James Dean is best known for his cinematic portfolio, but perhaps more interestingly was his fascination for racing, and an unlikely interest in watches.


It is hard to overstate the impact of James Dean’s cinematic style. What he wore, especially in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, came to define teenage dress codes ever afterwards. Dean’s iconic style was also evident when it came to his love of automobiles - the film star was known for his admiration of fast cars as much as for his acting. As an aspiring racer in his spare time, it would have been commonplace to spot Dean racing his 356 Speedster in Palm Springs. That was until the Warner Brothers barred him from his high-octane pastime during the filming of ‘Giant”, branding racing as ‘too risky.’

The most famous of Dean’s cars - nicknamed ‘Little Bastard’ - was a Porsche 550 Spyder; a sports car sparsely produced from 1953 until 1956 with only around 90 examples finished. Being a mid-engine car powered by an air-cooled four-cylinder engine it was as nimble and powerful as it was light. The nickname allegedly came after Jack Warner referred to Dean by the same term when the actor refused to vacate his trailer on the studio’s lot. As a response, James gave his flagship sports car the same nickname.

The car’s notoriety did not end there. On the advice of Rolf Wütherich he chose not to tow the car to Salica raceway but instead opted to drive the car, as it would benefit from the ‘run-in’ miles and in turn Dean would become more acquainted with it ahead of the forthcoming race. This would prove a fatal decision. At the now infamous intersection between California’s state Route 46 and state Route 41 during a ‘side-step’ overtake, Dean had a fatal head-on collision with an oncoming vehicle. As devastating as this accident proved to be, it ultimately shaped the legacy of the 550 Spyder and arguably that of the 24-year-old actor.

Perhaps a somewhat lesser known aspect of Dean was his love of watches, and his choices were deeply personal at that. Preserved in the Fairmount Historical Museum are his Elgin pocket watch, Westclox Wrist Ben, and his LeCoultre. The Elgin was bought before his big break in ‘East of Eden’. He insisted on wearing it during filming despite resistance from the director. The Westclox was his on-screen watch for ‘Rebel Without a Cause’. Originally selling for $7 it was just the kind of piece a teenager might own. His LeCoultre (JLC didn’t get the rights to use the name Jaeger in the US until later) was an 18k gold hand-wound watch. Cased in the USA to avoid gold import tariffs, it has unusual lugs. Multiple shots of Dean with this on-wrist show it was his daily wearer, and sadly this was true on the day that he tragically died; the watch being retrieved from the wreckage of his Porsche.

Images, Getty