Rudolf Karl Wütherich ( ; August 5, 1927 – July 22, 1981), most commonly known as Rolf Wütherich, was a German automotive Luftwaffe pilot, engineer and racer who sat in James Dean's Porsche during his fatal car crash on September 30, 1955. He experienced many personal difficulties as a result of the crash and himself died in a car accident 26 years later.
Early life and education
Wütherich was born in Heilbronn, Germany in 1927. He served as a Luftwaffe glider pilot, paratrooper, and aircraft mechanic before joining Mercedes-Benz in 1950. The year before he had joined the Porsche factory, becoming the second employee of their racing department. He participated as a factory team member at Le Mans in 1952, 1953, and 1954. Wütherich was also a factory team member for Porsche at Avus, Mille Miglia, Reims, and the Nurburgring races.
The Porsche factory sent Wütherich to the United States as a field engineer for Johnny von Neumann's Competition Motors in Los Angeles, where the new 550 Spyder racing cars were being distributed. He arrived in April 1955 and later met actor James Dean, a Porsche Speedster racer, at the Bakersfield races. He befriended Dean and began to work on Dean's Speedster for race events.
James Dean's fatal crash
In mid-September 1955, Competition Motors received five new Porsche 550 Spyders that were being offered only to 'privateer' racers. Dean traded in his Super Speedster to purchase a new Spyder on September 21. Von Neumann only agreed to sell the new 550 Spyder to Dean as long as Wütherich would accompany him to the races as his mechanic. Dean immediately entered the Salinas Road Races scheduled for October 1-2.
On Friday morning, September 30, 1955, Dean and Wütherich were at Competition Motors preparing Dean’s new Porsche 550 Spyder for the weekend sports car races at Salinas, California. Dean originally intended to trailer the Porsche to Salinas, behind his 1955 Ford Country Squire station wagon, driven by friend and movie stunt man, Bill Hickman, and accompanied by professional photographer, Sanford Roth, who was planning a photo story of Dean at the races for Colliers Magazine. Due to the Porsche being a newly assembled vehicle and thus not yet optimized fully, Wütherich recommended that Dean drive the Spyder to Salinas in order to have the engine and other components mechanically "broken in." The group had coffee and donuts at the Hollywood Ranch Market on Vine Street across from Competition Motors (not the legendary Farmer’s Market at Fairfax and 3rd Ave. as previously reported) before leaving around 1:15 p.m. PST. "Jimmy's and my nerves were pretty frayed when we finally pulled away from Competition Motors," Wütherich told Bill Barrett. "Our first stop was at a service station on Ventura Blvd.", he said. It was at that Mobil station on Ventura Blvd. at Beverly Glen Blvd. in Sherman Oaks where the legendary photo was taken of Dean standing next to the "Little Bastard." The group left around 2:00 p.m., heading north on CA Rt. 99 and then over the ‘Grapevine’ toward Bakersfield.
At 3:30 p.m., Dean was stopped by a California Highway Patrolman, O.V. Hunter at Mettler Station on Wheeler Ridge, just south of Bakersfield, for driving 65 mph (105 km/h) in a 55 mph (89 km/h) zone. Hickman, following behind the Spyder in the Ford with the trailer, was also ticketed for driving 20 mph (32 km/h) over the limit, as the speed limit for all vehicles towing a trailer was 45 mph (72 km/h). After receiving the speeding citations, Dean and Hickman turned left onto Rt. 166/33 to avoid going through Bakersfield’s slow 25 mph downtown district. Rt. 166/33 was a known short-cut for all the sports car drivers going to Salinas, termed ‘the racer’s road,’ which took them directly to Blackwells Corner at CA Route 46. At Blackwells Corner, Dean stopped briefly only for refreshments and met up with fellow racers Lance Reventlow and Bruce Kessler, who were also on their way to the Salinas road races in Reventlow’s Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupe. As Reventlow and Kessler were leaving, they all agreed to meet for dinner in Paso Robles.
At approximately 5:15 p.m., Dean and Hickman left Blackwells Corner driving west on Route 46 toward Paso Robles, approximately sixty miles away. Dean accelerated in the Porsche and left the Ford station wagon far behind. Further along on Rt. 46, the Porsche crested Polonio Pass and headed down the long Antelope Grade passing cars along the way toward the junction floor at Rt. 46 and 41. Dean spotted an oncoming black-and-white 1950 Ford Custom coupe heading east on Rt. 46 toward the junction. The time was approximately 5:45 p.m., PST. Its driver, 23-year-old Navy Veteran and Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, suddenly turned in front of the Porsche to take the left fork onto Route 41. Turnupseed then hesitated as he 'spiked' the brakes just as the Ford crossed over the center line. Dean saw an impending crash and apparently tried to 'power steer' the Spyder in a 'side stepping' racing maneuver—but there wasn't enough time or space as the two cars crashed almost head-on. The Spyder flipped up into the air and landed back on its wheels off in a gully, northwest of the junction. The sheer velocity of the impact sent the much heavier Ford broad-sliding thirty-nine feet down Rt. 46 in the west bound lane. Later findings showed that Dean's car was not racing but that he drove at 70mph and was braking hard before the accident. The first witnesses of the scene driving behind Turnupseed, Tom Frederick, 28, and his 15-year-old brother-in-law Don Dooley, said in Court hearings that Rolf Wütherich was actually driving the car and that James Dean sat in the passenger's seat. Tom Frederick, also a witness at the crash site insisted his entire life that he saw Wütherich in the passenger seat. Wütherich was laying on the drivers side next to the car on the road after the accident.
James Dean had been extricated from the Spyder's mangled cockpit after his left foot was crushed between the clutch and brake pedal. Dean was severely injured and was placed into an ambulance. The barely conscious Wütherich, who had been thrown from the Spyder onto the shoulder of the road next to the Porsche, was loaded in next. Dean and Wütherich were taken to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, twenty-eight miles away. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival. Wütherich survived the crash with a double fractured jaw and serious hip and femur injuries. He was transferred to a Los Angeles hospital for immediate surgery. So badly torn was Wütherich's left hip that it required several more surgeries over the next six months.
Private life and attempted murder case
As a result of the accident which killed James Dean, Wütherich developed severe psychological problems. There were many accounts that he suffered from depression, had suicidal tendencies, and became an alcoholic. He knew of cases of suicides of Dean fans and received many fan letters accusing him and threatening him.
Wütherich was married four times and had one son, Bernd Wütherich. His first marriage was to a Hungarian woman named Julia and ended in 1954. The second marriage was to Gudrun, who accused him of killing James Dean. He became violent and was arrested and committed to a psych ward. Rolf and Gudrun Wütherich were divorced shortly afterwards. He married his next wife Inge on a vacation in Rimini; this marriage produced his son Bernd. They divorced after four years. His fourth marriage was to Doris. On 1 May 1967 he stabbed her in her sleep several times after previously attempting suicide. After 14 months in jail he was found guilty of attempted manslaughter in a court in Stuttgart in 1969. He was ultimately sent to a psych ward instead of prison, leaving the institution in Weissenau in 1970.
Late career and death
Wütherich began to 'freelance' as a Porsche mechanic after the James Dean accident, but legal and psychological problems arose. He returned to Germany where Porsche invited him back to work with the factory's testing department. Wütherich eventually came back to the U.S. with the Porsche racing team, but only for the Sebring 12 Hour races in 1957 and 1958.
During 1965, Wütherich established himself as a skilled rally navigator for the Porsche factory at the Monte Carlo Rally where he teamed with driver Eugen Böhringer in a factory-sponsored 904 GTS Porsche to finish second overall and first in class. In 1966, Wütherich and Gunther Klass teamed in a factory-sponsored 911S Coupe to finish fifth overall and first in class. In 1968, Wütherich was dismissed by the Porsche factory after 18 years of service. In 1979 he joined a Honda dealer in Hohenlohe near his native Heilbronn.
In July 1981 he signed a contract for 20,000 German marks for a feature TV show about him discussing the death of James Dean. He died that same month, in Kupferzell, Germany, after becoming intoxicated, losing control of his red Honda Civic and crashing into the wall of a residence. Like James Dean, Rolf Wütherich had to be extricated from the wreck and died at the accident scene. He was 53 years old.