On the drive north, Dean collected a speeding ticket from a California Highway patrolman. Later, at a café along the route, he ran into fellow Southern California racer Lance Reventlow, the trust-fund baby who would later build the Scarab race cars. Before leaving, Dean told Reventlow’s companion, Bruce Kessler, another SoCal racer, that he’d gotten the Porsche up to 120 mph. Less than an hour later, near the no-stoplight town of Cholame, the Spyder crashed almost head-on into a sedately driven Ford sedan as it left turned across traffic.
Dean almost certainly died from the impact. Wütherich, who was ejected from the cockpit, suffered grievous injuries. Photos shot at the scene show that the Porsche was mangled almost beyond recognition. Yet before long, Barris was displaying a somewhat more tastefully damaged Spyder at car shows with a placard identifying it as “James Dean’s Last Sports Car.”
“Raskin theorizes that Barris’s car ‘was cobbled together with sheets of aluminum'”
Barris claimed that he’d bought the car from Dean’s family. When it was being unloaded in his shop, he said, it fell on a mechanic and broke both his legs. Barris subsequently sold the engine to Dr. Troy McHenry, who was killed when he hit a tree while racing a car supposedly fitted with the deadly motor. (Barris said that another doctor using a transaxle salvaged from the Spyder was paralyzed in a racing accident.) After Barris reworked the car to display at safety demonstrations, he claimed it fell off a stand and broke a teenager’s hip. A few weeks after that, while being transported, the car allegedly fell off the trailer and killed the truck driver. There were also tales about a thief who broke his arm while trying to steal the steering wheel and another mechanic who broke another leg when a door fell off the car.
Barris, it should be said, was a consummate showman and shameless promoter. Raskin is convinced that most of his stories were fabrications, and several are demonstrably false. Raskin says the wrecked carcass of the 550 was bought not by Barris but by local physician (and club racer) William Eschrich, who salvaged what he could and trashed the chassis. (Raskin believes Eschrich’s son still owns the original engine.)
Although the front boot and rear desk lid appeared to be original, Raskin theorizes that Barris’s car “was cobbled together with sheets of aluminum,” and then pummeled with 2x4s to make it look like it had been in an accident.
The original transaxle made it way through several hands before being bought three decades ago by Jack Styles, the longtime parts manager at the Paul Russell’s renowned restoration shop. Last year, Styles sold the unit to Porsche broker/collector Don Ahearn, who offered it on BaT. The listing generated a firestorm of 1,345 comments and bidding that topped out at a disappointing (!) $382,000. But the identity of the buyer turned out to be an even bigger surprise.
Winning bidder Zak Bagans describes himself as “a pioneer in the paranormal field.” He owns the Haunted Museum in Las Vegas, where one of his prize exhibits is Dr. Jack Kervorkian’s so-called ‘death van’. The “cursed” transaxle ought to fit right in.
“It’s going to a freak show,” Raskin says. “George Barris must be dancing in his grave.”