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A Journey Back to the Future

Ride along with mid-century maniac Charles Phoenix and NPR senior producer Steve Proffitt in our series "Destination: Time Capsule," a classic road trip with a twist.

Charles' 1961 mint green metallic Pontiac Bonneville coupe provides trustworthy transportation for a high-octane adventure from Los Angeles to Tulsa, Okla.

They're traveling to cover a story that has been 50 years in the making: the unearthing of a brand-new 1957 Plymouth Belvedere Sport Coupe, buried in a time capsule on the front lawn of Tulsa's County Courthouse on June 15, 1957. Back then, citizens were asked to guess what the population of Tulsa would be in 2007. The person who was closest (or his or her survivors) will win the car.

And just to be fair, the winner has a full five years to claim the prize.

This amazing time capsule contest was part of "Tulsarama," the city's celebration of Oklahoma's 50th anniversary of statehood. Among the other things in the time capsule are a bottle of tranquilizers and a case of beer. But the big question: What condition will the car be in? Will it be a rust bucket or pristine? Nobody knows.

The first stop on "Destination: Time Capsule" is the legendary neon sign graveyard in Las Vegas. There, Charles will marry the world's leading collector of smiley-face memorabilia, Bruce Woodbury, and Las Vegas casino architect Suzanne Coture.

Next, Charles does double duty, driving and cooking at the same time. He whips up a delicious Yankee pot roast of beef dinner with all the trimmings on the engine block. Plus, hot apple pie cooked on the tailpipe is served for dessert. Tourists at the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Ariz., are taste testers at a "car-becue" dinner-party powwow in the parking lot.

From there, it's a stop at the famous Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, where Charles compares the rise and fall of the Cadillac and Plymouth tailfins.

While on the lookout for roadside diners, souvenir stands and other roadside attractions, Charles and Steve tour a mecca of mid-century modernity, Oklahoma City. They enjoy big, juicy hamburgers beneath the gigantic 1958 neon chef sign at the Charcoal Broiler, check out the progress of ultra-mod 1956 Gold Dome Bank and the matching baby sci-fi skyscraper next door (now being converted into lofts). Not to be missed are the mini Jell-O molds at the 1963 Boulevard Cafeteria. And, our travelers say a prayer in a 1958 church shaped like a giant breast, then catch a movie at the Winchester Drive-In while basking in the glow of the spectacular neon cowboy marquee.

From there, it's on to Tulsa to meet the city's most famous mascot: the "golden driller," a giant man that towers over the entrance to the Tulsa County Fair. Other sites include Oral Roberts' uber-mod, space-age prayer tower and some of the best art deco buildings on the planet. All this will set the mood and be the perfect backdrop for the town's biggest event ever: Tulsarama 2007 and the long-awaited unveiling of the half-century-old car.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.