A Journey Back to the Future

Jun 11, 2007

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.

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Unidentified Man #1: At the Yucca Flats Proving Grounds in Nevada, a plastic balloon carries aloft the largest atom bomb ever to be tested in the United States.


It was the summer of 1957. World War II and Korea were behind us. The future looms large in the America of 50 years ago. People were listening to Fats Domino on the radio.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. FAST DOMINO (Singer): (Singing) My dream came true.

BRAND: And adventurous types were playing his hits on something called a hi-fi.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man #2: Once you've heard high fidelity reproduction, you'll be hard to satisfy with anything less.

BRAND: It was the golden age of television.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man #3: Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to "What's My Line?"

BRAND: And television advertising.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) Simply rub a little in your hair.

Unidentified Man #5: New Oxigold, with the miracle wash based solvent for today's greasy dirt.

Unidentified Man #6: Honey, I've got it.

Unidentified Woman: Well, what you got?

Unidentified Man #7: A filtered cigarette with flavor. Try one.

BRAND: 1957 was the dawn of the space age and the apex of an era when every self-respecting automobile was equipped with fins. One such car is the subject of a summer series we begin today.

Joining us is mid-century maniac and DAY TO DAY contributor Charles Phoenix. Hi, Charles.

CHARLES PHOENIX: Hello, Madeleine.

BRAND: And our senior producer, Steve Proffitt.

STEVE PROFFITT: Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: Okay. So you two are going on a road trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I understand something very cool is going to happen next weekend.

PHOENIX: Oh yes. Way back in 1957 the people of Tulsa buried a brand new 1957 Plymouth Belvedere Sport Coupe, which is like a rocket ship on wheels, in a time capsule and it's going to be unearthed this coming Friday. So this is very exciting.

PROFFITT: We're going to have some excitement on the way there. We're going to be driving in Charles's own 1961 Pontiac Bonneville, mint green, and in great shape. That seems kind of fitting. And we're going to do some reporting along the way.

BRAND: And so where are you going? What are you going to do on the way?

PHOENIX: Well, the first thing we're going to do is I'm going to marry a couple in the Neon Graveyard in Las Vegas. That's the first stop.

BRAND: I didn't you were also a marrying kind.

PROFFITT: Oh, yes.

PHOENIX: Then we're going to go Wigwam Motel in Arizona. We're going to cook a meal on the manifold of the car while we drive there. Then we're going to stop at Cadillac Ranch and then we're going to be on to Tulsa. It's going to be an unbelievable trip.

PROFFITT: So we'll be filing reports every day this week as we make our progress toward Tulsa.

BRAND: So not just fun and games on the road. You're going to be working, working, working.

PHOENIX: Working, working, working.

PROFFITT: So the big question is, is what is the condition of this 1957 Plymouth going to be once its unearthed, since it's been sitting in a time capsule.

BRAND: In Tulsa.

PHOENIX: Right. For 50 years. So is it going to be rust bucket or in perfect condition? That's the big mystery here.

PROFFITT: And this was a car that cost, I think, Charles, about to $2,000 when it was new. If it turns out that it's pristine and they took a lot of effort to make sure that it would be preserved, they wrapped it and put it in grease and everything, it could be worth maybe a hundred thousand bucks.

PHOENIX: Well, yeah. If it's in pristine condition, absolutely, it will be worth that.

BRAND: Your series must have a name, what is it?

PHOENIX: Well, it's called "Destination Time Capsule"; isn't that perfect?

BRAND: That's very clever.


BRAND: I like it. And, well, I kind of I want to see this mint green car you have, Charles.

PHOENIX: You mean the '61 Pontiac Bonneville rocket ship?

BRAND: The very same. Yes.

PHOENIX: Let's go.

BRAND: Okay.

PROFFITT: Okay, Charles, here we go. Let's hit the road.

PHOENIX: All righty.

BRAND: Oh my God. Charles, is that it? It has to be it.

PHOENIX: It is. Yeah. It's the all new, for 1961, it's the Bonneville by Pontiac.

BRAND: Does it have a name?

PHOENIX: Well, Bonneville, I call her Bonnie.

BRAND: Bonnie.


PROFFITT: Okay. Let's get in Bonnie. We've got to burn up some road.

PHOENIX: Come on, Bonnie. Let's go.

BRAND: Hey, you guys. Start your engines.

(Soundbite of car door)

BRAND: Historian Charles Phoenix and DAY TO DAY senior producer Steve Proffitt, off on the road, off to Tulsa, Oklahoma for their summer series "Destination Time Capsule."

(Soundbite of car engine)

BRAND: Bye, you guys. Good luck.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Tomorrow on "Destination Time Capsule," Charles and Steve continue their hard work. They check in from Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.