September 22, 2021

Linkage Mag

Geared for the Automotive Life

James Dean’s Porsche 550 Transaxle is on BaT

Image: BaT

There’s no more famous Porsche 550 than s/n 550 0055 — the James Dean car. There’s a draw to that little silver 550 that Dean owned for nine days before his death, even decades after the wreck was last seen.

On September 30, 1955, Dean and his mechanic, Rolf Wutherich, left Los Angeles bound for a race in Salinas, but they didn’t make it. They collided with a 1950 Ford just outside Cholame, CA. The impact killed Dean and severely injured Wutherich.

A racer named Dr. William Eschrich bought what was left of the 550 from Dean’s insurance company in 1955, and he used the engine in a Lotus racer in the late 1950s. Parts of the car made their way to other racers, especially other 550 owners, and it’s thought that Eschrich sold or gave the body — or part of the body — to George Barris, who in turn used it as a traveling display.

Barris later claimed that the wreck disappeared during shipment, and he helped to perpetuate rumors of a curse that have helped the car achieve the pop culture status it still has to this day. 

Rumors of remaining bits and pieces still float around the car world like a vapor. The 4-cam engine (s/n 90 059) is said to still be in California, and may be in the hands of Eschrich’s son, but that rule here is conjecture rather than fact.

That is, until the car, or part of the car, comes to light.

BaT has listed a Porsche 550 transaxle, s/n 10 046, that is said to have come from Dean’s wrecked 550. It has the right paperwork and the right numbers to back up the claim, too.

Image: BaT

The transaxle was apparently removed from the wreck sometime after Eschrich bought it. He gave it to another racer as a spare unit — a racer by the name of Dr. Troy McHenry — who ran a few other Dean parts in his own 550, but not the transaxle. McHenry fatally crashed his car in a race at Pomona in 1956. 

The transaxle was stored for a number of years before being placed on the special display stand seen in this listing. It’s apparently complete and functional, with brakes and a starter mounted to it.

At this point, the piece could be used in another 550, but as the only known surviving piece of Dean’s car, there’s a value here that both defines it and limits it. Without the rest of the car, including the engine, there’s little chance this will ever turn under power again. Rather, this more of a piece of history than it is an auto part, and that will dictate its value moving forward — at least to a collector who feels the need to own a piece of the Dean car.

Image: BaT

But what does that really mean in terms of value here? Well, as of this writing, it’s at $100k with 11 days left to go — and it’s safe to assume it will go up from there.

See the listing here.