A Half-Century Underground in Tulsa

Jun 15, 2007

Fifty years ago, the citizens of Tulsa, Okla., buried a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere in a vault, in what has to be one of the most interesting time capsules ever.

Mid-century historian and car nut Charles Phoenix has been driving with NPR's Steve Proffitt from Los Angeles to Tulsa to see the '57 Plymouth, which is finally being unearthed this Friday.

But already, those anticipating the car's unveiling have received disturbing news: The vault leaked, and over the years, the Plymouth was submerged in water.

According to those working on the project, the car was wrapped inside a huge plastic bag designed to keep it dry. But that solution wasn't perfectly watertight.

The news has tempered — but not dashed — the hopes of car fans who had imagined seeing a showroom-new '57 Plymouth.

The car's unveiling also coincides with "Tulsarama," the city's celebration of 100 years of Oklahoma statehood. Thousands of visitors are descending upon the city for the event, which, in addition to the '57 Plymouth, also includes an exhibition of 500 vintage cars.

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All this week we've been following our "Destination Time Capsule" travelers across America. Car nut and mid-century historian Charles Phoenix has been driving with DAY TO DAY senior producer Steve Proffitt from Los Angeles to Tulsa, Oklahoma.


Fifty years ago, folks there buried a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere underground in a vault in what has to be one of the coolest time capsules ever. Today the car will be lifted out of the earth but already some disturbing news. The vault leaked.

Over the years, that beautiful hunk of metal was submerged in water.

BRAND: That has tempered but not dashed the hopes of car fans who imagine seeing a showroom new '57 Plymouth. With more, here are our travelers, Charles and Steve.

STEVE PROFFITT: So Charles, we've made it across the country. Here we are in Tulsa at the Tulsa County Courthouse. And they're just beginning to lift the car out of the vault, where it's been sitting there for 50 years, a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere.

Mr. CHARLES PHOENIX (Historian): And the anticipation of the condition of this car is killing everybody, including me. I've been waiting a very long time to find out what the shape of this car is going to be. And we know it's a little mud covered. We know it is not pristine, but just how - well, just how deteriorated it is?

PROFFITT: According to those working on the project, the car was wrapped inside a huge plastic bag designed to keep it dry. Engineer Buck Rudd(ph) says that wasn't really a watertight solution.

Mr. BUCK RUDD (Tulsa Engineer): It was originally in a bag. The seams on the bag failed. Particularly down on the bottom. So we've lost our integrity from the bag.

Ms. SHARON KING DAVIS (Chairman, Tulsarama): Hi.

PROFFITT: Hi. How are you?

Ms. DAVIS: Hi. Are you the guys that have driven from L.A.?


Unidentified Woman #1: Wow.

Ms. DAVIS: DAY TO DAY, "Day By Day"?

Mr. PHOENIX: DAY TO DAY. You got it.

Ms. DAVIS: How cool is that? Welcome.

PROFFITT: Thank you.

Sharon King Davis is the chairman of Tulsarama - that's the name for the city celebration of 100 years of Oklahoma statehood.

PROFFITT: What happened when they lifted off the lid of the time capsule and you saw the water at the bottom of the tank?

Ms. DAVIS: I absolutely wept. And it took me a few hours to really regain my composure. But not to worry. You know, it is as it is. She may not have aged as gracefully as we thought she might have, but we still owe her a lot of respect and what's going to be a fun weekend, a marvelous fun weekend.

PROFFITT: And in fact, thousands of people are visiting Tulsarama. Along with the unveiling of the car, there's a show featuring 500 miniature cars and a sock hop. We met folks from all over the States, from Norway, Austria.


TRACY (New Zealander): Hi.

PROFFITT: What's your name?

TRACY: Tracy.

PROFFITT: Tracy, where'd you come from?

TRACY: New Zealand.

PROFFITT: And Mexico City.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) Plymouth '57. My car is the car of the movie, the Mexican movie, "Matando Cabos."

PROFFITT: And some folks, like Gary Trent(ph), came from just around the corner. He's one of many Tulsa natives who watched the Plymouth go in the vault 50 years ago.

Mr. GARY TRENT (Resident, Tulsa): When they put it in the ground, I mean it was something to see. To see them burying any car was really unique. You know, as a 10-year-old kid I was impressed that they were doing that.

PROFFITT: Tonight, Gary Trent and hundreds of others will be at the Tulsa Convention Center, where the '57 Belvedere will be unveiled, and for most people it won't really matter if it's a moldy, rotted out hulk.

Mr. PHOENIX: It will always be the car that was buried for 50 years, whether, you know, it came out pristine or a rust muddy bucket that it may be. This car is a legend. This is a piece of Americana.

PROFFITT: At the Tulsa County Courthouse, I'm Steve Proffitt.

Mr. PHOENIX: And I'm Charles Phoenix. "Destination Time Capsule."

BRAND: And on Monday we'll find out if it is indeed a rusty hulk or not. We'll have more from Charles Phoenix and Steve Proffitt on their "Destination Time Capsule" journey. To follow their entire trip, go to our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.