James Dean is part of that group of characters who mark an era, who in a way have seduced an entire generation. Dean is an icon, the symbol of a time strong and fragile America, transported to the entire world by the magic of Hollywood. An icon of eternal youth….
As is often the case with such exceptional characters, James Dean’s life did not predestinate him for what he would eventually become. Of course the beginnings could not be more chaotic, more contradictory. In his native Indiana, he received an education marked by the Quaker community of Fairmont, the city of his student years. An adoptive city, where he will relapse after a brief stay in Los Angeles where, at just 9 years old, he would lose his mother. He was passionate about basketball, but it will not be his size but his myopia that will end his dreams of competition. And he returns to Los Angeles, where the theater opens the doors to his second vocation: James wants to be an actor.
Then will come New York, the Actor’s Studio, Broadway, the world of advertising, television and, finally, the cinema where the general public discovers him in “East of Eden” (1955) directed by Elia Kazan.
He is only 24 years old, and he seduces millions of young people. And, in turn, it is seduced by speed on two (Triumph Tiger T110, TR5 Trophy) or four wheels. His first sports car would be a small MG TD Midget, a popular British sport that many young Americans loved before and after World War II.
Un Speedster blanco
But he soon replaces it with a white Porsche 356 Speedster Super that he bought in Hollywood at a store called Competitions Motors.
The 356 Speedster is the brainchild of Max Hoffman, the brand’s American importer. After the little success of the 356 1500 America Roadster from 1952 (too expensive), Hoffman proposes to the German technicians a car without any equipment (even the windshield has been reduced to the minimum expression), but very light in order to get an amazing performance to its small flat four-cylinder engine and 55 or 70 HP of power. The Speedster is born. And the success is immediate, especially in California, and can be seen both on the streets of Hollywood and in competition. This double facet attracts many buyers.
James Dean is one of them. His idea was to participate in some of the races that were organized at the time using airport runways. They were open to amateur drivers who could participate with their street cars, framed in different categories. By way of “training,” he raced around Hollywood: It is said that in the first week he drove a thousand miles at the wheel of his new Porsche.
And while his presence in racing was viewed, at first, with some skepticism by many other drivers, it would soon be seen that he was not only crazy about speed, but also talented. Three races in the 1955 season (Palm Springs in March, Bakersfield in April and Santa Barbara in May), a class victory, and spectacular comebacks, caused many to change their prejudices regarding the actor. But Dean lacked training and experience as a pilot. And the car paid for these deficiencies. In the last race, the engine would say enough because of or several over speed.
These first experiences as a pilot are hampered by the filming of “Gigante”, because the insurers do not want risks and forbid him to run. But after the film is over, Dean dreams of racing again. He sells his 356 Speedster, and already orders a car more designed for competition, a Lotus Mk IX. But his delivery was delayed, and he decides to buy a Porsche, a 550 Spyder. It is also a car that, although it is approved for driving on the street, is designed to run (it will be illustrated in prestigious events such as Le Mans or the Thousand Miles, among others), of which Porsche manufactures only eighty-two units. Its small 1.5-liter engine produces 110 hp that has to move only 550 kilos empty: an excellent power-to-weight ratio of which the Stuttgart technicians are masters.
A partner named Lew Bracker
Dean had many illusions not only for this car but also for the Porsche brand, to the point that he was thinking of opening a garage that would bear the name “James Dean Motors”. For this he had as a partner his friend Lew Bracker who, incidentally, published in 2011 an interesting book entitled “Jimmy and Me: A Personal Memoir of James Dean.”
Bracker, in principle, had no interest in sports cars or racing, didn’t even know it was a porsche Before meeting Dean: “I liked Buick convertibles,” he has commented on occasion. His work in an insurance company that worked with film companies, led him to establish a relationship with James Dean. And it would be the actor who introduced him to the world of racing.
Dean, surrounded by people who didn’t always tell him the truth, appreciated Bracker’s honesty. One day he gave him a tour of the studios in his MG, and Bracker told him: “It makes a lot of noise, but it is not going anywhere.” Jimmy was silent, but a few days later, he came home in the white Porsche Speedster Super (70 hp). And Bracker, who was the first one he had seen in his life, blurted out: “It looks like a bathtub upside down.” But shortly after Bracker sold the Buick and bought another Speedster and started a brilliant racing career. He would even later buy the actor’s Speedster Super. His good results drew the attention of the Porsche factory racing team, which in 1957 made an offer for Bracker to compete in Europe, which he declined on family grounds.
But let’s get back to our story. It was precisely Bracker who one day saw the Porsche 550 in the “Competition Motors” window and told the actor about it. The following afternoon, Dean appeared at the wheel of the car, which he christened “Little Bastard” (the little bastard), an expression used by many drivers of heavy American sports cars when they were outmatched by light Porsche.
On the morning of Thursday, September 30, 1955, Dean and a team of three, including German mechanic Rolf Wütherich, a former Luftwaffe aviator, racing driver, and Porsche factory engineer who befriended Dean at a their race, they left Burbank in a car towing a trailer on which they had placed the 550 Spyder. They were heading to Salinas for a racing weekend, and Dean was eager to race his new 550 spyder.
After stopping at a gas station, Dean lowered the Porsche from the trailer. I wanted to get his reactions to it. Wütherich sat in the passenger seat, to be able to advise the actor on the most delicate points of driving the car and at the same time check that there were no mechanical problems.
Much has been written about what happened at the intersection of State Route 46 (then Route 466) and State Route 41 in Cholame, California. But our story ends a few seconds earlier, a few meters earlier, with a James Dean at the wheel of his Porsche, vital and eternally young.