Esquire swerves away from overpriced men’s fashion to cars:
In 1955, at the age of 24, and fresh from the success of East of Eden, actor James Dean popped down to John von Neumann’s Competition Motors in Hollywood, California to in a MG TD for a new Porsche 356 1500 Super Speedster. The sports car purveyor to the stars obliged. Weeks later, Dean entered a race in Palm Springs, and placed first in the under-1500 class. The following month he headed up to Bakersfield and won again. The Speedster threw a rod in Santa Barbara shortly thereafter. Back at Competition Motors Dean traded it in for Porsche’s latest race car, the 550 Spyder, got Von Dutch to paint “Lil’ Bastard” across the tail, and made a beautiful car iconic. After wrapping up filming of the movie Giant, Dean drove up the Central Valley toward Salinas in the 550 for another race. But he never made it.
And, yet. The glamor of racing didn’t end with Dean—in fact, it only strengthened from there, becoming part of the legend, the doomed romanticism. He died doing what he loved, and what could be more pure than that? Dean became among the first of a tradition: the actor turned gentleman driver, handsome and domineering, possessing not just the means to race but a level of dedication that transcended their stardom. He may have never driven one onscreen, but he cemented the legend: Porsche and the Hollywood connection, intertwined.
The racing image sealed it, but in the early years, Porsche’s 356 appeal was palpable—small European sports cars were hot, exactly the car to see and be seen in. James Bond may have never driven a Porsche (at least, not yet), but Sean Connery sure looked good in his 356. Janis Joplin’s 356 took on psychedelic colors (and in 2015 fetched $1.76 million at auction). In the film Bullitt, it’s McQueen’s Highland Green Mustang that gets all the glory, but Jacqueline Bisset’s Canary Yellow 356C convertible lends some balance to the film’s heavy-laden grit.
When the 911 came out in 1964, Porsche’s true potential as a sports car builder evolved: honed even further with a replacement that was faster, sharper, and more practical. Robert Redford put skis atop a 1968 Porsche 911T for the film Downhill Racer, a combination of cool made up of Alpine skiing, one of the earliest 911s, and Redford’s square-jawed magnetism. Can’t argue with that math.