Almost since automobiles first appeared, celebrities have driven the fastest and flashiest – often with lifestyles to match. Inevitably, famous figures have also been involved in their fair share of tragic road accidents, creating both headlines and legends.
This list of celebrity car crashes is not intended as ghoulish, but rather as a cautionary reminder that no amount of fame or money will protect us from the potential perils of the road.
GRACE KELLY (Côte d’Azur, France, 1982)
Grace Kelly was an A-list American actress who became Princess of the European city-state of Monaco. She suffered a stroke at the wheel of her 1971 Rover P6 3500, which was normally chauffeur-driven, on a winding road above the French Riviera, plunging 120 feet down a mountainside. Kelly was taken off life support in a Monaco hospital the following night at age 52, while her daughter and passenger, Stéphanie, survived. The remains of the Rover were reportedly crushed into a cube and sunk in the Mediterranean Sea.
VINCE NEIL (Redondo Beach, California, 1984)
A drunken Vince Neil was driving his red De Tomaso Pantera to a liquor store near his Redondo Beach home when he lost control of the mid-engined V8 and smashed into an oncoming Volkswagen. The Mötley Crüe singer suffered only minor wounds, but his passenger, Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley (drummer of Finnish band Hanoi Rocks), was killed and the couple in the other vehicle seriously injured. Neil served 15 days in jail and paid $2.6 million restitution, which he described in a 2015 interview as “f-cked up”.
JAYNE MANSFIELD (Slidell, Louisiana, 1967)
The famously-curvaceous Jayne Mansfield enjoyed short-lived 1950s movie stardom. She died, along with her lover and their driver, en route from Biloxi, Miss. to New Orleans. A tractor-trailer in front of their 1966 Buick Electra 225 had slowed behind a truck spraying mosquito fogger and was obscured by its insecticide mist. The Buick ploughed into it at high speed, killing the adults in the front seat instantly but sparing three of Mansfield’s children behind. The since-mandatory tractor-trailer underride guards are still known as “Mansfield bars”.
LISA “LEFT EYE” LOPES (La Ceiba, Honduras, 2002)
Considering she was in the all-time best-selling American girl group, Lisa Lopes met a rather ignominious end. The feisty TLC singer-rapper was driving a rented Mitsubishi Montero Sport in Honduras when, while navigating a corner, she swerved first to avoid a slow (or stationary) truck and then an oncoming car. The Montero rolled multiple times, striking two trees and killing Lopes, who was not wearing a seatbelt, instantly. Her five companions survived, with videotape of the incident shot by one still on YouTube.
SAM KINISON (U.S. Route 95, California 1992)
At age 38, just six days after marrying his third wife, caustic comedian Sam Kinison was killed on his way to a sold-out show when his 1989 Pontiac Trans Am was struck head-on by a teen-driven pickup truck. He survived the immediate impact, some 15 miles outside of Needles, Calif., but – allegedly after a peaceful “conversation” with an unheard voice – died at the scene. Kinison’s new wife suffered only a concussion, while the other driver later pled guilty to vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. The Sam Knison death conversation is still a widely discussed mystery to this day.
PRINCESS DIANA (Paris, France, 1997)
As far as celebrity car crash deaths go, none have sparked more controversy than this one. Conspiracy theories have swirled around the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, ever since her fatal injury in the Paris tunnel wreck which also claimed her lover, Dodi Fayed, and driver Henri Paul. Investigators concluded that Paul’s drunkenness contributed to his losing control of the Mercedes-Benz S280, while an inquest also pointed to pursuing paparazzi. Claims of a criminal conspiracy, fueled by Fayed’s billionaire father Mohamed Al-Fayed, have blamed various national security services and even Diana’s former father-in-law, the Duke of Edinburgh.
PAUL WALKER (Valencia, California, 2013)
It’s almost beyond ironic that Paul Walker, a recurring star of the Fast and the Furious street racing movies, was killed while riding in a speeding 2005 Porsche Carrera GT (a 2014 investigation concluded that it was traveling at up to 93 mph in a 45 mph speed zone). No evidence was found of another car being involved, and neither Walker nor the driver, his business partner Roger Rodas, was influenced by alcohol or drugs. Cold-hearted thieves removed a piece of the Porsche as it was towed away.
CLIFF BURTON (Kronoberg County, Sweden, 1986)
While performing in Europe behind their Master of Puppets album, Metallica bassist Cliff Burton and guitarist Kirk Hammett drew cards for the best tour-bus bunk. The winning Burton chose Hammett’s berth and the latter went to sleep up front. When the bus crashed just before dawn, Burton was thrown from and fatally crushed by the vehicle, while Hammett was uninjured. The driver claimed the bus skidded on black ice and, despite accusations that he was either drunk or fell asleep, no charges were brought.
JAMES DEAN (Cholame, California, 1955)
To the chagrin of his studio bosses, actor James Dean was an avid auto racer. Rather than towing his new Porsche 550 Spyder to a race in Salinas, Calif., the 24-year-old heartthrob opted to drive it. Having already received a speeding ticket earlier in the day, Dean was driving at a reported 85 mph when he attempted to evade a fast-oncoming Ford Tudor which had crossed the center line on CA Route 466. The almost head-on collision sent the Porsche cartwheeling into a gully. Dean never regained consciousness.
MARC BOLAN (London, England, 1977)
Glam rock pioneer Mark Bolan was a passenger in his girlfriend’s purple Mini 1275 GT when it failed to negotiate a humpback bridge less than a mile from his London home. When the tiny car struck a fence post and then a tree, the T. Rex frontman, who was not wearing a seat belt, died instantly. Ironically, he had never learned to drive for fear of a premature death. The site of the crash remains a shrine to Bolan, owned and maintained by the T. Rex Action Group.