James Dean's Porsche, a "giant" at the Le Mans Classic

James Dean's Porsche, a "giant" at the Le Mans Classic

In addition to a screening of "Rebel Without a Cause" at the 9th edition of the Le Mans Classic, the memory of actor James Dean (1931-1955) was alive and well on the track thanks to a Porsche (grid 2) he once drove.

To get a feel for what Porsche meant to James Dean, let's go back to 1955. On 26 and 27 March, James Dean took the wheel of a Porsche 356 Super Speedster for a race at the circuit in Palm Springs in southern California. The actor won the qualifying race and reached the third step on the podium the next day...then moved up to second after Ken Miles was disqualified (10 years later, he would become a favorite driver in Ford's offensive at Le Mans)!

The day after that, James Dean was on the set with director Nicholas Ray for the first day of filming "Rebel Without a Cause." He entered another race on 1 May in Bakersfield, finishing second on the heels of scoring pole position in his class. After being forced to retire in Santa Barbara at the end of the same month, he was expected to take the wheel again after wrapping the movie "Giant" in the summer. On 30 September, he hit the road in his new Porsche 550 RS Spyder, nicknamed "Little Bastard," for a race in Salinas. But he never made it.

In addition to an acting career that seemed destined for greatness, how far would James Dean have gone in motorsport after such promising beginnings? Would he have one day taken the start at the 24 Hours of Le Mans? Unfortunately, we will never know. But today, his Porsche 356 (#40) is on the track at the 2018 Le Mans Classic in grid 2.

"This Porsche 356 Super Speedster was released in a limited series in the U.S. at the request of the American importer," explains one of the car's three drivers, Antoine Seyler. "It belonged to Warner Bros. (the Hollywood studio that produced "East of Eden," "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant," the actor's three movies, Ed.), and they lent it to James Dean. The car wasn't fast enough for him, so he ordered a 550 Spyder. Vincent Tourneur then bought this car from Warner Bros. We were given the opportunity to drive it for the second time together at the Le Mans Classic, this time joined by the talented Stéphane Ortelli. It's also a double anniversary: Porsche's 70th and the 20th of Stéphane's win at the 24 Hours with Laurent Aiello and Allan McNish, not to mention Paul Frère, our guardian angel. Though he won Le Mans with Ferrari (in 1960, Ed.), Paul worked a great deal with Porsche, for whom he was a top ambassador."

Aside from the link with James Dean, this Porsche underwent specific modifications for its owner, a former vice-president of the Pernod Ricard group. "Unfortunately, a fall in an airport stairway left Vincent parapalegic," continues Antoine Seyler. "So this 356 is equipped with a special hydraulic system. Vincent is also participating in grid 1 at the wheel of a Delahaye he's sharing with Andy Prill who enhanced the system with Vincent. Le Mans is a circuit that demands a lot of humility, and I'm approaching it carefully because I'm not as familiar with the car as are my teammates."

Thanks to Vincent Tourneur, Stéphane Ortelli and Antoine Seyler, plenty of important memories are represented on the track via the #40 Porsche 356: James Dean's life and career cut short, the Porsche 356 (predecessor of the legendary 911 in the history of Porsche) and driver-journalist Paul Frère (a major player in the German marque's history at the 24 Hours of Le Mans).


PHOTO (Michel Jamin / ACO): The #40 Porsche 356 on the track at the Le Mans Classic.