Like James Dean, Paul Walker has become an icon for a generation of car enthusiasts

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Jame Dean (left) and Paul Walker: Icons to generations of car enthusiasts

Editor’s note: This is part of a weeklong series about “The Fast & the Furious and its impact on the car world.


On September 30, 1955,  James Dean, a 24-year-old actor who enjoyed racing sports cars, was driving from Los Angeles to northern California, to Salinas, just east of the Monterey Peninsula, heading to a race. His Porsche 550 Spyder was bedecked with the words “Little Bastard,” and Porsche mechanic Rolf Wütherich was in the passenger’s seat. 

In mid-afternoon, Dean was ticketed for speeding. A couple of hours later, he stopped at Blackwells Corner for gas, a snack and, most likely, a pack of cigarettes. A few minutes later and few miles to the west, a Ford coupe pulled into an intersection in front of Dean’s Porsche, and there was a crash. The actor was declared dead on arrival at a hospital at Paso Robles. Wütherich survived. 

On November 30, 2013, Paul Walker, a 40-year-old actor famous for his roles in The Fast & the Furious films about street-racing culture, was a passenger in a Porsche Carrera GT that a friend was driving as they left a charity event Walker had organized to help typhoon victims. Police said the car was traveling at perhaps twice the speed limit when it struck a concrete lamppost and two trees and caught fire. Walker and his friend, Roger Rodas, both died.

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Dean and Walker, two famous and handsome young actors, both perishing in Porsches. And each would become an iconic figure for a generation of car enthusiasts.

A year after Dean’s death, Daily Variety reported that he dead actor “was receiving 5,000 to 6,000 fan letters a week, and the studio was trying to deal with the fans as it prepared the release of Giant. The problem was how ‘to channel the adoration of Dean into affirmative directions rather than let the macabre aspects get out of control. The amazing popularity of Dean goes beyond ordinary dimensions. He is some sort of a symbol — though exactly what sort is not yet fully evaluated’.”

Decades later, in 2015, the Chicago Tribune reported, “In Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden, Dean became the embodiment of teen angst, questioning adult values and openly defying his parents, who turned a deaf ear to his needs. With his ever-present cigarette, sexy wounded stare and bad boy reputation, he became the embodiment of cool for many generations to come.”

It has been the same with Walker. The Fast and the Furious films ignited Millennials much as the 1973 film American Graffiti had done for the Baby Boomer generation. 

“By the time of his death in 2013, he (Walker) was probably the third or fourth most important part of The Fast and the Furious juggernaut (far behind The Rock, Vin Diesel and Jason Statham),” melmagazine.com reported in a story about the succession of Paul Walker tribute car shows taking place, and not only in the United States but also in Australia.

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“On paper… this should’ve been one of those incidentally tragic Hollywood deaths… But no. Walker has emerged as kinder, handsomer and more talented in death, than he ever was in life.”

The avclub.com website added this: “What people seem to be memorializing isn’t Walker so much as his role in the films, which offered gearheads an action franchise that spoke specifically to them in a pop culture landscape that feels less interested in luxury vehicles than it used to.”

“We all deal with death and grief differently,” Joe Smith, host of one of those Paul Walker memorial car shows told the avclub.com website. “I’d like to think he’d be proud to have created such a movement in his passing.”


Read our other “The Fast and the Furious” coverage:

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

2 COMMENTS

  1. This is a joke Walker isn’t even close to James Dean or an Icon of our time.
    All he did was make a few but not great films.

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