Der Auspuff: "The Rebel Without a Cause Run"

Most recognize James Dean for his movie roles alongside Elizabeth Taylor or Natalie Wood. However, there is a chosen group of people who recognize James Dean almost solely for his racing career and the car he spent his last day in.

On September 25th, fifty-two people of that latter group met in Santa Barbara to make their way to Cholame in honor of the 56th anniversary of the actor’s death. Forming a train of 28 Porsche’s, my dad and I led the “Rebel Without A Cause” Tour near the intersection of Highways 41 and 46, where the deadly car accident occurred. Parking along a road for Jack’s Ranch, the club tried to stay out of highway patrol’s way as we congregated around to hear about James Dean’s racing career, his tragic end, and the curse of the Porsche left behind.

In the year that he died, James Dean had been competing in car races from Palm Springs to Santa Barbara. Placing in top rankings as an amateur, his resume was quickly adding more checkered flags than scripts. Having just finished filming “Giant,” James had also just replaced his 356 Speedster with a 550 Spyder from Competition Motors. Many of his friends warned him about the power of his new car, even Alec Guiness predicted the actor’s death when he told him he would be dead in a week if he were to drive it.

Ignoring Guiness’s warning, James Dean decided to break in his new racecar by taking a route with more mileage on September 30th, 1955. Accompanying him was his mechanic, Rolf Wutherich. As they drove within the speed limit, Donald Turnipseed, a then Cal Poly student, was heading home on the same road. Thinking he had enough time to make a left-hand turn in front of the Porsche, Turnipseed turned his 1950 Ford right into the “Little Bastard.” Rolf, not wearing a seatbelt, survived after being thrown from the car while James Dean was not so lucky.

James Dean had only released one film before his death. Porsche had only released ninety 550 Spyders. When the news broke on September 30th, both names were made infamous. Everyone wanted to know more about the rebellious actor and the car that got his adrenaline pumping. Since then, both names have grown with immense popularity and prestige, being associated with one of James’ most famous quote: “Dream as if you’ll live forever, Live as if you’ll die today.”

Club member Don Kuckenbaker, who was a Salinas resident at the time, remembers the surprise announcement of the accident and even brought along the program guide he had purchased at the race James Dean was scheduled to compete in. Even though James entered the competition too late to have his actual name listed in the program, the pamphlet is an incredible piece of memorabilia. Donald’s own little piece of James Dean history was passed around the group and his personal experience emphasized the impact this accident had on that generation of fans.

The tour continued from the crash site to James Dean’s actual memorial. Donated by the Japanese in 1977, the memorial sculpture pays a serious tribute to a life taken too soon. Members who were looking sharp in their “Rebel Without A Cause” Tour t-shirts posed for a photo before we all took a quick glance at the James Dean memorabilia displayed within the neighboring cafĂ©.

Trying to lift a somber mood, my dad then gave the word for the group to drive down to Eberle Winery in Paso Robles. With our lunch being barbequed beside us, members glanced through books on James Dean while overlooking the great expansion of vineyards below the deck. Our tour guide, Jan, then took us on a tour of the winery and it’s underground caves, which naturally maintained a pleasant 65-degree temperature despite the outside heat. Hundreds of barrels lined the underground “streets,” each one holding 25 cases of wine within. Jan led us to the cave’s dining room where wine tastings were paired with a complete barbeque lunch and dessert selection.

Many members went on to other wineries or nearby destination cities after the tour and lunch, hopefully feeling full of tri-tip and James Dean recollections. A special thanks goes out to Shady Awad at the Marriott Hotel in Paso Robles for accommodating members that stayed in Paso Robles that night, to Doreen Pankow for promoting the t-shirts I designed, and to Joan Yabitsu for letting our James Dean cardboard cut-out take shotgun in their 997 Turbo.

Needless to say, James Dean has become a complimentary figure to Porsche’s name. There is a special understanding between Porsche owners about what drew James Dean to the car and also a certain reverence for a man who lived the way he drove. In another one of his most famous quotes he says, “The only greatness for man is immortality.” James Dean believed that greatness is actually measured after death and I think it’s safe to say that not only has his greatness been immortalized, but Porsche’s name has also developed a similar reputation of its own. Maybe a car company and an actor are not perfect links, but it’s easy to see that both names will forever exist in history as great and refined creations.  

(The article is available in print and online at: http://pcasb.org/DerAuspuff/2011/2011-11.pdf)