Saturday, October 21, 2006

One of the more famous cars that ran La Carrera Panamericana

Actor James Dean's new Porsche 550 Spyder sports-racing car resembled a sleek silver bullet as it streaked toward a flat, deserted intersection on Highway 46 in a desolute Central California spot called Cholame, near Pasos Robles, on Sept. 30, 1955.

"He's got to see us!" were the 24-year-old Dean's last words, apparently because he couldn't believe the driver of a vehicle that entered the intersection hadn't seen him. But a low sun was blinding the vehicle's driver, Donald Turnipseed, who thus didn't see the Porsche speeding toward him.

Dean was instantly killed when the two vehicles collided violently, leaving the Porsche's left side demolished by the front of the other vehicle. The California Highway Patrol held no one responsible for the accident and listed road conditions and visibility as good.

Dean had just completed filming the blockbuster movie "Giant," in which he starred. His famous "Rebel Without A Cause" movie hadn't been released yet. He was en route to Salinas to enter a race with the 550 Spyder.

Dean's German mechanic, Rolf Wutherich, who was in the Porsche's passenger seat, and Turnipseed somehow escaped injury.

Dean and Wutherich were en route to Salinas from Los Angeles to enter a race in which Dean was to compete with the Porsche.

Dean's wrecked car seemed jinxed. Hollywood auto customizer George Barris, who painted a racing stripe on the car three days before the crash, bought the wrecked car to resell its parts. One of his employees was unloading the car at Barris' headquarters when the car fell on him, breaking his legs. Its engine was put in a Porsche that hit a tree and killed its driver in the first race in which it had been used since Dean's crash. Soon after, a sports car driver bought the tires from Dean's car through Barris, both front tires blew out simultaneously, causing the car to swerve off the road. No defect could be found in them after that incident.

Dean's car was put on a tour to make an impression on teenage drivers, but it soon was scorched in a fire that destroyed a California Highway Patrol garage. It then fell off display mountings and broke a teenager's hip. Later, a driver of a truck transporting the Porsche to a Salinas display was killed when thrown from the truck and struck by the Porsche as it fell off the truck. The car was involved in other mishaps before vanishing forever in 1960 when being shipped by train from Florida to Barris.

Dean's first car after making his first movie, "East of Eden," in 1954 was a used MG TD, a popular sports car. But Dean decided in early 1955, before making his second film, "Rebel Without A Cause," to buy a Porsche Super Speedster from Los Angeles foreign car dealer Johnny von Neumann's Competition Motors. Dean's celebrity status helped him get the Speedster because it was in short supply.

Unlike the 550 Spyder, which was virtually a pure race car that could be driven on the street, the Speedster was a road car, although its quickness and nimbleness helped it win many races.

Dean soon put 1,000 miles on the Speedster while learning to drive it fast on Los Angeles area roads such as the winding Mulholland Drive. That March, Dean won the first sports car race he entered at Palm Springs with the Speedster, ending remarks of racers that he was just another movie star playboy. He won another race in Bakersfield with the Porsche the following month.

Wanting a faster car, Dean traded in the Speedster for the 550 Spyder at von Neumann's well-known dealership following a Memorial Day race at Santa Barbara, where engine failure took his Speedster from the event.

The sensational 550 Spyder had won its class in famous European races, including the Mille Miglia in Italy and the Le Mans 24-hour race in France, competing against top sports-racing cars. It also got a class win in the Carrera Panamericana race that ran the length of Mexico on appalling roads in extremes of temperature.

The decision to use the name "Spyder" was made at the request of Max Hoffman, who was Porsche's influential U.S. importer. He knew that name would be more marketable than a number such as "550/ 1500RS," which was what Porsche planned to call the car. In Europe, "Spyder" long had been the description for an extremely light two- seat body for a competition sports car.

Dean's celebrity status again helped him buy a rare Porsche. Only a handful of 550 Spyders had been sent to America, and many racers wanted one. Porsche hadn't implemented its long-pending plan to make a small number of 550 Spyders available until late 1954. Only two were built in 1954 and just 63 were made in 1955, with the last 13 produced in early 1956.

The 550 Spyder typically cost $6,800 in America, when a Cadillac convertible was $4,448. But the only way to beat a 550 Spyder in its racing class was to buy another one and drive it better.

The 550 Spyder had a potent four-cylinder engine, tubular frame and small aluminum body. The rugged car weighed just 1,350 pounds, which helped it go like the wind.

The two-seater could be had with a small racing screen for the driver or a full-width low racing screen with a single wiper on the driver's side. There were no frills to add weight and slow the car.

Road & Track said the 550 Spyder's "performance literally forces you back in the seat" and that "corners can be taken at astonishingly high speeds." The brakes were "absolutely sensational."

The car Dean is closely associated with is the Barris-modified 1949 Mercury he drove in "Rebel Without A Cause." He must have been elated with the 550 Spyder before reaching that fateful intersection at Cholame. One can assume that he was quite happy, until the very last moment of his short life.

This Fletcher Aviation 550 Spyder driven by Hans Hermann won the 1500cc class and placed third overall at the 1954 Carrera Panamericana race.

(Credit; Chicago Sun-Times, Jun 26, 2005 by Dan Jedlicka)

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