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Time is kinder to Tulsa than to buried auto

Rusted metal and fond memories are what's left from '57 publicity stunt.

June 16, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

TULSA, OKLA. — 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 waterlogged 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."

Still, 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 proudest accomplishments."

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.

Their fears were confirmed Friday evening at the Tulsa Convention Center, when organizers 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 crowd.

"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."

miguel.bustillo@latimes.com

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