PCA Southeast Michigan Region

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P4-2018-11 – Visiting the James Dean Crash Site

By Jack Haynes

The last picture taken of James Dean—filling up his 550 Spyder prior to embarking on his trip to Salinas, CA

This past summer, my wife and I embarked on a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  I have long been interested in seeing the crash site of the fatal James Dean car accident on September 30, 1955. Being an avid Porsche guy, I decided to see it firsthand after I discovered it was not far from our route.

James Dean had been driving a Porsche 550 Spyder with his passenger-mechanic Rolf Wutherich, but Dean was the only death in the accident. This tragic event occurred near Paso Robles, California at the junction of two one-lane highways—446 and 41. The area today looks very much like it did in 1955 with no man-made physical structures in sight. Dean was driving his brand new Spyder to a race in Salinas, 300 miles and about 5 hours away from Hollywood.

Nine days before the accident, Dean’s Spyder was delivered to him after trading in his 356 Super Speedster plus $3,800 for it.  The total transaction value was $6,800. He had obtained an advance from Warner Brothers to cover the purchase. Because he hadn’t yet finished a sufficient number of races to earn a permanent Club racing number, Dean had a provisional Cal Club number (130) assigned by SCCA.  He had customizer Dean Jeffries paint 130 on the front hood, rear deck, and both doors, as well as Little Bastard on the rear cowling.

Dean and Wutherich had left Hollywood just prior to 2 pm. At 2:30, they gassed up at a Mobil station in Sherman Oaks.  The famous photo taken of Dean gassing up the Spyder was the last picture taken of him.

At 3:30 pm, Dean was given a speeding ticket for driving 65 in a 55-mph zone. At 5 pm, he and Wutherich pulled into a gas station to rest. Dean told Lance Reventlow and a companion who were also en route to Salinas that he had just driven the Spyder faster than 120 mph.

Dean and Wutherich left the station going westbound on State Highway 466 at about 5:30 pm. The sun was sinking low in the sky. They were heading toward the floor of Cholame Valley where Highway 466 intersected on a 45-degree angle with Highway 41.

Witnesses driving in a car westbound moments before the accident at about 5:45 pm reported that Dean passed them driving at an excess of 85 mph. The driver and passenger described that Dean had cut back in after passing them, leaving only 300-500 feet between him and the first of three oncoming eastbound cars.  The first car drove off the road to avoid hitting Dean head-on.

At about this same time heading eastbound toward Dean in a 1950 Ford Custom was a college student familiar with the area, driving approximately 60 mph. The driver, Donald Turnupseed, was approaching the “Y” junction of the two highways, planning to turn left.   There was no left turn lane.

Reports indicate that Turnupseed suddenly saw Dean’s car, slammed on the brakes, lifted off the accelerator, perhaps thought he could make the left turn but realized he could not, yanked the steering wheel to the right, and again heavily braked.  Most think that James Dean attempted to throttle steer around the skidding Ford, but instead spun directly into the it.

James Dean at the wheel of his ill fated 550 Spyder with his mechanic Rolf Wutherich riding shot gun

The left side of the Spyder took most of the impact as it struck the Ford’s left front bumper and center grille. Both cars were briefly airborne. The collision was a mismatch with the Ford weighing 3,000 pounds and the Spyder 1,300. Research has concluded that Turnupseed likely was traveling 55-60 mph and Dean 70-75mph.

A witness of the crash drove to a nearby gas station, reported the accident, and an ambulance arrived 10 minutes after the crash. Dean was extricated with massive injuries to head, neck chest, arms, and legs. Dean had not worn his safety belt, and his seat had flown out of the car while he himself was trapped. Dean was apparently dead at the scene and declared DOA at the hospital. Dean’s passenger was ejected from the car, critically injured, but he survived. Within an hour and a half, the world heard of Dean’s death.

The scene today looks very much like it did in 1955. The land is flat with nearby low mountains. There are still no buildings in sight. Memorial items have been placed along the fence where Dean’s car landed.  About a mile west is a James Dean Memorial called the Cholame Memorial, erected under a large tree in 1977. When we visited, no one else was at the Memorial, crash site, or the car’s resting place.

My wife and I drove back and forth on 466 that hot mid-day in August. The highway junction area is flat and open.   We drove about a mile east of the crash site, turned around from the vista, and drove west on 466, just as Dean had done that fatal day. Traffic was sparse. At one point, we lingered to view the crash site from about 20 seconds away from the intersection if one were driving at 65 mph.

Highway 466 West goes on a long downhill toward the intersection.  One could envision driving a Spyder at an elevated rate of speed there: good road conditions, wide flat space, good visibility, not much traffic, heading to a race. A sign stands about ¼ mile east of the accident site: James Dean Memorial Junction, named on the 50th anniversary. Although the accident area was isolated, vast, dry, and almost lonely, it still felt alive.

*An excellent resource about the accident and its context is James Dean on the Road to Salinas, by Lee Raskin published in 2015. Much of the accident data is reported in Raskin’s book, and other data were obtained from the Cholame Memorial and from a display about Dean’s accident a few miles from the crash site.

The intersection of highway 466 and 41- the scene of the fatal accident

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