. James Dean, only 24 years old, died in the crash.

Although already famous for his role in East of Eden, his death and the release of Rebel Without a Cause caused James Dean to soar to cult status. James Dean, forever frozen as the talented, misunderstood, rebellious youth remains the symbol of teenage angst.

Who Was James Dean?

James Dean had appeared in a number of television shows before getting his "big break" in 1954 when he was chosen to play Cal Trask, the leading male role in the film East of Eden (1955). (This was the only one of Dean's films released before his death.)

Quickly following East of Eden, James Dean was signed to play Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), the film for which Dean is best remembered. Immediately following the filming for Rebel Without a Cause, Dean played the lead role in Giant (1956). (Both of these films were released after Dean's death.)

James Dean Raced Cars

As Dean's movie career began to "take off," James Dean also started to race cars. In March 1955, Dean raced in the Palm Springs Road Races and in May of that year he raced in the Minter Field Bakersfield race and the Santa Barbara Road Races.

James Dean liked to speed. In September 1955, Dean replaced his white Porsche 356 Super Speedster with a new, silver Porsche 550 Spyder.

Dean had the car specialized by having the number "130" painted on both the front and back. Also painted on the back of the car was "Little Bastard," Dean's nickname given to him by Bill Hickman (Dean's dialogue coach for Giant).

The Accident

On September 30, 1955, James Dean was driving his new Porsche 550 Spyder to an auto rally in Salinas, California when the fatal accident occurred. Originally planning to tow the Porsche to the rally, Dean changed his mind at the last minute and decided to drive the Porsche instead.

While Dean and Rolf Wuetherich (Dean's mechanic) rode in the Porsche, Dean had photographer Sanford Roth and friend Bill Hickman follow him in his Ford station wagon, which had a trailer for the Spyder attached.

En route to Salinas, Dean was pulled over by police officers near Bakersfield for speeding around 3:30 p.m. After being stopped, Dean and Wuetherich continued on their way. Two hours later, around 5:30 p.m., they were driving westbound on Highway 466 (now called State Route 46), when a 1950 Ford Tutor pulled out in front of them.

Twenty-three-year-old Donald Turnupseed, who was driving the Ford Tutor, has been traveling east on Highway 466 and was attempting to make a left turn onto Highway 41. Unfortunately, Turnupseed had already started to make his turn before he saw the roaring Porsche traveling quickly toward him. Without time to turn, the two cars smashed nearly head-on.

The injuries among the three involved in the crash varied greatly. Turnupseed, the driver of the Ford, only received minor injuries from the accident. Rolf Wuetherich, the passenger in the Porsche, was lucky to be thrown from the Porsche and thus suffered serious head injuries and a broken leg, but survived the crash.

James Dean, however, was killed in the accident. Dean was only 24-years-old when he died in the car accident.

Posthumous Academy Awards

In 1956, James Dean was nominated for Best Leading Actor for his role in East of Eden, which made Dean the first person in history to receive an Academy Award nomination posthumously. In 1957, Dean was again nominated for Best Leading Actor, this time for his role in Giant.

James Dean remains the only person to receive two Academy Award nominations posthumously.

What Happened to Dean's Smashed Car?

Many Dean fans wonder what happened to the smashed Porsche. After the accident, the crumpled car was toured around the United States as part of a driver safety presentation. However, en route between two stops, the car disappeared.

In 2005, Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Illinois offered $1 million to anyone who currently had the car. So far, the car has not resurfaced.