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A legend was born the day an American icon died

Famously, James Dean died in a high-speed head-on collision, in September 1955, behind the wheel of a race-prepared Porsche 550 Spyder.

Most famous for being the car James Dean crashed, the Porsche 550 Spyder was a two-seater sports car which firmly established the German car maker's racing pedigree.
Most famous for being the car James Dean crashed, the Porsche 550 Spyder was a two-seater sports car which firmly established the German car maker's racing pedigree.

It was the late John Derek, he who would become most famous in his later years for his taste in blonde wives (step forward Ursula Andress, Linda Evans and Bo Derek), who uttered the phrase: "live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse," as Nick Romano in Knock On Any Door, a largely forgotten movie aimed at impressionable teens in 1940s America. You might be forgiven for thinking these words were first spoken instead by James Byron Dean, the actor, whose short life represents the very embodiment of, at least, the first two parts of Derek's mantra. The circumstances of the actor's death, however, probably prevented him from fulfilling the third part of the equation.

Famously, Dean died in a high-speed head-on collision, in Sept 1955, behind the wheel of a race-prepared Porsche 550 Spyder. He was accompanied on what would be his final drive by Rolf Wutherich, his mechanic, as they travelled to a motorsport event. Wutherich survived the accident after being catapulted out of the car to safety. So too did Donald Turnupseed, the student driver of the Ford Tudor which collided with Dean's German race car and crushed an American dream.

Ironically, Jim Stark, Dean's character in Rebel Without A Cause, would later drive a Mercury variant of the Tudor in the film's iconic drag race. Dean, of course, survived that celluloid racing incident, while his competition perished. The 550 crash occurred just a week before the release of the aforementioned film. One can only speculate now, but even if he had survived that fatal accident, the film would surely have sealed Dean's status as the world's foremost example of a cool, rule-breaking rebel. His untimely death only served to embellish Dean's somewhat one-dimensional acting abilities and underscored the legendary status of both the rebel and his roadster.

Dean had taken delivery of his rare 550 Spyder on Sept 21 1955, just nine days before his death. The two-seater was essentially a lighter, faster, open-top version of Porsche's 356 sports car and was conceived as a gentleman's racer - legal on the road, lethal on the track. The 550's genius lay in its simplicity, pairing a lightweight chassis with a willing 1500cc engine which was capable of a top speed in excess of 150 miles per hour (240kph).

Only 90 examples, including Dean's vehicle, were produced, and at least 10 of these were held back from sale by the German car maker to be used in competition. Its very scarcity makes a genuine 550 a prize catch at auction. The racer's low-slung body also proved extremely practical in the 550's first outing at the Mille Miglia 1,000km race in 1954, when Hans Herrmann, a Porsche factory driver of that era, drove under the barriers of a railway level crossing and narrowly avoided a high-speed commuter train heading down the tracks and straight for the tiny roadster.

The following year a 550 was driven to fourth place overall and best in class at the Le Mans endurance race, finishing not far behind a pair of far more powerful 3.4-litre Jaguars and a 2.9-litre Aston Martin. Further success would be achieved the year after when a 550 claimed Porsche's maiden motorsports win at the 1956 Targa Florio, a now defunct endurance race which used to plough its way through rural Sicily.

The final words on the 550 should, however belong to Dean. If, according to the actor, "the only success, the only greatness is immortality," then notwithstanding the 550's achievements in competition, it is Dean's stricken racer which elevates this ultra-rare Porsche to the status of supercar. nmarch@thenational.ae