Remembering the lost 1957 Belvedere

The car and the time capsule were sealed underground for 50 years, until 2007.



Looking east near 515 S. Denver Ave. Luther Williams, Sunray DX refinery public relations officer, and the Belvedere and DX fuel to be placed in the trunk for burial. The vault can be seen on the ground behind him.

Patrick McNicholas

In June 1957, Tulsa celebrated Oklahoma’s 50th birthday in a big way. Besides parties and parades, a time capsule was prepared for the centennial and at the last minute gained a companion, a donated 1957 Plymouth Belvedere that also was to be buried.

The Time Capsule Burial Committee touted the car as “an advanced product of American ingenuity … to be in style 50 years from now.”

A contest awarded the Belvedere to the person with the closest guess to what Tulsa’s population would be in 2007. A total of 812 entries were cast and placed inside the capsule with other items.

An underground concrete vault, said to withstand a nuclear blast, was constructed outside the city courthouse. In the heat of the atomic age, and with the uncertainty of a nuclear-powered future, gasoline and motor oil were added to the vault.

Spectators attending the entombment volunteered belongings to be placed inside the vehicle, while others hurried to sign their names to the white walls of the tires. The Belvedere and capsule were sealed underground for the next 50 years.

A half-century later, the lifting of the Plymouth from its vault was simulcast June 15, 2007, in the Convention Center and online. The unveiling took place at the Convention Center later that night and was televised on KOTV Channel 6. All 7,300 seats for the unveiling activities were sold.

The car was found in poor condition and in standing water in its capsule. Before the car was unveiled, Dwight Foster of Pennsylvania volunteered to care for it at his company’s New Jersey warehouse. After his family won the car in the population-guessing contest, Robert Carney of Frederick, Maryland, agreed to let Foster de-rust the car. As far as Tulsa Historical Society and Museum staff know, the Belvedere is still in a garage in New Jersey. 

Info and historic image courtesy Tulsa Historical Society and Museum

 

Digging up the past: Coverage from the June 2007 issue of TulsaPeople

Story by Jane Zemel // Sidebars by Missy Kruse

It started with the wild idea of burying a brand-new Plymouth Belvedere near the Tulsa County Courthouse in honor of the state’s 50th anniversary in June 1957. Now the time has come to dig the relic back up. What shape will it be in? Organizers only wish they knew.



Burying the car turned out to be the easy part.

By now, everyone knows about the 1957 Plymouth Belvedere resting in peace by the sidewalk near the Tulsa County Courthouse. The gleaming gold-and-white sport coupe was placed there 50 years ago during Oklahoma’s Golden Jubilee, celebrating 50 years of statehood. It was an oversized time capsule, filled with items of the day and signs of the times. The plan was for Tulsans of the future to exhume the car/capsule on the occasion of Oklahoma’s centennial, an event now scheduled for June 15, 2007 -- 50 years to the day since the car was put underground.

The Belvedere was offered as the prize in 1957 for any person (or their descendants) who could predict Tulsa’s population now. Guesses were recorded and placed on microfilm inside the car -- with the winner to be determined once the car was above ground again.  

Simple enough. Or that’s how the idea sounded to Tulsa’s Oklahoma Centennial chair, Sharon King Davis. Just another event on her centennial to-do list. How hard could it be to dig up a car?

Then in early 2007, she agreed to promote the event during a 1 a.m. show on a Minnesota AM radio station. Just the usual three- or four- minute segment, she thought. Then calls and questions

began coming in from all over the country and Canada. “How did they bury the car?” “How did they protect the car?” “Who has the keys and the title to the car?” (Oh, how Davis wished she could have answered that one.)

The Q&A went on for an hour and 20 minutes, along with the host’s repeated question, “Do you know how big this is?”

Before then, she didn’t.

Immediately after the show, at about 2:30 a.m., she woke Centennial Coordinator Paula Hale with an urgent phone call.

“Paula, I’m scared to death,” she confessed.

Today, Davis laughs about that call but says, “I’m still amazed daily about the interest and curiosity in the project.”

Publicity has made it as far as Chile, Australia, Germany, Canada, Switzerland and beyond. CNN, The New York Times, Esquire magazine and Reader’s Digest have given the event advance coverage.

News of the auto’s unearthing has spread to car clubs around the world. Literally hundreds of car buffs will be shipping their cars from such places as Norway and New Zealand to drive “the Mother Road” (Route 66) to the event. Caravans will be coming to Tulsa from two directions: The group from the east, called Forward Look, will meet in St. Louis for the Route 66 drive; those from the west will gather in Stroud before heading to T-Town, Hale says.

There will be plenty to do here once everyone arrives. First there’s the actual unearthing, where the sleeping beauty will be lifted from her underground chamber. The car was wrapped up in Metalam, a composite aluminum foil-like-material that (everyone hopes) is water-retardant.

“It looks like a big burrito,” says Hale, who has studied photos of the original event. The car was then put in a concrete vault, sealed and covered in a spray concrete.

The City Hall site can accommodate only about 400 people, so the unearthing event will be transported to the Tulsa Convention Center Arena for the dramatic unveiling ceremony later that evening.

Other weekend events include two car shows — one juried, one open — and a 1950s sock hop. Two local high schools, Rogers and Central, plan to hold reunions at the convention center arena to coincide with the festivities.

“People have been looking forward to this for 50 years,” Hale says.

She’s heard from individuals and families who were at City Hall when the car was lowered into the ground and who plan to be at the centennial event.

“This is a family thing,” she says. “It brings generations together.”

With all the people, all the events, all the planning committees and all the uncertainty about the condition of the car and its contents, event planners face a host of variables. So the best plan is a contingency plan or two.

“We have Scenario A through ZZ,” Hale says. “Will it be the phoenix rising from the ashes or will we burst into tears?”

The project didn’t come with an owner’s manual. Actually, organizers have been able to uncover very little paperwork about the unearthing.

“It was a whole lot easier to put the car in the ground than it is to unearth it,” Davis says. “We have the bigger task.”

Most of it is guesswork. Will the car still be shiny steel or a pile of dust? Could the protective wrapping have damaged the car? How many population guesses were submitted? Is the microfilm readable? How will organizers determine the winner? Where are those car keys?

To help with the detective work, Davis enlisted the help of the Tulsa World and the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce, which provided copies of news stories and newsletters of the day. Late one evening, as she was perusing those piles of paper, Davis came across a photo of the original committee, and she noticed a familiar face.

There, front and center, was her own grandfather, Sam Avey.

“I burst into tears,” says Davis, not having known he’d been involved on the front end of this 50-year journey. She was overwhelmed, not only by the connection but also what she called “the generational legacy.”

“In 1957, some Tulsans thought this was pretty foolish,” she says. “But 50 years later we have the curiosity of the world on us.”

Davis commends those, like her grandfather, who though big enough then to bring attention to the city today. But once the sentiment had cleared, her overriding thought was, “Grandpa, why didn’t you leave me a file?”

 

WHY DID WE BURY THE CAR ON JUNE 15?

When Tulsa celebrated Oklahoma’s semi-centennial 50 years ago, it was an action-packed week of reenactments, the coronation of Miss Tulsarama!, Indian ceremonials and special events at the Tulsa Fairgrounds. A Tulsarama!

What organizers hadn’t counted on was Mother Nature. Tulsarama! festivities were to have run June 1-8, but continual rain delays and the threat of flooding delayed many activities, including the burial of the 1957 Plymouth Belvedere.

Officials with Oklahoma Golden Jubilee Inc., which organized Tulsarama!, finally decided to delay the events to June 8-15. Nevertheless, portions of the weeklong extravaganza were still going on the following Monday, June 17.

Even on June 15, the chance of showers had the morning paper, the Tulsa World, questioning whether the car burial would come to pass that day. But the answer appeared in the afternoon Tulsa Tribune: “Tulsans Bury a New Car.”

Today, Tulsans have better control over potential flooding through improved engineering of area waterways. But the rain? We may be crossing our fingers just as we did 50 years ago.

 

HOW MANY PEOPLE ASSEMBLED TO SEE THE BURIAL?

More than 200

 

BEST QUOTE BY AN EXPERT?

The special covering for the time capsule should preserve its content for “about 1,100 years.” - E.S. “Ted” French, Orchard Paper Co., St. Louis

 

MEMORIES OF THE BURIED CAR

When the car is finally revealed, a number of Tulsans’ childhood questions will be answered.

NANCY LAWSON’s father, Luther Williams, placed her wedding photo inside the Plymouth’s glove box. “The marriage did not last, but it will be fun to see if (the photo) is still intact,” she says.

JACK CODY was a month away from his 25th birthday when he worked as the oiler on the crane that lowered the Belvedere into the vault. He wondered whether he’d be alive in 50 years. Now almost 75, he’ll attend the June event to see “how things have held up,” he says.

LAURENCE YADON didn’t know what a time capsule was, but at 9 years old, “the prospect of watching a brand-new car being dropped into the ground certainly captured my imagination,” he says.

His 6-year-old sister, Cheryl (now Cheryl Forrest), posed for publicity photos on the hood of the car.

RALPH HURLEY’s childhood guess of 4,000 for Tulsa’s 2007 population won’t win him the Belvedere. But as general manager of ‘57 Heaven at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater in Branson, Mo., he has access to another one.

“We have the exact duplicate of the Plymouth buried in Tulsa,” Hurley says. Hurley plans to be in Tulsa with his car for the unearthing “to show what it should look like.”

TED BAXTER’s father had a café right around the corner from where the Belvedere was buried, but it was his brother who held him up so he could sign his name on one of the tires.

“It may be hard for some people to understand how much I have been connected to this event all these years -- I don’t really myself -- but it is one of the strongest memories of my childhood,” Baxter says. He always believed that if he were alive when the car was dug up, he would win it. We’ll see.

RON ARAGON was just 7 or 8 years old at the time. He remembers the plastic going over the car “and wondering what people in the future would think of this car and the items in it.” Today, concerned that the Belvedere might look better than he does, he points out, “The car probably hasn’t had to do very much since the last time we met.”

JAMES DOYLE had the job of driving the brand new Plymouth around the fairgrounds track during one of the 1957 promotional events. But he was only 15 at the time, too young for a driver’s license and too inexperienced to have even a learner’s permit. His only driving experience was with his friend’s 1932 Ford. Concentrating harder on steering than speed, Doyle raced the car by stands so fast, it was but a blur to the audience. He says he’s worried about getting a ticket for his earlier infraction if he attends the 2007 festivities. Lucky for him, the statute of limitations for joyriding has expired.

 

WHAT WAS TULSA LIKE IN 1957?

We asked the chairpersons of three 1957 reunions — Central High, Rogers High and The University of Tulsa — along with other grads from that time, to tell us their favorite hangouts and feelings about the 1950s.

 

“You could pull into a service station, get $1 worth of gas… enough to get to all the drive-ins several times during the evening.”

Earl Secrist, co-chair, Will Rogers High School Class of 1957 50-Year Reunion

 

“After a big date and/or dance on Saturday night, we’d go to Bishop’s restaurant for a Brown Derby and ‘to see and be seen.’”

Jackie Toney Pizarro, co-chair, Tulsa Central High School Class of 1957 Reunion

 

“Life in the 1950s in north Tulsa was exhilarating despite some of the challenges and restrictions. There was a real sense of community.”

LaVerne Ford Wimberly, Booker T. Washington High School Class of 1956

 

“When a big band would come to town (Ralph Materie, Harry James, Ray Anthony), we would hustle up the money and dance at Cimarron Ballroom.”

Kerry Freeman, chair, University of Tulsa, Class of 1957 Reunion

 

THE HOT ROD GANG

In case you needed one more reason to attend the Tulsarama events, hot rod builder Boyd Coddington, host of TLC’s “American Hot Rod,” and members of his crew will be lending their auto expertise June 15 and 16.

Coddington and his crew will help prepare the Plymouth Belvedere for its unveiling at the Tulsa Convention Center Friday night (specifically, getting the car started). Then Boyd and Jo Coddington will sign autographs at the invitational car show Saturday. Tulsans also can view two of Boyd’s hot rods at the open car show June 16.

Additionally, Coddington plans to film one to two episodes of his show while in Tulsa, and he will make “Boyd’s pick” for the best rescored car, with a special trophy for the winner.

“When we heard about this once-in-a-lifetime event, we immediately wanted to be involved in some way,” Coddington says. “As a lifelong car guy, there is nowhere else I would rather be on that weekend than Tulsa.”

 

HOW DID TULSANS IMAGINE THE CITY IN 2007?

A futuristic fashion show included a wedding dress of the future. The headdress was a jeweled encasement for television equipment, which would record and transmit the wedding ceremony to truly distant friends and relatives, now living on neighboring planets.

HOW WE LIVED

Home additions were moving east and south, beyond the boundaries of 51st Street on the south and Yale Avenue on the east.

Twelve years out from the World War II, Tulsa’s young families gobbled up now-prolific consumer goods - kitchen appliances and gadgets; furniture, televisions and air conditioners, which still were mostly window units. For $1 down, $1 a week, a common approach to credit then, you could have it all. Or you could put it in layaway.

All you had to do was look at the number of newspaper wedding announcements to realize the buying trend would continue.

OIL BOOMED

A daily aspect of local print news coverage was the oil business as Tulsa maintained its place as “Oil Capital of the World.”

Reports on oil and gas production and discoveries from all over the country filled the business section along with other industry-related news.

NAMES IN THE NEWS

Tulsa is still a pretty tight town — people stay. Here are a few names, from just one day in the society columns, that may still be familiar to many Tulsans: Siegfried, Mayo, Stuart, Westby, Minshall, Schermerhorn, Lorton, Bradstreet, McBirney, Albert, Pielsticker.

FASHION

Some may laugh at the clothing ads in the newspapers from the 1950s, but here are a few things that TulsaPeople Lifestyle Editor Kendall Martin says have made a comeback from grandma’s time: pointy-toe shoes, shirt dresses, seersucker and jackets.

“In general, I would like to say a sense of ladylike fashion has had a major comeback,” she says. “Women are enjoying dressing like women and putting skirts and pearls on and having a very polished look.”

SPORTS

In 1957, the then-Tulsa Oilers baseball team, part of the Texas League, finished fourth in the league. Former St. Louis third baseman Pepper Martin became the Oilers’ coach and the stadium was repainted with the following signage at the entrance: “52 Years of Oiler Baseball - 50 years of Oklahoma Statehood.”

 

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