The Transaxle From The Porsche 550 Spyder James Dean Died In Is For Sale

Illustration for article titled The Transaxle From The Porsche 550 Spyder James Dean Died In Is For Sale
Screenshot: Bring A Trailer

There’s always been a sort of grim fascination with cars famous people have died in; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme that Hitler allegedly died in at least three different off-highway museums. The Porsche 550 Spyder bought by 1950s icon James Dean and named “Li’l Bastard” is likely one of the most famous of the cars famous people died in. And now the four-speed transaxle from that car is up for auction on Bring A Trailer. I bet it could end up being the most expensive four-speed transaxle ever sold.

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Dean, then only 24, bought the Spyder with plans to use it in some SCCA racing events. To further familiarize himself with the little mid-engined car, Dean and his mechanic drove the car from Los Angeles to the track in Salinas, California, but he famously ended up in a head-on collision en route, which killed him.

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Screenshot: Bring A Trailer

The wrecked car was for a time on display with the Los Angeles Safety Council, which was something George Barris was involved with; Barris also fed a lot of hype about the car and made up the idea that it was “cursed.”

The main body of the car disappeared while on tour with the Safety Council display, and it appears to still be missing.

Not all of it is unaccounted for, though. The air-cooled, flat-four, four-cam 1500cc engine — known as the 528, and the first really serious departure for Porsche from modified Beetle engines — was sold to Dr. William Eschrich, who also bought the transaxle and other mechanical bits.

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Photo: Jim Fleming
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Dr. Eschrich mounted the engine up front in a Lotus Mark 9 race car. Because the engine was flipped around to be a mid-engine in the Porsche 550, it turned the proper way to drive the rear wheels of the Lotus when mounted up front.

The transaxle, though, as far as anyone can tell, was just stored, and the Bring a Trailer listing says it came into the current owner’s hands a bit over a year ago, but doesn’t say from where, though the documentation suggests that Bob Devlin, former racing driver, car collector, and author was the owner, at least until the late 1980s.

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After that, it appears to have been sold in 1987 to a Jack Stiles, who seemed to have corresponded a lot about it.

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Screenshot: Bring A Trailer
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The transaxle is pretty complete looking: it has a starter motor, swing-axle rear suspension, complete with intact CV boots, drum brakes and the split case has the proper VW stampings on it, since these were VW four-speed Beetle transaxles originally, but with their internal parts upgraded and the gear train flipped 180 degrees to accommodate a mid-engine configuration.

This one is mounted on a special tube-frame stand with casters, so you could roll it around to show it off, I suppose.

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Screenshot: Bring A Trailer

It comes with all the official documentation you’d want to confirm it’s the real deal, with documentation from the California DMV, Porsche itself, and extensive general records for almost every interaction people had with this box of gears. It seems like it’s the real deal.

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Screenshot: Bring A Trailer

It’s pretty much assured this thing will be eye-searingly expensive; it’s at $100,000 right now, and there’s over two weeks left in the auction.

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If you want to bid on it, here’s the link. If you win, my suggestion would be to take it off the stand and install it in a Volkswagen Type 4 wagon, or maybe a Thing or Super Beetle, just to, you know, really rile everyone up.

Ooh, maybe one of those Beetles with the Rolls-Royce hood kits! That would be sweet.

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus, 2020 Changli EV • Not-so-running: 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!: https://rb.gy/udnqhh)

DISCUSSION

kahlessj
Kahlessj

pretty morbid.  someone should buy it up and destroy it to stop this nonsense.