Tulsarama’s ‘Retrofuturism’

By Michael Petti |

I t is not the way it was supposed to be! When the 1957 Plymouth Belvedere was buried 50 years ago, cars in 2007 were supposed to fly, humans were to inhabit Mars and the landscape of America was supposed to look like the background visuals of “The Jetsons” TV show.

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With loud magazine advertisements telling the public, “Suddenly it’s 1960,” it’s no wonder that the Tulsa folks chose the 1957 Plymouth as the car of the future in their time capsule.

That is what I thought stepping 50 years into the future would be like when I was a boy in the 1950s. Relatives in Mooreland, Okla., knew that I was car crazy and sent me a newspaper clipping of the Tulsarama event as it occurred in 1957.

The ’57 Plymouth was such a huge leap in styling that when people first saw it, they could have mistaken the car as a UFO sighting. The ’57 Plymouth had “wow” appeal. The roof seemed to be suspended magically in the air, thanks to spaghetti-thin support pillars. The soaring fins could have come from an interstellar space cruiser.

Fifty years before the Plymouth Belvedere was buried, cars were in the experimental stage. It was still undecided whether the majority of horseless carriages would be propelled by steam, electric or gasoline power plants in 1907. Most vehicles were cantankerous contraptions that stalled and broke down. There was also no styling code. As such, many autos in 1907 had odd-looking shapes. Some looked like stagecoaches, some like Conestoga wagons, others like buggies or complex bicycles. By 1957 standards, the cars in 1907 were primitive.

As much as the ’57 Plymouth looked futuristic, it was supposed to be as primitive in 2007 as the 1907 autos were in 1957. Instead, the 1957 Plymouth looks more modern than many vehicles in show rooms today. The ’57 Plymouth belongs in the 21st century.

How can this be? This is because some autos have timeless beauty. Maybe it was not realized when they were in show rooms, but history proves this so. Examples include the coffin-nose Cord and 1953 Studebaker Starliner. It has been said that the latter is the best industrial design of the 20th century. I would say the ’57 Plymouth Belvedere comes in a close second. Maybe several years down the road, the wedge-shaped ’57 Plymouth may eclipse the ’53 Studebaker as the best design of the last century.

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Low, wide and long was the 1957 Plymouth two-door hardtop. It made many cars ‘ before and after it ‘ look old.

That Plymouth in Oklahoma captured the optimism Americans felt in 1957. Technology opened up the world of tomorrow. Plymouth’s push-button transmission and torsion-bar suspension helped us drive into the future. Those fins exemplified freedom from conventional thinking. The city fathers of Tulsa intuitively thought that the 1957 Plymouth was a glimpse into the future.

The world of 2007 is not as dramatic as I had envisioned as a boy. But in 1957, we had no personal computers, Internet, cell phones, microwaves, photocopy machines, heart transplants or laser surgery. As a boy, I thought all future cars would look better than those that came before. Not so! The 1957 Plymouth should be in show rooms now, not on the pages of Old Cars Weekly.

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