It’s June 15, 2007, and an eagerly expectant crowd numbering in the thousands has gathered around the Tulsa County Courthouse. The good citizens of the city are there to witness an event celebrating 100 years of Oklahoman statehood. Officials are to reveal a car that was entombed in a concrete bunker as a kind of time capsule in 1957. But when they do, the onlookers’ mood rapidly changes from delight to dismay.
Speaking to the local newspaper, Tulsa World, in 2012, Sharon King Davis described witnessing the burial of the car in 1957 when she was ten years old. She recalled, “It had…these great big, long fins that came to a sharp point. It had all this chrome and snazzy-looking detail. And here, they took this brand-new car off this truck, put it on a crane and lowered it into a hole. Nobody had ever seen anything like that.”
The automobile in question was a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere decked out in a gleaming two-tone livery of sand-dune white and desert gold. It had been buried in an allegedly nuclear-attack-resistant concrete bunker to mark half a century since Oklahoma became a fully-fledged state of the Union in 1907. The idea was that it, and a variety of other artifacts, would be retrieved 50 years later at the centenary of statehood.
The burial of the automobile in a concrete bunker measuring 12 by 20 feet caused something of a sensation and the vehicle even gained its own name, Miss Belvedere. The stunt was part of an event verbosely titled “Golden Jubilee Week: Tulsa’s celebration of Oklahoma’s semi-centennial.” And that reinforced concrete bunker certainly spoke volumes about U.S. attitudes to potential nuclear attack at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s.
In his 1964 book Plymouth 1946-1959 author Jim Benjaminson recorded the words of one local worthy present at the car’s interment. Lewis Roberts Jr. said that officials had “decided on the event after looking for a method of acquainting the citizens of the 21st century with a suitable representation of 1957 civilization.” And he added, “This is the sort of thing that could happen only in Tulsa.”
And the chairman of the Jubilee organizing committee W.A. Anderson observed, “In our judgment [the] Plymouth is a true representative of automobiles of this century – with the kind of lasting appeal that should still be in style 50 years from now…Tulsans think big. And we feel we can overcome any technical difficulties we encounter [burying the Plymouth] including the possibility of striking oil in our excavation!”
We’ll get on to the details of the grand burial of Miss Belvedere in a moment, but first let’s quickly examine just what it was the people of Tulsa were celebrating back in 1957. In 1803 what is now the state of Oklahoma became part of the United States under the terms of the Louisiana Purchase. Through the rest of the 19th century, more than 30 Native American peoples were given land there after being moved from the south-east of the nation.
But land-hungry settlers gradually took chunks of the land in what was called the Indian Territories: sometimes legally, sometimes not. Soon, the settlers outnumbered the Native Americans. And eventually the U.S. government legitimized these land-grabs. Then on November 16, 1907, after pressure from the settlers for representation in Congress, President Teddy Roosevelt signed the papers creating the 46th state of the Union with an eagle-feathered quill pen.
As Roosevelt signed the papers, there was no exultant crowd to cheer him on. Indeed, according to the Oklahoma Senate website, only some minor officials and a few representatives of the press were there to witness this momentous occasion. But it seems that when the 50th anniversary of statehood came around in 1957, the people of Tulsa were determined to mark the occasion with pomp and circumstance. That included burying a car.
And that was what sparked the burial of Miss Belvedere in 1957. In turn, that eventually led to the unpleasant surprise that appeared before the crowds gathered to witness the car’s re-emergence in 2007. But it wasn’t just the Plymouth that was stashed in the concrete bunker; the car was accompanied by an intriguing range of other items.
Keepsakes buried with the car included statements from both the Tulsa Board of Education, the local council of churches, the chamber of commerce and the mayor. The education people added copies of Tulsa’s high school magazine, while the religious contingent offered prayers for the following 50 years and a history of churches in the city.
As well as all those statements and documents from local groups, a selection of Tulsa souvenirs was interred with the car. This mixed bag of doodads included 15 cents in wooden nickels, tiny barrels actually filled with crude from the Sunray Mid-Continent Oil Company and novelty neckties, playing cards and ashtrays. The cherry on the cake was a recording of “Riding into Tulsa” written by Ralph Blane, perhaps better known for his “Meet Me In St. Louis.”
Officials also included a collection of objects purporting to be the typical contents of a 1957 woman’s purse. The list included 14 bobby pins, lipstick, tissues and precisely $2.73 in cash. It being the 1950s, there was also a pack of cigarettes and matches. Bizarrely, an unpaid parking ticket and a bottle of tranquilizers were added. All of the items were stashed in the Plymouth’s glove compartment.
So Miss Belvedere was a comprehensive time capsule of life in Tulsa in 1957. But the Jubilee committee had another gimmick for the Plymouth. It was offered as first prize in a competition, with the lucky victor being able to claim the car after it was plucked from the bunker in 50 years’ time. The new owner of Miss Belvedere would be the person who had made the nearest guess of the 2007 population of Tulsa.
And there was yet another tempting prize added to the car. The Jubilee sponsors put $100 into a trust fund and the car’s winner would also get the proceeds of that in 2007. Of course, there was always the risk that whoever correctly guessed Tulsa’s population wouldn’t be around in 50 years to collect their prize. In that case, Miss Belvedere would go to a surviving relative.
Another item regarded as essential was added to the package for the concrete bunker. Just a couple of days before Miss Belvedere was lowered into her concrete-lined hole, Lewis Roberts Jr. had told Tulsa World, “Maybe we ought to put a can of gasoline in with the car. Who knows – maybe cars of that time will run on solar power or uranium or something.”
So ten gallons of leaded gasoline were put into the bunker. Although the Jubilee committee could hardly have known it, by 2007 leaded gas was illegal, having been banned in 1996. Indeed, today putting leaded gas in your car makes you liable to a fine of up to $10,000. Meanwhile, back in the bunker, five quarts of oil were also provided – and, for good measure, a case of Schlitz beer.
It turns out that one part of the Oklahoma Jubilee automobile story has mostly sunk without trace. For the fact is that there was not one but two Plymouth Belvederes involved in the tale. Both had been donated by various local motor companies for the Jubilee celebrations, but only one was placed in the concrete bunker. The other was awarded in a raffle in 1957, with the results announced just a couple of days before Miss Belvedere was buried.
The two lucky winners, Fred and Lucille Trompeter were not quite as thrilled as you might imagine. Indeed, Lucille hadn’t even realized that she was signing up to a competition to win a Plymouth Belvedere. Speaking to Tulsa World in 2007 Lucille, by then 83, explained, “At the time we didn’t have any air conditioning, only a window unit. The (contest) table was under an air conditioning unit, and I thought I was signed up for that.”
In the event, the couple won a Plymouth instead of an air conditioner. And they were, it seems, more than ready to look a gift horse in the mouth. Fred, aged 85 in 2007, said, “It was a nice vehicle, but it just wasn’t for us. We are Ford people.” Fred’s low opinion of the Plymouth was confirmed when he said it “rode like a truck.”
Lucille remembered that a friend had heard the results of the competition announced on a radio show and called with the news. “When we got that, the two kids were tickled to death that we won something. They didn’t care what it was – just that we won.” A couple of years later Fred sold the Plymouth and, using the proceeds, bought a brand-new Ford with “all the bells and whistles.”
But let’s get back to the star of our story: Miss Belvedere. As the great day for her entombing approached, there was furious behind-the-scenes activity. Tulsa World reported that workers from the True Gun-All Equipment Corporation were fitting reinforced steel. The next step was concrete pouring as the hole was made ready for its distinguished occupant.
A Cleveland, Ohio, company, Dobeckmun, was charged with encasing the car in a special preservative substance. It was said to be the same material that the U.S. Army used on military vehicles and equipment during World War Two. Then it was June 15, 1957 – time for Miss Belvedere to disappear into her bunker.
The McMichael Concrete Company had excavated the hole for Miss Belvedere and now its workers operated the crane which lowered Miss Belvedere into her crypt. The Plymouth was mounted on a specially-built sled, slung from a spreader girder and lowered on a harness into the maw of the concrete bunker. The hole was then covered with concrete beams and sealed.
In fact, it wasn’t the first time that Miss Belvedere had been lowered into the hole. With an apparently keen eye for publicity, the Jubilee committee had arranged for her to be lowered into the bunker several times before June 15 so the press could get pictures. They were rewarded by a shot that was published in Life magazine as well as plenty of other coverage.
Now, the only evidence of Miss Belvedere’s existence was a bronze plaque. It proclaimed “Golden Jubilee Inc. Time Capsule With 1957 Plymouth Sealed June 15 1957 To Be Opened 2007.” The plaque was donated by one Earle Davenport of Tulsa’s Memorial Cemetery. It’s surely apt that a graveyard proprietor had donated this bronze tablet for the buried auto.
And that was that. No one would see Miss Belvedere for another 50 years. But out of sight was not entirely out of mind. There were those who were giving serious thought to the car’s welfare. Some 20 years after the Plymouth’s burial, there were those with anxieties about the car’s condition underground. Among them was Buck Rudd, the County Court House’s building operations deputy chief.
In his book Plymouth 1946-1959 Jim Benjaminson reported Rudd’s words. He said, “There’s a lot of traffic going by only 15 or 20 feet from that thing. We’ve been curious to know if vibrations from the heavy traffic might have caused it to crack. If moisture starts getting in there, it’s going to cause things to deteriorate over 50 years’ time.”
As we’ll see in a moment, Rudd’s words were uncannily prophetic. Let’s move on now to the momentous date of June 15, 2007 – the day that Miss Belvedere was to be revealed to an enthusiastic public. The large crowd was whipped to a crescendo of excitement by a drum roll, and the 1957 Plymouth was hauled from her concrete bunker.
At first sight Miss Belvedere was not exactly prepossessing; she was covered in her protective layer and that was filthy with cloying red mud. But worse was to come. As the car’s protective layer was torn away it became clear that she had fallen victim to water that had entered the concrete vault.
In short, Miss Belvedere was a complete rust heap. Her once-luxurious upholstery was in tatters, the V8 engine looked to be solid with rust, and the fancy white-walled tires were as flat as pancakes. The car’s paint job hadn’t been spared, either; her once glorious golden finish had fallen prey to decades of oxidation. All in all, then, she was a dismal sight.
And Miss Belvedere’s deterioration didn’t go unnoticed. Famous hot-rodder Boyd Coddington was on hand to try and start the car, but it was quickly apparent that there was no chance of that happening. A dispirited Coddington told The Washington Post newspaper, “I’ll tell you what, she’s a mess. Look at her.”
In fact, the event organizers had realized a few days earlier that there might be a problem. They’d taken a peek into the vault and were dismayed to see that Miss Belvedere was actually standing in some four feet of muddy water. And whether or not the bunker had been truly nuclear-bomb-proof, it certainly hadn’t been waterproof over the 50 years of its existence.
We met King Davis earlier reminiscing about seeing Miss Belvedere lowered into her hole when she’d been a ten-year-old. Now the senior citizen was co-chairwoman of the centennial event. The Reuters press agency quoted her as saying, “When we saw the water in there we were completely devastated. We had such hopes.”
Despite all that, people were keen to view the 1957 Plymouth, even if it was a complete wreck. Miss Belvedere, or what was left of her, was put on display at the Tulsa Convention Center and crowds came to see the forlorn vehicle. Speaking to Tulsa World King Davis described transporting the car to East Tulsa Dodge after its stint at the Convention Center.
King Davis said, “Sunday night at 6:30, we started out with a sheriff’s department escort, a Storey wrecker and me. By the time we got to East Tulsa Dodge, we had 40 cars following us. People were pulling over and waving – waving at a car!” So despite her stricken condition, Miss Belvedere could still turn heads.
And the fans kept on coming once Miss Belvedere was ensconced at the Dodge dealership. Heather Cody at Dodge told Tulsa World, “Tons of people have been in today to see it. People are calling from Kansas and Arkansas wanting to know if they can come down and see it.” Somehow, under all the mud and rust, the decrepit 1957 Plymouth Belvedere had managed to retain its allure.
But there’s still a loose end in this tale. To wit: who won the car? You’ll recall the competition that involved guessing Tulsa’s 2007 population with the prize of Miss Belvedere herself. There was also the $100 trust fund, by now worth roughly $1,200. Well the winner was Raymond Humbertson. Sadly, Mr. Humbertson had died in 1979, and his wife had also passed away before the Plymouth was disinterred.
So Miss Belvedere’s rusting hulk passed to Humbertson’s two sisters, 93-year-old Catherine Johnson and Levada Carney, 85. They, too, had died and so Johnson’s nephew and niece, Robert Carney and M.C. Kesner, ended up owning the rusting hulk: perhaps not the most enviable of possessions. However, there was some good news.
Dwight Foster, proprietor of a specialist rust-removal company called Ultra One, took charge of Miss Belvedere. He explained his plans to website NJ.com in 2008 saying, “I’m not going to restore the car, I’m only going to preserve it. We can literally wash the aging process away.” And King Davis added, “I’m hoping he is able to get her as clean as possible so she can be taken on the road and people can see her.”
Eventually, in 2017, Foster handed Miss Belvedere over to Wayne Lensing, who owns the Historic Auto Attractions museum in Roscoe, Illinois. Since then things have gone quiet, and for the moment the Plymouth has disappeared from view. However, Tulsa is still in the buried car market. Believe it or not, in 1998 the city buried a Plymouth Prowler to mark the city’s incorporation centenary. Let’s hope that when it’s disinterred in 2048 the Prowler is in better shape than Miss Belvedere was.