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Today in History (1955): James Dean Dies in a Car Crash

Young actor James Dean was already on his way to superstardom when he met a fatal accident exactly 58 years ago today.

Apart from being an actor, Dean was also a racing enthusiast who would enter competitions in between filming. However, when he filmed George Stevens’ “Giant” between June and mid-September in 1955, the studio Warner Bros. had prevented him from participating in any racing activities. When filming finally wrapped up, Dean and his German Porsche mechanic Rolf Wütherich headed to Salinas in California to participate in a race scheduled the following day. They had been aboard the actor’s brand-new $7,000 Porsche 550 Spyder, nicknamed “Little Bastard,” with Dean behind the wheel.

James Dean and Rolf Wütherich aboard ‘Little Bastard.’ This is supposedly the ‘last official photograph’ of the actor taken by Sanford Roth as part of a photo feature he was doing about the race to be attended by the actor. Photo via Daily Mail

But before they even reached their destination, their vehicle hit a Ford Tudor sedan driven by 23-year old California Polytechnic State University student Donald Turnupseed in a “head-on collision” at an intersection on Route 466 near Pasa Robles at 5:45 p.m.

The wreckage was used by the Greater Los Angeles Safety Council as a public service announcement ‘warning drivers about the dangers and consequences of careless driving.’ Photo via The Selvedge Yard

Who hit who remains a widely-debated topic to this day, with some witnesses claiming that Turnupseed “made a left turn right into the Spyder’s path,” and others speculating that Dean had been speeding. Such talk cropped up because only about 150 miles away from the crash site in Bakersfield, and in only a little over two hours before the accident, Dean reportedly had been issued a speeding ticket.

Dean was the only casualty in the crash, his death caused by “a broken neck and massive internal injuries.” Wütherich suffered major injuries while Turnupseed was only “dazed but mostly uninjured.” Interestingly, Dean’s car is rumored to have been cursed due to the tragic vehicular accidents that befell those who purchased its parts.

Ironically, some time before his death, Dean starred in a public service announcement on safe driving.

Video via YouTube

In any case, the accident made Dean an icon. Critics had already been praising him for his work in his first film, “East of Eden,” and his two other films “Rebel without a Cause” and “Giant” had only cemented his legendary status when they were released posthumously.

All information in this article were sourced from History, The Selvedge Yard, BBC, Telegraph, Daily Mail, and Wikipedia.

Like this article? Check out more stories from our Today in History series in the Lomography magazine!

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Today in History: James Dean Is Born (1931)

Influential Photographs: James Dean on Times Square, 1955 by Dennis Stock

James Dean: A Movie Icon With an Eye for Photography

written by chooolss

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