– Wide-eyed dreamers from throughout the world came here Friday to
see the gleaming gold-and-white Plymouth Belvedere – buried decades
ago in a time capsule as a publicity stunt.
What they saw was a water-logged mass
of metal with tailfins, shrouded in a patina of rust.
Back in 1957, when Oklahoma was
celebrating its 50th anniversary, all the attention was going to
Oklahoma City, and Tulsans were feeling neglected. Oklahoma City’s
celebration had Mickey Rooney. Tulsa’s had a beard-growing contest.
Tulsa desperately needed something –
anything – to grab the spotlight, and a New York publicist pushing
the Belvedere told civic leaders he had an idea:
The city would bury a brand-new
automobile in a concrete crypt billed as strong enough to withstand
a nuclear bomb. Tulsans would predict the population of their city
in 2007, the state’s centennial. The car would be dug up and given
away to the person with the closest guess – or their heir.
The stunt worked. Life magazine ran a
photo of three girls sitting on the hood of the soon-to-be entombed
Belvedere, and newspapers in 1957 were filled with breathless
stories about the unusual time capsule being buried beneath the lawn
of the Tulsa County courthouse. Tulsa was finally on the map.
Alas, the concrete block was not so
impregnable. When Hazmat crews cracked it open Wednesday, they
discovered nearly 2,000 gallons of standing water. Devastated,
Sharon King Davis, Tulsarama’s chief organizer, cried on the spot.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,”
Boyd Coddington, car builder and star of the “American Hot Rod” TV
show, said Friday when prompted to grab a microphone and offer an
assessment of the fabled “Ms. Belvedere.” “It don’t look good.”
many gray-haired Tulsans and classic-car aficionados who traveled
from as far as Norway for the unearthing felt satisfied, because
what mattered to them were the
memories. And those came up intact.
“In my mind’s eye, I was seeing a certain thing.” said James
Doyle, 65, one of the few to drive the car when he took it for a
spin around a racetrack in 1957. He was 15 and did not have a
license. “But you have to accept the reality that it might look
different than what you had hoped. We all changed, too.”
Some hoped the Belvedere would start
up and drive into the sunset on nearby Route 66. Others old enough
to remember the day it was buried wanted to see the crypt’s contents
just as they had left them, including 10 gallons of leaded gasoline,
five quarts of motor oil and a case of Schlitz beer.
In the car’s glove compartment were
the contents from a woman’s purse: bobby pins, a bottle of
tranquilizers and a pack of cigarettes. There was also a photograph
of a smiling 20-year-old bride.
That bride didn’t smile for long: The
marriage lasted less than two years, and she was left to raise twin
daughters on her own.
But Nancy Lawson, now 70 and
remarried, said she wanted to see that picture again because it
reminded her of her father, a Tulsa publicist who hustled to get it
in the glove compartment.
“He’s always been my hero.” Lawson
said of her father, who died in 1978. “And this was one of his
Thousands gathered in grandstands
Friday despite thunderstorms and gloomy skies to watch a monstrous
crane lift the Belvedere out of the ground. Speakers boomed with
Elvis Presley’s “Teddy Bear,” Domenico Modugno’s “Volare” and other
hits from the 1950s. Miss Tulsarama from 1957 had died, but her
daughters came, carrying her crown.
When the crane spun the car before the
crowd, some gasped as its corroded tailfins became visible through
the tears in a protective tarp.
fears were confirmed Friday evening at the Tulsa Convention Center,
lifted a curtain: The car’s rear end was dragging the ground, and
its once-glossy finish was encrusted with barnacles of oxidation.
The upholstery was eaten away, and only the metal base of the seats
remained. The engine was crumbling, but a member of Coddington’s
crew was able to take out the dipstick, drawing a cheer from the
“It’s not often you hear about a
classic automobile being buried,” said car collector John Cooper,
53, who had flown in from Adelaide, Australia.
“There are some amazing people who
could make it look like new. Personally, I wish it would remain
this way. It’s history.”
As to who gets the car, Deloitte &
Touche LLP, the accounting firm that tabulates the Grammy Award
votes, will select the winning entry and help find the person – or
their closest living relative – who guessed Tulsa’s population of
382,457. How long that will take is anyone’s guess, since
organizers were still searching the car for the microfilm that was
supposed to contain the entries.
They were also looking for the keys.
Despite its condition, the Belvedere
is still worth a mint. Collectors eager to obtain a piece of
Americana are rumored to be offering hundreds of thousands of
dollars for it.
Gary Trent, 60, was 10 when he saw the
grown-ups burying the Belvedere. He wanted a part of history, too,
so he picked up a shell casing and threw it into the tomb when no
one was looking.
He was hoping to find that casing
Friday. But the dig was never about any artifact, he pointed out,
not even the Belvedere. The real star was supposed to be Tulsa.
“I know it sounds a little corny, but
Oklahoma is going to be just fine.” Trent said, laughing. “This is
a great state, and thanks to this little car, a whole lot of people
have just seen it.”