Dead Celebrities and the Cars That Killed Them

dead celebrities and the cars that killed them

James Dean was a moderately talented actor. You could say he made his best career move behind the wheel of a Porsche. After his fatal accident, Dean’s “live fast-die young” legend grew to Giant-size, propelling his life (and death) to legendary status. As for the car [not shown], many came to believe that the “Lil’ Bastard” was evil, citing both the actor’s death and the death and injury experienced by those who came into contact with the car or bits thereof. Steven King and Snopes will fill in the blanks on that one. But the truth is that celebrities aren’t that different from you and me. The basic causation for their car crashes is the same as it ever was: human error and a light dusting of equipment limitations or failure.

James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder was a limited edition race car. Dean fancied himself a bona-fide race car driver. In March 1955, Dean finished second in the Palm Springs Road Races and in May of that year, he placed third at Bakersfield. Later that month, Dean was running fourth at the Santa Monica Road Races, until he was sidelined with engine failure.

Even if one assumes that Dean had mad motoring skills, he was still destined to wear a toe tag at the end of the day on September 30, 1955. This one had bad driving and the cold reality of physics written all over it.

The lousy driving arrived courtesy a young man named Donald Turnipseed. Turnipseed (who blamed the light in his eye) made a poor judgment call when he turned left just in time to collide with the smaller Porsche’s driver’s side. The large 1950 Ford Custom Tudor coupe had a significant weight and mass advantage over the small race trimmed Porsche 550. To say the least. And state the obvious. The Porsche’s tubular race frame didn’t stand a chance.

The photos of the wreck proved this point. Dean was the unwilling recipient of a steering wheel and dash, while his luckier passenger was ejected from the car. Donald Turnupseed emerged virtually unscathed, outside of the emotional damage of Dean’s death by his boneheaded move.

Speaking of trauma, all of America has a “whoa” moment, when Jayne Mansfield lost her life in a collision with the trailer of a semi on June 29, 1967. Her 1966 Buick Electra land barge collided with a fog-obscured trailer. The collision killed all of the front seat occupants, including her dog. Mansfield’s children survived; the rear seat passengers were short enough to escape the trailer’s scythe-like effect.

The fatalities may have been avoided by slower speeds, but no former or current factory safety equipment would have prevented the Buick’s sudden transformation from hardtop to convertible. The urban myth about decapitation was false, but sudden head trauma certainly ushered Mansfield onto the Silver Screen in the Sky.

Gruesome pictures of the crash scene were so widely disseminated (this before the Internet) that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration soon mandated that all semi truck trailers had to be outfitted with a rear under-ride bar or bumper.

Not even one of the world’s safest automobiles—a Mercedes Benz S280—could save Princess Diana’s life. The Mercedes had every safety feature known to the auto industry, including a state-of-the-art passenger cell, traction control, air bags and braking systems. Once again, the driver was the weakest link.

While Prince Charles may have wished his wife dead several times an hour, the realization of that alleged desire was the simple result of impaired driving. Diana’s chauffeur was drunk and under the influence of pills when the crash occurred. Whether he was being chased or just plain stupid, Henri Paul over-cooked it, colliding with a concrete pillar in a Paris underpass.

Diana’s bodyguard survived the accident, but then he was wearing his seat belt and Princess Diana was not. A simple lesson often neglected in the flurry of conspiracy theories and speculation.

In fact, it’s too bad that the “teachable” moment is often lost (though not in the Mansfield crash) when celebrities die in car accidents. The public often focuses on the facts of the matter, and the star’s violently truncated career, instead of the causation. The truth is that celebrities face the same dangers on the road as you and I, only more so, as they have a tendency to intersect with fast cars, drugs and alcohol abuse. And, of course, hubris. For example . . .

In 1927, dancer and choreographer Isadora Duncan jumped into a friend’s Bugatti. As the driver began their destined-to-short journey, Duncan’s flowing scarf tangled in the car’s open-spoke rear wheel. It pulled taut, snapping her neck. The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes reports Duncan had “waved gaily to her friends, crying ‘Adieu, mes amis! Je vais a la gloire!'” Goodbye, my friends! I go to glory!

[For more of Jim Sutherland’s work, please visit]

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  • on Nov 27, 2009

    [...] einem Beitrag auf las ich heute folgendes: “In 1927, dancer and choreographer Isadora [...]

  • DreadUK DreadUK on Apr 12, 2014

    What a nice old article. My old man was a celebrity, a minor one by any standards, but a 1960's celebrity in Colonial Hong Kong nonetheless. He was a successful racing driver who died, predictably, at the wheel of a car. However it was in his 70's when he was driving his Fiat Panda in the grounds of a hospital following a blood test, prior to imminent, minor heart surgery. His death was a as result of a heart attack, nothing to do with the car or his driving. Which, as a point of contradiction, leads me to say that most 'celebity' deaths in cars is because of bad driving. Not because these people are celebrities, or indeed, driving big, fast, sporty (or otherwise) machines but simply because they are bad drivers. Universally, the driving test is taken in rudimentary, mundane vehicles that are, by law and common sense, never taken beyond the legal speed limit, nor into dangerous conditions. And if they are (I have been a driving instructor and used to promote driving in dangerous conditions) there is always someone beside the learner driver able to at least advise if not take control. On passing their test, the qualification for buying and driving a car well beyond their capabilities comes down to the new drivers ability to afford whatever car they desire. A learner driver can jump into a Ferrari, or Porsche, in Deans case, and drive it with no further training. And despite Deans competition credentials, which were limited in any event, driving cars on the road is an entirely different skill to driving on the road. Why is acceptable that drivers pass a test (at least in the UK) borne from 1930's technologies, conditions and practices, and are then allowed to drive a Ferrari? Our current driving test does not mandate motorway driving, overtaking (where I understand most accidents occur) driving in fog, snow, heavy rain or where the roads are busy (City traffic) like London, Glasgow or Manchester. Nor does it emphasise maintaining the legal speed limit to avoid frustrating following drivers, and worst of all, driving instructors are required to only pass the same driving test as the drivers they are teaching! We consistently apportion blame for driving incidents to care, drink, drugs and other drivers when it is invariably the drivers fault. In Deans case, and possibly Mike Hawthorns case, although details are sketchy about that one, they were evidently the victims of stupid drivers however my contention is that had they been taught to drive on the road properly they may have avoided a fatal crash. And whilst all of us believe we are good drivers, even those that strictly obey the rules learned in driving lessons, the fact is the best competition drivers are novices on the road. Did I learn this as a driving instructor? Nope, I was a Police trained driver (I was a Copper) and RoSpa trained driver as well and having attended innumerable fatal accidents realised that despite the 'unusual' or 'unexpected' circumstances, most crashes can be avoided by secondary (or advanced, but I hate that elitist term) training. Nor is it difficult, secondary training, far from complicating, simplifies the process of driving and gets the occupants of a car from A to B more quickly and safely than anyone without it. As for Diana, I'll only make the comment that had her driver been a trained Police Traffic driver (Ex or otherwise) she would not have been killed on that occasion. I am astonished that an individual as perceptibly as important as her, was consigned to the safety of a civilian (as far as I can gather) driver with questionable driving skills.

  • MaintenanceCosts So someone really did build that car I drew while not paying attention in second grade. Too bad they screwed it up so badly.
  • MaintenanceCosts A bit after that experience, my family ended up owning an '88 Accord and an '87 Taurus--Detroit's big triumph--at the same time. The win for the Accord wasn't total; the Taurus's engine was better and it was quieter. But the difference in build quality and refinement can't be overstated.There were no rattles in the Accord, the materials are to this day some of the best in any car I've ever owned, every control operated with precision and just the right feel, and the ergonomics were perfect. By contrast, the Taurus was full of rattles from the day we got it, had hard plastic and slapdash fits all over the interior, had mouse-fur upholstery that showed wear by 60k miles, some parts of the control layout were nonsensical, and my car had a number of obvious assembly defects (including silver front bumper paint that all peeled off within five years). The cars' records in service also contrasted dramatically; the Taurus's lower purchase price (as a used car with similar mileage) was totally offset within a few years by higher repair costs.The thing that really puts an exclamation point on the contrast between the two cars is just how much better the Taurus was than its Fox-based predecessors.
  • Art Vandelay I am sure somewhere, somebody is saddened by this.
  • Dukeisduke It's becoming the norm for cats to be moved out of state for sale, and even out of the country. The thieves are looking for the easiest places to get rid of them, as laws tighten down in some places. Here in Texas, catalytic converter theft became a felony last September 1, so the stakes are going up.A couple months back, an off-duty Harris County (Houston) sheriff's deputy leaving a grocery store was murdered in the parking lot by a thief that was in the process of stealing the cat from his truck. As far as I know, they're still looking for the suspect, who would be charged with capital murder, and subject to the death penalty.
  • Dukeisduke Here's a real horror story: A friend of mine that's a commercial wallpaper installer owned an '09 Tundra, and had his cat stolen while he was working on a job in Dallas. He would normally have driven his work truck (an '03 Silverado with a zillion miles on it, and one engine replacement), but it was out of commission that day.At the end of the day when he got in the truck and started it, he noticed the noise, *and* saw smoke and flames. The thief had somehow cut or nicked the fuel line, causing gas to spray out. The truck burned to the ground in just a few minutes.He replaced it with a '19 Tundra, and the dealer installed a steel plate attached to the frame rails below the cats, and it's riveted (or maybe security bolts?) to the rails (I only saw it after dark, so I didn't get a really good look). He said the plate cost $750 to install. He says he'll never take the new one to work.