The Institute of Art and Ideas: Death Drive

Cos’hanno in comune la ballerina Isadora Duncan, James Dean, il generale George Patton, eroe della seconda guerra mundiale, e l’attrice che divenne principessa Grace Kelly? Tutti e quattro morirono in spettacolari incidenti stradali in strane circostanze.

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Sarah Davison

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Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield

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As we enter the age of autonomous electric automobiles, the British design critic Stephen Bayley pays homage to the end of an era in his fascinating if gruesome book Death Drive: There Are No Accidents. The book, which compiles two dozen celebrity car crashes from the 20th century, is a requiem to the illogical, dirty and inefficient petrol engine, each challenging car designers to build a unique vehicle around it.

gasoline glamour

In the 1920s and 30s, celebrities and their cars became desirable symbols of wealth and glamour. Yet while their dramatic deaths immortalised them, many of these accidents had absurd elements that undermine their tragic status. The young Jean Bugatti of the famous Bugatti family, who made their reputation designing high-performance racing and luxury cars, was forbidden to race but died on the roads of Alsace when he swerved to avoid a drunk cyclist. Isadora Duncan, the pioneering American dancer, was dragged from her Amilcar by her art deco scarf that had caught in the back wheel.

a ride with death

In the 1950s and 60s the motorcar became a talismanic object, projecting the personality of the celebrity that drove it. This relationship acquired spiritual status when they met their end together. In 1967, an aging Jayne Mansfield, travelling with the two loves of her life – a teenage driver and a pet Chihuahua – submarined under a truck and was rumoured to have been decapitated, when, in fact, her blonde wig had come off. The French novelist Albert Camus hated cars but his fate was set in 1960 when he and his wife accepted a ride from his publisher Michel Gallimard. Camus’ last words were reported to be: “What’s the hurry, little friend?”

Death Drive

celebrity crashes

In his 2016 book Death Drive: There Are No Accidents, the British design guru Stephen Bayley describes in detail some of the most iconic celebrity car crashes in the 20th century: their remarkable causes, circumstances and effects. The title of the book evokes the theories of Sigmund Freud, who said that we are driven by two desires: one erotic, the other aggressive. In a presentation held in London, Bayley begins with the most defining car wreck of them all: 

Stephen Bayley (English accent): One of the famous accidents of all time, of course, was James Dean’s Porsche, which he crashed in the Californian desert. Just before this crash took place, he’d made a film for the road safety authorities in America and the banner [that] headlined the film was: “Drive carefully, the person you kill may be me.” It was like an event, which was made for the glossy magazines in the most grotesque and macabre way! Dean had painted on the tail of the Porsche: ‘Little Bastard’, he was driving through the California desert terribly quickly, and a student with the fantastic name of Donald Turnipseed was coming across the road in a big Ford Station Wagon and that was the end of James Dean’s Porsche. This crash happened in 1955 in one of the first Porsche cars imported into the United States. Dean was only 24 when he crashed and it did an enormous amount to contribute to Porsche’s reputation for speed and danger. But what actually happened as well, Dean managed to invest the car he drove with almost mystical qualities. The wreckage was treated like a relic. The alternator and the gearbox and hubcaps of this car were held to have almost magical properties.

Death Drive James Dean


Other accidents were less spectacular but no less fascinating, says Bayley. Take that of George Patton, the US army general credited with winning the Second World War in Europe, but who died in 1945 in mysterious circumstances.

Death Drive Patton

Stephen Bayley: General Patton was a person of the most extraordinary egoism, he used to go around wearing a pair of silver pearl-handled colt revolvers and he used to have his helmet rubbed with goose fat in order to give it an extraordinary shine. He was a massive, loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed egotist. He drove a car which was a projection of his ego – a Cadillac ’75 – and he used to like driving around Europe with the stars and stripes [flag] hanging off the front and klaxons blaring to announce his progress through the Europe he’d ‘conquered.’ His accident was terribly strange, they were driving this enormous thing – an almost indestructible mechanism – and they were driving very, very slowly through Mannheim in Germany. A US army truck pulled out in front of General Patton’s Cadillac and the accident they had was just what Americans call a ‘fender bender’ [but] Patton hit his head inside [and] even though they had the best neurologists flown in to look after him, he died. 


The sudden death of General Patton after a relatively minor accident provoked all kinds of conspiracy theories, says Bayley, some more bizarre than others.

Stephen Bayley: There is, of course, suspicion: he was very much against the de-Nazification of Germany because he felt the Germans were the best soldiers and fighters on earth. But even more colourful than that, there’s a thing about Siegfried’s Lance of Destiny, [a] thing which goes back into the Parsifal legend: anybody who seizesSiegfried’s Lance of Destiny is said to be doomed and, of course, Patton and his men seized Siegfried’s Lance of Destiny from Nuremberg.


And vanity, bad driving and scandal combined in the 1982 road death of the aging former actress Grace Kelly, aka, ‘Princess Grace of Monaco’.

Death Drive Grace Kelly

Stephen Bayley: She used to drive a London cab around Monaco but she was such a bad driver she kept on crashing it, [so] she said, “I’m not going to drive again.” And then one day, coming down from their holiday home in the mountains above Monte Carlo and she had all her hatboxes and all her clothes piled up in the car and there was no room for the chauffeur and she said, “I’ll drive.” So she drove her Rover and witnesses saw her getting out of control. And [then] all the rumours: it was a mafia hit because Prince Rainier had built up the casino business in Monte Carlo with help from Italian business colleagues who he forgot to pay back. Princess Grace was also reputed to be involved in lots of extraordinary sex cults. She had lots of interesting satanic worshippers as friends. And the wreck of the Rover was pounded into a cube and just dropped into the Mediterranean.

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