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Great Cars of ... Death

Note from Chris:

HauntedCarHalloween is a bit of an oddity among major American holidays; whereas our other holidays have uplifting messages and themes of togetherness and appreciation, Halloween (at least as it is celebrated today) is unique in that it celebrates our infatuation with being scared. Halloween even has its own eponymous horror movie that sums up the holiday's spooky and scary theme in our culture. Yes, Independence Day also has an eponymous movie that has a few minor scares, but few would suggest that the true meaning of July 4 is fighting off marauding aliens.

Halloween in recent decades has become an almost frolicsome holiday that celebrates our mild, somewhat cartoonish pop-culture symbols of evil, such as witches, ghosts, goblins, zombies, and perpetually teenage vampires. Despite this focus on creepiness, Halloween has become an almost frolicsome holiday that celebrates our pop-culture symbols of evil such as vampires, witches, ghosts, goblins, zombies. As entertaining as these things can be, they're really just cartoonish representations of real evil; it takes real people to do truly horrible things.

With one notable exception, the cars that Anthony profiles below were owned by people who did truly evil things. At Car Lust we joke about evil cars, the ones that rust out quickly, lack performance, and break down at the top of the hat, but they're no more truly evil than the caricatures of Halloween. The cars below were all associated with death--not cartoon death, but the deaths of real people that shouldn't be trivialized.

On that note, let's move on to Anthony Cagle's Halloween presentation of some cars that have been as proximate to evil as any car has been.

--Chris H.


Car #1: Adolf Hitler's staff car
This is just one of several cars Hitler used (another has apparently been found as well) but it is perhaps the most famous. The car itself is a Mercedes-Benz 770 "Großer" limousine. Many were built between 1930 and 1943 and sold to both private individuals and high 02HitlersLimousine-ranking Nazi officials (not to mention Emperor Hirohito of Japan).

This individual car was initially discovered in 1945 by an American GI in a railway station in Austria. The U.S. Army used it for the remainder of the war and sometime thereafter as a staff car. It was eventually shipped back to the U.S. and stored until 1956 when it was purchased by a Canadian collector. At the time, it was thought that it had originally belonged to Hermann Göring, but a close examination of period photos and serial numbers demonstrates that it was, indeed, the limo used by Hitler for various functions.

Befitting its role as a dictatormobile, the floor was made of 6-mm thick steel and specially hardened 3-mm thick steel elsewhere, and the windows were of 4-cm thick bulletproof glass. It also weighed in  at over 4 tons and had a 7.7-liter straight-eight putting out 230 horsepower. You can't be too careful when you're trying to take over the world. ...

Car #2: Ed Gein's 1949 Ford.
The inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs' Buffalo Bill, Ed Gein was a Wisconsin resident who, while not known as a mass murderer--he is known to have killed only two people--certainly was one of the more gruesome ones. I'll spare you the gory details 1949_ford_sedan_1 here, but most of his "work" was done with corpses scrounged from the local cemeteries.

The house where Gein conducted his truly ghoulish activities was demolished to avoid turning the place into a gruseome tourist attraction, but many of his belongings were auctioned off. His car was a 1949 Ford sedan which he probably used to cart away some of the bodies. That was sold at auction for $760 to a buyer who, at the time, was rather mysterious. It turned out to be a sideshow operator from Illinois who displayed it for a time as the 'Ed Gein Ghoul Car' ("See the car that hauled the dead from their graves!") Eventually, however, venues began to be nervous about such an attraction and the car vanished into history.

Car #3: John Wayne Gacy's 1979 Delta 88
Unlike Gein, Gacy was a true serial killer, having killed at least 33 boys and young men in the 1970s. In some ways, Gacy was a model citizen, even an active campaigner and Democratic party activist: a 1979_oldsmobile_delta_88_2famous photo has him posing with then-first lady Rosalynn Carter in 1978. Like many serial killers, he wasn't flashy and came off as fairly "normal" to many who knew him.

 The Delta 88 wasn't his only car and, since he didn't buy it until 1978, it was certainly not used in many of his earlier crimes. However,  Gacy was very proud of the Delta 88. This car became infamous because it was the one he was caught in and it provided some of the crucial evidence to convict him: in the trunk were biological remains linking him to one of the victims.

Car #4: Ted Bundy's 1968 VW Beetle
Bundy is probably the most infamous serial killer of recent years, with the possible exception of the Green River killer, Gary Ridgway. Bundy confessed to over 30 murders of young women although the total number may be higher. He committed several murders in Washington State before moving on elsewhere in the West. One of his tactics was to pretend to need assistance with his car, from requesting help Wheels-Bundy-Beetle-blogSpan carrying an armload of books to being on crutches--again, as portrayed most famously in The Silence of the Lambs.

The car itself was bought by Arthur Nash who also owned such "collectibles" as John Wayne Gacy's painter's box. Nash had stored the VW along with other "murderobilia" but it recently went on display at the National Museum of Crime & Punishment, engendering some controversy.

Car #5: The Curse of James Dean's Porsche
Among the many ironies associated with James Dean's death in 1955 of a car crash--once of which is that shortly beforehand he had done a public service TV spot on car safety--there is also the less-well-known curse that accompanied the car both before and after the crash.

This wasn't the first sports car Dean owned and raced; he had owned an MG TD and a Porsche 356 before that and done pretty well in racing the latter car--he never won a race but had placed in the top 5. He traded the 356 for a silver 550 Spyder, one of only 90 made that year. It was nicknamed "The Little Bastard" and he'd planned to race it at Salinas. Supposedly, he only got this car because the one he wanted, a Lotus Mk. X, was delayed and he needed one to race with in the meantime.

The first oddity was when Alec Guiness reportedly told Dean that he didn't like the look of the car and gave the now-famous quote that "'If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week." Prophetic, yes: seven James-dean-car-crash-07 days later Dean and his mechanic Rolf Wütherich were on their way to Salinas when they crashed head-on at the junction of US 466 and State Route 41 outside of Cholame, Calif. Wuterish survivied but Dean died later that evening from his injuries.

From there the story gets interesting and a number of deathly coincidences are said to have occurred. Legend hath it that George Barris, custom car builder to the stars, bought the wreck to display, ostensibly as a car safety demonstration. From there all manner of disasters befell those who took possession of any part of the car (except, notably, Barris himself). Culled from Snopes, which got it from a newspaper article, these disasters include:

  • When the wreck arrived at Barris' garage, the Porsche slipped and fell on one of the mechanics unloading it. The accident broke both of the mechanic's legs.
  • Troy McHenry, a doctor, bought the engine and used it to replace the engine in his Porsche--he was killed in a crash the first time he took the car out.
  • Another doctor, William Eschrid, bought the transmission and was also later seriously injured in a crash.
  • Someone else bought two of the car's tires, and his car crashed when both tires mysteriously blew out at the same time.
  • The shell of the car was being transported to a safety exhibit in Salinas when the truck carrying it crashed, killing the driver.

I'm dubious about the whole thing, as curses rarely end up being so cut and dried. As Wikipedia notes, Barris did not buy the car initially, McHenry and Eschrid did, and then sold the shell to Barris, who seems to have had a long and productive life post-curse. And while McHenry was killed in his 550, that was due to a steering problem, which was not one of the parts from Dean's car. The remaining items seem to be unsubstantiated and are probable embellishments of existing accidents worked into the Dean legend over time.

So there you have it, a panoply of cars associated with notorious villians and a doomed young movie star. Except for the Hitler car and the Porsche, the other cars seem fairly unspectacular which, I suppose, plays into the car selection logic of a serial killer: you don't become "successful" at it by standing out in a crowd. These cars might not be as exciting as, say, Christine, but they were certainly dreadful for the roles they played in the morbid history of the human race. 

--Anthony J. Cagle

Credits: The haunted car at the top is from Picsicio.com, Hitler's staff car is from Bill Maloney's car site, both the Gein and Gacy photos are off of the Car and Driver site which ran a short article providing the inspiration for this post, Bundy's Bug is from the NY Times, and the Dean crash image is from the ever-delightful Car-Accidents.com.

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Interesting tidbit: US 466 is now CA-46. I've driven through that junction several times in my life and, until some fairly recent road construction a few years back, it was definitely one of the most dangerous intersections in California. There was consistently high traffic flow between the arterial roads in the Central Valley (now I-5, then US/CA-99) and the coastal communities, so merging both roads into one spot always made for some interesting turns. It didn't help that it was a Y-intersection, so the person merging from 41 to 46-W couldn't clearly see left-behind without turning their head like an owl.

It's been a bit since I've been that way, but, last time I was there, they cleaned things up considerably and installed a much needed second set of lanes on the road.

As for Ed Gein, well... he certainly had some interesting taste in furniture.

Back in the summer of 1974 I went to Seattle for an airshow. I was staying with my cousin and here husband was a Seattle police officer.
In "roll call" (just like Hill Street Blues) they mentioned a yound woman disappearing and the suspects car was a VW.
I spent the 2 days riding with him looking for the car, which was like looking for the perverbial needle in a haystack.
We now know who the bad guy was...Ted Bundy.

Nice article, Anthony.

Of course I feel a sequel next year may be in order... Bonnie & Clyde's death car, JFK's limo, maybe Elvis' hearse. Plenty of cool, ghoulish stuff out there. :)

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