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Retracing Famous Fateful Journey

Memorial: Devotees of old cars and James Dean follow the route the actor took to his death in 1955.

September 28, 1997|ANN W. O'NEILL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They were the few, the proud, the lovers of cars that are old but fast and of a Hollywood legend who lived hard and died young. On Saturday, a dozen of them gathered at a strip mall in Van Nuys to begin retracing James Dean's final journey.

Their sponsor, North Hollywood car customizer George Barris, didn't make this year's Rebel Run, a 200-mile road trip from the San Fernando Valley to Cholame. But he has told the story of the intense young actor's fateful final day so many times before that they know the details by heart.

On Sept. 30, 1955, Barris met Dean, a customer, at a gas station on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. They loaded a spanking new aluminum-skinned Porsche Spyder onto a trailer and checked out Barris' custom paint job--the number 130 on the front, the nickname "Little Bastard" hand-lettered on the back.

The original plan had been to haul the Porsche to Salinas, where Dean was to race it that weekend. But Dean had a change of heart.

"Jimmy says, 'I want to drive it up.' So we unloaded it. He jumped in the car and off he went, followed by the truck and the trailer. I waved goodbye and that was the last time I saw him," Barris said.

Riding with Dean was Rolf Wutherich, a Porsche mechanic.

What happened between 5:30 and 6 p.m. that day at a Y intersection about 20 miles east of Paso Robles is now an indelible part of California lore: An engineering student in a black and white Ford sedan made an ill-advised left turn, Dean uttered his famous last words--"He's gotta see us"--and a sickening collision, nearly head-on, collapsed the front end of the Porsche, forcing the steering wheel into Dean's chest and snapping his neck. Wutherich was injured but survived.

Death at the age of 24 made Dean a legend. Three days after he died, Warner Bros. released "Rebel Without a Cause," the second of his three films. He had just completed work on his third, "Giant."

That some still remember the anniversary of his demise 42 years ago is a testament to a culture's continuing fascination with fame, speed, youthful rebellion and tragic early death.

This year, Barris traveled to Dean's hometown--Fairmount, Ind.--for the annual James Dean Memorial Run. The Indiana festivities also include the premiere of "James Dean: Race With Destiny," a new, low-budget film memorializing the actor's last year and his ill-fated romance with actress Pier Angeli. In what was his last film, Robert Mitchum, who died last summer, played director George Stevens.

In Van Nuys on Saturday the die-hard Dean fans and classic car buffs launched the first leg of their memorial run from a record store named Ear Candy. The shop is owned by Kip Brown, who drives a silver Mazda Miata and has been working for a decade on a book about Dean.

"I'm a big fan of his, but I'm not a psycho fan," Brown said. "I don't bow down and go, 'Jimmy!' "

"I've been a James Dean fan forever," gushed writer Pamela des Barres from behind a pair of retro sunglasses, a tattoo of Jesus on her shoulder. "I remember the minute he died. I was 8 years old, and I heard it on the radio. I said, 'Mom, who's that?' "

The Rebel Run has traced Dean's final route since 1980--taking one year off for lack of an organizer. This year, the turnout was better than it was a few years back, when Bob Carr and his wife, Leslie, were the only participants.

"I go for the drive," said Carr--a tall and twangy fellow who wore a T-shirt that boasted, "If I were a car, I'd be a classic"--who was in a 1938 Mercury Zephyr.

Carr and some of the other men, a taciturn lot, seemed more interested in the classic cars than in the Dean lore. One man tried to distance himself from the life-size cardboard likeness of the actor seated--or rather, folded--behind the wheel of his Spyder replica. "Someone gave that to me," he said.

"It's difficult to bring the old car people together with the James Dean people," acknowledged run organizer Rick Pichette. "Most old car people don't care about James Dean, and most James Dean fans don't care about old cars. So it's a hard union to get together."

Barris appeals to both. He was "car buddies" with Dean, whom he met on the set of "Rebel," and he owned Dean's wrecked death car for about five years. He even sent the mangled vehicle on safety tours until it disappeared mysteriously after a car show in Florida in 1960.

The modern-day journey is familiar, if not authentic: Participants take the San Diego Freeway, which was not there in 1955, to the Golden State Freeway, which had not been built either, to California 99.

Dean tooled the Spyder north toward the old Ridge Route. He pulled over for a snack at Tip's Castaic Junction, just north of what is now Magic Mountain. The restaurant still stands, but these days it's called the Blue Moon Cafe.

About 3:30 p.m., 20 miles south of Bakersfield at an area known as Mettler Station, Dean was pulled over and cited for speeding. He was doing 65 mph in a 55-mph zone. His signature on the ticket would be his final autograph.

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