Stories of ghostly highways and ghoulish hitchhikers are almost as old as the automobile itself; tales of cursed vehicles and spirit cars that haunt the roads of the living are creepy campfire staples.
Spooky language even pervades official car insurance terms: a ‘phantom vehicle’ is one that causes an accident without physically touching anything, by causing another car to swerve or brake then crash.
If you’re stuck with a dodgy old banger or a car with sticky steering, you can begin to suspect that something unnatural – something maliciously sentient – is going on beyond the bonnet. And it doesn’t help that stories persist about famous drivers who are said to have found themselves on the wrong end of a cursed motor…
The most famous of all ‘cursed’ cars is the Porsche 550 Spyder that James Dean was driving when he died at the tender age of 24. The myth of the car’s evil nature has been fuelled over the years by Dean’s iconic status.
One thing that seems to be true is that the car was seen as an ill omen by those around him. His girlfriend of the time refused to get in it and actor Alec Guinness tells a story about Dean proudly showing the Porsche to him in a restaurant car park – silver-grey, brand new, gift-wrapped with a bundle of red carnations on its bonnet. Guinness says he immediately felt the car to be sinister and said, ‘Please don’t get in it. If you do, you will be dead within the week.’
Exactly a week later, on the 30th September 1955, Dean died in a head-on car crash.
Since his death, stories about the ‘sinister’ Porsche have gained a life of their own. It’s said that the engine was sold to a doctor, who died in a car crash not long after. The shell of the Porsche crushed the legs of a mechanic while being transported to a warehouse – a warehouse that was to burn down in mysterious circumstances one night.
On the 28th June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo, effectively kick-starting World War I. They were riding in a Gräf und Stift automobile leant to them by a General of the Austrian army.
Speculation about the car being cursed began to circulate in the 1950s after rumours spread of violent accidents befalling those who’d owned it after the unfortunate Duke. One ended his life in an insane asylum; one lost his arm after a series of collisions. It was sold on to a level-headed doctor, who rolled it on a deserted strip of road six months later and was crushed to death.
Eventually it was put on display in a local museum. The superstitious docent there refused the public’s requests to touch or sit in the car, saying it had claimed 20 million lives in WWI and was hungry for more. The story goes that the museum was bombed by the allies in the 1940s and all that was found of the Gräf und Stift were a pair of smouldering hands clutching the steering wheel. Someone – perhaps the docent himself – had succumbed to the urge to ride in the Duke’s death car.
Unfortunately for fans of neatly resolved horror, the latter part of this story’s certainly untrue: the car is now the prize exhibit of the Vienna museum. However, a British visitor called Brian Presland was the first to notice a remarkable detail which had been left out of its legend – its number-plate reads ‘AIII 118’. The end of World War I was officially reached on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 – Armistice: 11.11.18.
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