Fifty years after the androgynous-looking method-style actor appeared in Rebel without a Cause, James Dean's taste for speed still resonates in popular culture. We're wearing his red jacket and his bad attitude whenever we see a sports car today and ask ourselves, "Is this car cool enough, tough enough, fast enough? Would James Dean drive this car?"
The Porsche Boxster always has had a built-in edge in the James Dean test, because its 1950s-style retro look is meant to recall the Porsche 550 Spyder the actor drove in 1955. The Boxster's direct, quick responses have commanded our respect from the first, and its speed has improved markedly in the second-generation car. The Boxster is an authentic sports car, the kind of car Dean would drive.
Other retro-look roadsters have not been so lucky, and the Mercedes-Benz SLK is a case in point. From the beginning, this car has struggled to overcome its concept-car novelty. Now, the second-generation SLK marks a focused effort by Mercedes-Benz finally to establish the SLK as a sports-car franchise. So we had no choice but to put the SLK to the James Dean test.
We brought the Boxster and the SLK together at 1219 North Vine Street in Hollywood, the place where Dean began his last drive on September 30, 1955. Then it was the site of the service shop for Competition Motors, a Porsche and Volkswagen dealership. It was a Friday, and mechanic Rolf Wtherich spent the morning preparing Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder for a race that Sunday at the airport in Salinas, some 300 miles away near Monterey. These days, the old shop has a derelict Goodyear tire store at one end and a Mexican grocery at the other. There's a curious faded glamour to the spot, and you can look up Vine Street to the hills and catch a glimpse of the famous sign that proclaims "Hollywood."
The Boxster and the SLK also have some glamour of their own. The second-generation Boxster has slightly more muscular proportions; it now looks like a genuine statement of style, not just a bite-size fashionista. Meanwhile, the Italianate lines of the current design idiom at Mercedes-Benz have come to the SLK at last, and the car looks provocative in profile, especially in the BMW-like interplay of surfaces in the doors. But once you walk around to the front, it looks as if it's wearing an SL mask from a costume shop.
Dean and Wtherich left Hollywood in the 550 Spyder (serial number 550-0055) at about 1:45 p.m. and drove on surface streets to Castaic, where U.S. 99 began its climb over the mountains to Bakersfield, and stopped for a milk shake at Tip's, a local diner.
We drove the choppy concrete of Interstate 5, which overlies the old route into the mountains. Both the Boxster and the SLK ride very well on the freeway, despite compact wheelbase dimensions. As you'd expect, the Mercedes-Benz feels locked into the road, as if it has supernatural stability. The Porsche is livelier, yet it never stings you on broken pavement the way the first-generation Boxster did.
The SLK's hard top makes long-distance travel a luxurious experience, effectively sealing out the elements while creating an environment quiet enough to appreciate the audio system (the CD player is still in the glove box, though). The Boxster's new, three-layer soft top makes it almost as quiet, but its audio system doesn't quite measure up. Both cars have decent cup holders at last, and there's enough cargo space in the center console and door pockets for your stuff. If only there were more room for people. These cars are still short-coupled and narrow, and efforts to carve out a bit more room for the drivers have been only modestly successful. Thanks to its new tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel (like that of the SLK), the Porsche's driving position is the more spacious of these two cars.
When Dean came down the steep, four-lane Grapevine grade from the mountains to the floor of the San Joaquin Valley on old U.S. 99, an officer from the California Highway Patrol gave him a ticket, and the CHP still patrols this stretch of highway very intensely. To follow Dean's route, we continued on U.S. 99 through Bakersfield, then made the exit for California Highway 46 at Famosa. There's not much out there in the agricultural belt, and Dean ran the 550 Spyder to 100 mph on his way west.