- Automobile History
Cars of the Stars
There is no doubt we are living in a celebrity-obsessed culture. We scrutinize their homes, their fashion…and their cars. And in some cases, a star’s particular automobile has gone on to become famous (or infamous) in its own right. Here are five cars that have become crucial, in their own ways, to the legacy of their masters.
Elvis Presley's Pink Cadillac
Elvis Presley was rock and roll’s first real superstar, and many things have become synonymous with his name: the famous hip shake, the hair, the glittery jumpsuits and aviator shades. But perhaps nothing is more closely associated with the Elvis legend than the Pink Cadillac. To this day, just about any tribute to the King, whether it’s a painting or a movie or an impersonation, will find a way to feature the car as well.
Elvis is believed to have purchased some 200-plus cars, most of them given away to friends and family. The garage at the Graceland museum features sixteen from his personal collection. And yes, many of them are Cadillacs of the mid-to-late 1950s variety.
The original Cadillac was a 1954 Fleetwood Series 60, which Elvis bought for himself and his band. At the time, a Cadillac was the ultimate status symbol, exactly the sort of thing that a poor boy from Mississippi would buy to show the world that he’d arrived. The car was destroyed in a fire along an Arkansas highway, the result of an overheated brake lining. Later that same year, Elvis bought another Series 60 (blue with a black roof) which he had repainted pink. The car was given to his beloved mother as a gift, even though she could not drive and had never had a driver’s license. Today, the car remains on display at Graceland.
*Note: Some artists choose to depict the Caddy as a '59 DeVille rather than a '54 Fleetwood. This is probably because the '59, with its famous tail fins, is more recognizable.
John Lennon's Rolls Royce
John Lennon probably wanted a Rolls for the same reason that Elvis wanted a Cadillac. It was less of a car and more of a calling card: a sign of power and prestige. Lennon purchased the Phantom V limousine in 1965. At the time, it was painted a traditional black. He rarely drove it himself (he was, by his own admission, a terrible driver) and preferred to lounge in the back while his chauffeur did the work. The car was used to take the Beatles to Buckingham Palace to receive their MBEs from Her Majesty later that year.
The Rolls Royce’s famous psychedelic paint job was done by a Dutch artist’s group known collectively as The Fool. Among the other additions to the car were a TV, a refrigerator, a bed in place of a backseat, and a specially modified record player that wouldn’t skip while the car was in motion.
Lennon had the car shipped to America in the 1970s after moving there with Yoko Ono. He hardly used it while stateside, preferring to loan it instead to various rock star friends, including Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. He sold the car to the Cooper-Hewett Museum in 1977, while facing tax problems. It has remained in various collections ever since.
Neil Young is many things: folky troubadour, rock and roll wildman, environmental activist, and a famous lover of cars. In 2010 he had his 1959 Lincoln Continental convertible, a true gas-guzzler, converted into an electric hybrid.
The project—dubbed “Lincvolt”—was undertaken by Young himself and Jonathan Goodman, the owner of SAE Energy. Their original goal was to enter—and win—the Automotive X Prize competition, the objective of which was to design a car that could get 100 miles out of a gallon of gas. Lincvolt was forced to drop out of the competition, however, because the goal involved designing a business model, not an actual car.
Lincvolt was damaged in a fire in 2010, but has since returned to the road. Young still owns and drives it, and the car can be said to reflect his own approach to music: an unusual and fascinating blend of old and new.
James Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder
James Dean—the original Rebel Without a Cause—defined cool for an entire generation. His passion for living life on the edge was well known, and his breakout success as a movie star allowed him to indulge in his favorite hobby: auto racing. Dean began racing a Porsche Speedster, which he then upgraded to a 550 Spyder, one of only 90 in the world at the time he bought it. He had well-known Hollywood car customizer George Barris (who designed the original Batmobile) give the car a custom interior and a custom paint job, including the racing number 130 on its hood and doors. He had the car’s name—“Little Bastard”—stenciled on the back deck.
Right from the start, friends close to the star sensed something strange and unsettling about his new racing machine. His girlfriend Ursula Andress (the original Bond Girl) apparently refused to ride in it. Alec Guinness (of Obi-Wan Kenobi fame) went so far as to tell him, “If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.” He also noted that the vehicle had a “sinister” appearance.
Seven days later, Dean was driving the Spyder to Salinas, CA, for a race. Rather than having the car transported by trailer, he was driving it himself to get a better feel for how it handled. He had only owned “Little Bastard” for nine days. Shortly before six in the evening, September 30th, 1955, the Porsche collided with a Ford coupe belonging to one Donald Turnupseed, who was making a left hand turn across Dean’s right of way. Dean suffered horrific injuries, including a broken neck, and died en route to the hospital. His mechanic in the passenger seat survived, but was also badly injured. The Spyder was demolished, and its mangled chassis was purchased by George Barris for $2500.
And this is where things get really freaky.
- While the car was being transported back to Barris’s shop, it slipped off the truck and broke a mechanic’s legs.
- Barris removed the engine and drive train from “Little Bastard” and installed them in two other race cars, belonging to Troy McHenry and William Eschrid, respectively. In 1956, during a race at the Pomona Fairgrounds, both men were involved in car crashes, both while driving the cars that contained pieces of Dean’s Porsche. McHenry’s car, which contained “Little Bastard’s” engine, lost control and crashed into a tree. McHenry was killed instantly. Eschrid’s car, which contained the drive train, rolled over while making a turn. Eschrid survived, but was badly injured.
- Barris pulled the Spyder’s two remaining tires off the wreck and sold them. The man who bought them later suffered a car crash when both tires blew out simultaneously.
- The remains of the Porsche were eventually sold to the California Highway Patrol, who used it as part of a mobile exhibit about the dangers of reckless driving. While being displayed in Sacramento, the Spyder fell off its display and broke a student’s hip.
- While in transit to the next exhibit, “Little Bastard” fell off of another truck, crushing and killing the driver.
In 1960, following a display in Florida, the car apparently vanished from a sealed trailer on the way back to California. Its whereabouts remain unknown to this day.
Steve McQueen's Jaguar XKSS
If there is anyone who can compete with James Dean for the title of Coolest Man Who Ever Lived, it would probably be Steve McQueen. Like Dean, he had a great passion for cars and auto racing, and the various vehicles he drove in his films have become closely associated with his legacy--the Mustang GT from Bullitt; the Porsche 917K from Le Mans; the Triumph motorcycle from The Great Escape. And like Dean, McQueen made a point of owning some exotic cars for his own personal use, the most famous being his 1956 Jaguar XKSS. He named it “The Green Rat,” after its distinctive coat of paint, known as British Racing Green. Lucky for him, “Green Rat” seems to have a much friendlier temperament than “Little Bastard.”
The XKSS (or “XK Super Sport”) was a modified version of Jaguar’s D-Type racing model. Left with a surplus of D-type bodies at the end of the 1955 race season, Jaguar decided to complete them to road specifications and sell them in America. Twenty five cars were created, with plans to make more the following year. However, shortly before shipment, a fire broke out at the factory where they were being housed. Nine of the completed Super-Sports were destroyed, as well as the 300 still under construction. The surviving 16 are some of the most prized and sought-after cars in the world.
“Green Rat” was known as McQueen’s favorite car. He was known to take it on midnight races with his friends on the streets of Los Angeles, and it quickly became a well known sight in a city already awash in exotic cars. The rare quality of the XKSS, combined with McQueen’s legendary love for speed, made this a truly perfect match.
Today, “Green Rat” lives at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. To keep the car in running shape, museum employees are known to drive it around their rooftop parking lot. It is also shown at various auto expositions, such as its trip to Pebble Beach in 2010, featured in the video below.