One of the more jaw-dropping automotive transactions to occur in 2021 has to be the sale of James Dean’s Porsche 550 transaxle for $387,000 (including buyer’s premium) on Bring a Trailer. While the James Dean Porsche 550 story is well known in automobile collecting circles, a bit of background may be helpful so that the true strangeness of this transaction can be properly appreciated.

James Dean was the young, superstar Hollywood actor in the early 1950s. Having starred in box office bonanzas such as “Rebel Without a Cause” and “East of Eden” (“Giant” was a posthumous release)Dean’s sultry and disaffected screen persona made him the very avatar of youthful disillusionment and cultural alienation. In other words, he was on track to become solid gold and the biggest star in Hollywood.

Adding to his star power was his off-screen interest in sports-car racing. He had become seduced by the ’50s sports-car scene in Southern California and raced a Porsche 356 Speedster with notable brio and some excellent results in a half-dozen contests. Prohibited contractually from racing while filming, upon completion of “Giant” Dean bought himself his next rung in the racing ladder, a 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder sports racing car (s/n 550055). 

The wreck

The first outing for the new machine was planned to be the Salinas Road Races, scheduled for October 1–2, 1955. Deciding that his performance would be enhanced by getting some seat time in his brand-new racer, to say nothing of some break-in mileage, Dean and his mechanic, ex-Porsche factory hand Rolf Wütherich, took off in “Little Bastard,” as the Spyder had been christened. They were followed by a magazine photographer and other associates in a chase vehicle.

At 5:45 p.m., traveling westbound on U.S. Route 466 at high speed, Dean slammed into a 1950 Ford Tudor that unexpectedly turned left in front of him. Dean was killed. Wütherich was severely injured, though he ultimately recovered. Over 600 mourners and 2,400 fans attended Dean’s funeral on October 8.

The wrecked Spyder was supposedly stripped for parts (presumably among them was the transaxle) and the remains sold to George Barris, the customizer and movie-car builder. Barris had planned to make a custom out of the hulk, but instead loaned the wreck to the National Safety Council for a nationwide traveling display to raise awareness about the perils of speed.

Stolen Spyder

In 1960, the Spyder mysteriously vanished while being transported from Miami to Los Angeles by rail car. The police judged it stolen, and the car hasn’t been seen since. Over the past 60 years, Dean and his legend have kept interest in 550055 gently simmering.

I recall that years ago there was some mention that the Dean transaxle existed. When the destroyed Spyder was stripped of parts, the two big components that would be immediately desirable are the engine and the transaxle.

The lead-up to the Bring a Trailer transaction is unknown, but we may assume that the seller had rightful ownership of the component, though how that would be documented is not clear. Nevertheless, a transaction as significant as this will quickly expose any defects in the chain of ownership.

What to make of it?

The questions raised here are simple but important: What makes an automotive part, albeit a significant one, command this kind of value? Indeed, what are the potential uses for this thing, in light of its $387,000 sales price?

Well, you can’t make a car out of it. Without the original chassis, which is the sole component of an automobile that carries and confers identity, 550055 cannot be resurrected. Indeed, the transaxle is currently displayed as a complete assembly with axles, brakes, starter motor and a chassis-like display stand that reflects the style and appearance of the rear part of a Spyder chassis. That’s a heck of a thing to have in your rumpus room, though what it might stand for epistemologically, I haven’t much of an idea.

The major components of an automobile are individually serial-numbered and therefore can be identified. Porsche has weighed in and confirmed that this transaxle has the serial number of the transaxle that James Dean’s Spyder was born with. But the transaxle cannot supply any James Dean juju to another Spyder beyond “Oh, look! That car has James Dean’s transaxle.”

Anyone who would want this unit presumably wants it for the James Dean connection, not the Porsche Spyder connection. Moreover, this artifact has a direct connection to Dean’s death and all of the socio-cultural aspects of the “golden boy cut down in his prime” story, one of pathos and tragedy that has existed in myth and folklore for thousands of years.


The closest we can come to a comparable to this artifact is the sale, many years ago, of the Lance Macklin Austin-Healey Special Test Car that was one of the precipitating causes in the tragic and horrific Le Mans disaster of 1955 (coincidentally, the same year as Dean’s death).

The Macklin car, however, while admittedly representing the greatest disaster in the history of motor racing, was a complete and important automobile, even absent the Le Mans incident. The main reason to acquire it was not for the association with death and disaster, but as a historically important and rare racing Healey. Its association with the Le Mans tragedy was an important sidelight, not the whole show.

The transaxle, aside from its identity as a useful spare transaxle for a 550 Spyder (worth about $15k without the Dean connection), is the whole show. It has no significance at all, other than as something that encompasses the totality of James Dean’s meteoric but truncated career.

Mystery has surrounded the location of the car itself for more than a half-century. Were the chassis of the Spyder to come to light, we would have to assume that the ownership question would be resolved, as the late George Barris is, despite the intervening years, presumably still its owner. The option of resurrecting the James Dean Spyder would then be a distinct possibility. The discovery of the original engine (or at least its case) would create a relatively complete basis on which to proceed. Many cars have been restored with less.

Death wish

This is not the case, however. Instead, it gets rather creepy. This automotive artifact is not here an automotive artifact at all, but a mimesis for James Dean. We think of this transaxle being installed in a “wax museum,” which titillates the visitor by displaying the horrifying moments of history, or the malignant characters who haunt our nightmares. The transaxle has become an example of the fetish object, where the possession of the object confers on its owner a sense of importance, worth and satisfaction through the very act of possession.

So, bottom line: We have an automotive assembly of some intrinsic rarity and value that has been repurposed as a non-automotive memento mori of a famous and charismatic Hollywood screen star, who died in a tragic and wasteful accident. The buyer, an unknown to the automotive world, is not interested in cars or their history. He is, quite simply, a souvenir shopper with a need to own a piece of a famous human tragedy. ♦

One Comment

  1. Great article!