A Brief History
On July 29, 1973, British race car driver Roger Williamson met his death when his Formula 1race car crashed at the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort Circuit in the Netherlands. The 25 year old 2 time British Formula 3 champion was trapped under his flipped car, not seriously hurt from the crash, but was burned to death as the car was engulfed in flames. Race officials made no effort to help, although another driver heroically abandoned the race and tried to rescue Williamson, failing to flip the car over, then grabbing a fire extinguisher. Many thousands of people have been killed in car wrecks, and some wrecks are notable whether the occupants died or not. Here we list 10 of the most famous wrecks in the order we think you will find interesting. (Honorable mention to Linda “Deep Throat” Lovelace and Stephen King. This list surely will need a sequel!)
10. General George Patton, 1945.
After surviving being wounded in World War I and leading troops throughout the European and North African theaters of World War II, Patton was done in by a minor car accident. On his way to a pheasant hunt in his 1938 Cadillac, the driver swerved to avoid an Army truck that turned in front of the Caddy. The car did not stop in time and hit the truck, leaving all occupants with minor injuries except Patton, who got a broken neck and injured spinal cord. He lived paralyzed from neck down for 12 days until he died.
9. Grace Kelly (Princess Grace), 1982.
The beautiful and graceful (how apropos!) American movie star had married a real life prince and was living a fairy tale life until one day while driving with her daughter Grace had a stroke and lost control of her Rover P6, crashing it. Her daughter lived, but Grace died the next day at age 52. Her funeral was attended by luminaries such as Nancy Reagan and Princess Diana.
8. Paul Walker, 2013.
Famous for portraying a fast driver in The Fast and the Furious movie series, Walker was also well known for his charity work. Walker’s friend, Roger Rodas, drove a Porsche at about 100 mph in a 45 mph zone. The car with Rodas and Walker inside hit a concrete pole and two trees, killing both occupants. The ensuing fire burned their bodies beyond recognition.
7. Dale Earnhardt, 2001.
Known as “The Intimidator” for his aggressive driving, Dale was one of the greatest NASCAR drivers in history, with a record tying 7 Winston Cup Championships. At the 2001 Daytona 500 his car was hit from behind which turned it into the wall at over 150 mph, killing the 49 year old Earnhardt from a fractured base of his skull. Cracked fact: His real first name is Ralph.
6. Ted Kennedy, 1969.
A probably intoxicated Senator Kennedy drove off a bridge at Chappaquidick, Massachusetts, killing a beautiful 28 year old Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy left the scene, leaving Mary Jo to drown in the submerged car. He later pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was given a suspended sentence. His chance to be nominated by his party for president was forever ruined, although he continued in the senate until his death.
5. Sam Kinnison, 1992.
The 38 year old hilarious comedian (and pretty good singer) was driving his Trans Am when it was struck head on by a 17 year old intoxicated boy driving a pick up truck. Kinison’s wife of 6 days (!) was knocked out, but suffered only a concussion. Kinison had suffered a dislocated neck and torn aorta, killing him soon after the wreck. The driver of the pick up was sentenced to 1 year in jail.
4. Harry Chapin, 1981.
A highly personable and humanitarian folk-rock singer- songwriter, the 38 year old Chapin was known for his #1 hit Cats in the Cradle and his other major hits such as Taxi and WOLD. Also well known for his work fighting hunger around the world, he supported many relatives and gave most of his money to charity, leaving a small estate. Driving his environmentally conscious Volkswagen Rabbit on long Island, he apparently had a medical or mechanical problem as he turned on his flashers and slowed to 15 mph. Swerving into the path of a semi-tractor trailer, his tiny car was smashed and burst into flame. Pulled from the car and rushed to a hospital by police helicopter, he died of a heart attack. It is unknown if the heart attack occurred before or after the crash. Cracked fact: Despite Chapin driving without a license (due to numerous violations), his wife sued the semi’s owners and won $7.2 million.
3. Jayne Mansfield, 1967.
Called “The Working Man’s Monroe,” Jayne was an early Playboy Playmate and a blonde bombshell sex symbol of Hollywood in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The incredibly beautiful and voluptuous Mansfield had her career interrupted by giving birth 5 times, and despite her on screen persona as a “dumb blonde” she was actually quite intelligent, with an IQ of 163 and speaking 5 languages. On a Louisiana road in a Buick Electra 225 driven by her boyfriend, 3 of her kids in the back seat, her car rear ended a truck and submarined under the back of the trailer. Jayne and the driver were killed instantly, with massive head injuries. Though not decapitated as legend holds, a good chunk of her head was indeed smashed off. Cracked historical fact: Her daughter, Mariska Hargitay, the well known actress, was in the back seat at the time of the crash. Cracked historical fact: Mansfield’s measurements were 40-21-35, her height 5’6”.
2. James Dean, 1955.
The young star of Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, and Giant, Dean was taking Hollywood by storm. The 24 year old was driving his Porsche 550 Spyder to a race when a car turned in his path. The Porsche hit the other car almost head on causing Dean’s car to flip, ejecting his passenger. Dean suffered massive injuries, including a broken neck, and died before reaching the hospital. Ironically, Dean had made a television show about driver safety shortly before the wreck.
1. Princess Di, 1997.
The much beloved fairy tale princess was divorced for only a year at age 36 when her car was besieged by paparazzi. In an effort to elude the frantic photographers, Diana’s driver lost control and crashed, killing Diana, her boyfriend Dodi Fayed, and the car’s driver. A heartbroken world turned a vicious eye toward the reviled paparazzi, and the conspiracy theories emerged right away. Prince Charles and the royal family of Britain was speculated as having planned the wreck as an assassination of Princess Di, and despite investigations to the contrary, many people still believe that.
Question for students (and subscribers): Which ones would you add? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information on the above tragedies, please read…
Davies, Jennifer. Fatal Car Accidents of the Rich and Famous. RW Press, 2012.