MAJOR PART OF JAMES DEAN’S 550 SPYDER SURFACES
More than sixty-five years after the horrific crash which claimed the life of Hollywood icon, James Dean, a major component of the movie star’s almost-as-famous 550 Spyder has reappeared. Found in rural Massachusetts, the car’s original and complete transaxle assembly will see the light of day after being stored in a wooden crate and hidden from public view for more than three decades.
This transmission assembly is one of the only documented and provable parts of Dean’s Spyder known to survive to the present day, and is certainly the only part known to be available for Porsche enthusiasts and film buffs to see on public display. It is also one of few permanently traceable components of a 550 Spyder (the others being the chassis and engine). The transaxle talked about here — and recently unveiled by Porsche collector, Don Ahearn — is stamped with the correct factory serial number for Dean’s car: #10046.
Macabre movie memorabilia, but also serving as a donor part for Porsche race cars in the year’s following Dean’s death, the transaxle has been in continuous, documented ownership, and as far back as the early 1980s was authenticated by marque experts and factory historians as being original to Dean’s 550 Spyder. Sadly, the car’s body/chassis (#550-055) was reported stolen while returning from a highway safety exhibit in 1960. It has yet to be recovered, and though there have been many rumours concerning its whereabouts in recent years, none have been substantiated. The classic Porsche’s original engine (#P90059) is thought to still be in California, in the safe custody of the family of the late William Eschrich, who competed against Dean in races during 1955 and went on to buy Dean’s wrecked 550 through a salvage yard. Eschrich liberated the mangled metal of its air-cooled four-cam and installed it in his Lotus IX race car. Eschrich’s resulting Porsche-powered Lotus, amusingly named Potus, competed at many club events in 1956.
Now removed from the wooden crate, the transaxle is mounted on a display stand custom fabricated by Steve Hogue Enterprises, the company featured in many Youtube videos focusing on master craftsmen. Hogue’s support stand is designed to display the surviving transaxle assembly exactly as it would have sat in the host 550 Spyder’s chassis framework when new.
Eschrich sold the 550’s crashed chassis to custom car creator, George Barris (talked about by former employee, Jack Stagg, later in this issue of Classic Porsche) after liberating its engine in 1956. Responsible for the modification of many famous television and film four-wheelers, including cars used in Dean’s famous flick, Rebel Without a Cause,
Barris intended to rebuild the Porsche Dean lovingly referred to as Little Bastard, but never managed to do so, largely due to damage being so severe that any structural integrity was lost. Instead, Barris welded aluminium sheet over the destroyed wing and cabin, before battering the new metal with a wooden block to recreate the look of a serious accident. He then loaned the car to various cinemas, hot rod shows and road management safety agencies as a gruesome promotional tool.
Barris, who passed away in 2015, claimed the car went missing on the way back from a traffic safety exhibition in Florida. When the sealed crate supposedly containing the 550 was opened, he was horrified to find the box empty. Arguments to the contrary claim Barris intentionally ‘lost’ the car in order to maintain its somewhat profitable reputation as a cursed Porsche, earned not only through Dean’s untimely demise, but also a series of accidents (and a further death) in cars making use of donor parts farmed out by Eschrich from the ill-fated Spyder’s wreckage.
In 2005, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Dean’s passing, the Volo Auto Museum in Illinois displayed what the venue claimed to be Little Bastard’s passenger door. Barris was quick to put up a $1m reward for anyone prepared to come forward and prove they were in possession of the car’s stolen remains. Nobody took advantage of the offer, thereby supporting theories, not least put forward by Dean biographer, Lee Raskin, Barris was responsible for the car’s disappearance.
What of the transaxle now, though? Ahearn, who acquired it in 2020 following its thirty-plus years of safe keeping in the collection of Porsche nut, Jack Styles, told Classic Porsche he wants to pass the assembly to a major collection or Porsche oriented museum, where — though a morbid reminder of Dean’s death — it can be celebrated as a surviving part of what’s become one of the world’s most (in)famous Porsche sports cars.