Uncovering The Buried Belvedere

by John Lee |

S omeone with ties to Tulsa, your new Plymouth is about to be delivered!

Whadaya mean? They don’t even make Plymouths anymore!

Well, sir or madam, we’re talking about a brand-new 1957 Plymouth Belvedere Sport Coupe.

So where’s it been for the last 50 years? Buried in a time capsule underneath the lawn of the Tulsa, Okla., County Courthouse.

It seems that back when the 1957 Plymouth was adorning a Tulsa dealer’s showroom, Oklahoma was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the year Indian Territory became the new state of Oklahoma. Oklahoma City, the state capital, apparently had a lot of celebratory activities going on, which rival Tulsans considered a challenge to come up with something that would gain more attention.

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The day the Belvedere was buried. Who could have guessed then that the finned fantasy would be old-fashioned in just a few years? (Tulsa Historical Society, Bud and Walter Brewer Collection)

The result was Tulsa’s week-long observance of the Oklahoma Golden Jubilee, capped off by sealing memorabilia of the day into a time capsule and burying it underneath the Tulsa County Courthouse lawn. The ceremony took place on June 15, 1957, with the sealed vault to be opened 50 years later.

Hey, that’s June 15, 2007!

But this is Tulsa. The traditional tin box with a letter from the mayor, some coins, the day’s newspaper and other souvenirs just wouldn’t do. The Jubilee Committee decided the most suitable representation of 1957 civilization would be ‘ a new car!

“This is the sort of thing that could happen only in Tulsa,” Lewis Roberts Jr., Tulsa event chairman, stated during dedication ceremonies as citizens prepared to entomb a new 1957 Plymouth Belvedere Sport Coupe.

Why a Plymouth Belvedere? The official line, as stated by Jubilee Chairman W.A. Anderson, was, “In our judgment, Plymouth is a true representative of automobiles of this century, with the kind of lasting appeal that should still be in style 50 years from now.” So much for clairvoyance. Little did Anderson or anyone else know that Chrysler Corp.’s Forward Look would be passe four years later ‘ the fins, rakish forward-thrusting front fenders and flashy two-tone treatments would be a thing of the past. And who could have imagined that the rock-solid Plymouth nameplate would disappear entirely from the automotive scene before 2007!

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Crane operators, police officers and construction workers were all part of automotive history on June 15, 1957. (Tulsa Historical Society, Bud and Walter Brewer Collection)

Did the Jubilee Committee actually choose the Plymouth, or were the Plymouth dealers just the first to offer a free car for the promotion? Very likely, it was a combination of those factors, and possibly others.

The choice must have appeared to be a good one at the time. Plymouth’s all-new styling for 1957, advertised with a “Suddenly it’s 1960!” theme, was the most modern of the low-priced three. The comparable Ford model, the Fairlane 500 hardtop, was also new and modern, with plenty of glass, canted rear fender fins and large, round taillamps resembling rocket exhausts. Lots of new bright trim lent flash to the new Chevrolet Bel Air, but the rather squarish, slab-sided styling was a face lift of a three-year-old design.

Not that any of these three designs would have the “lasting appeal that should still be in style 50 years from now,” but certainly hindsight would reveal that the iconic Bel Air would have better represented 1957 50 years later. Styling aside, however, the 1957 Belvedere was as modern as any, with a well-engineered OHV V-8 engine, new push-button-operated three-speed automatic transmission and acclaimed torsion-bar suspension.

The Plymouth Division of Chrysler Corp. cooperated with Tulsa Plymouth dealers Wilkerson Motor Co., Cox Motor Co., Vance Motor Co., Forster Riggs and Parrish-Clark to supply the Belvedere for the promotion. Several items were entombed along with the car: a 5-gallon can of gasoline (in case that fuel was no longer in use in 2007), a jar of Oklahoma crude oil and an unpaid parking ticket.

The glove box holds the typical contents of a lady’s purse: 14 bobby pins, a compact plastic rain cap, several combs, a tube of lipstick, pack of gum, facial tissues, $2.73 in bills and coins, a pack of cigarettes with matches and a bottle of tranquilizers.

As part of the Golden Jubilee festivities, citizens were invited to guess what Tulsa’s population would be in the year 2007. The guesses were then recorded on microfilm and sealed in a steel container buried with the car. When the car and artifacts are excavated, the person whose guess is closest to Tulsa’s 2007 population is to be awarded the Belvedere. If that person is dead, the car is to be awarded to his or her heirs.

The “current population” figure for purposes of awarding the car will be determined by consulting the U.S. Census Bureau for its estimate on June 1. According to Bob Ball of the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce, the city’s 2006 population estimate was 388,125. The Tulsa population was 261,616 in 1957.

Ron Blissit confirmed that the buried Belvedere did have a V-8, probably the “optional” 299.6-cid version that somehow came to be termed the 301. With a 8.5:1 compression ratio and standard two-barrel carburetor, this engine was rated at 215 hp. It could have been fitted with a four-barrel carb ($39) and dual exhausts ($19.80), equipment that would boost the power rating to 235 hp. Plymouth sold 67,268 Belvedere Sport Coupes in 1957.

At the time, Blissit was a high school senior working after school and Saturdays at the Forster Riggs dealership, where his dad was the general manager. As he recalled, the new Belvedere hardtop was brought over from the Parish-Clark agency, and he helped ready it for burial. “I don’t remember what all we did,” he said, but he did remember the engine being covered with plastic. Supposedly, the Plymouth was coated with cosmoline or a similar metal-preserving substance, and some accounts say the entire car was wrapped in plastic. The gold-and-white hardtop is sitting on a steel skid and enclosed within a concrete bunker. A bronze plaque on the courthouse sidewalk marks its location.

Blissit knew the man who sprayed a gunite water barrier onto the concrete vault. Some fear vibrations from years of heavy traffic going by only 15 or 20 feet away might have caused the vault to crack. As for maintenance, a building operations staff member quipped, “We just cut the grass on top of it!”

The 1957 event didn’t get Blissit too excited. He was not overly impressed with the 1957 Plymouth, although his mother drove one. He was enjoying the power of a 1956 Dodge D-500.

“I thought they were kidding,” said Ron of first hearing about the Plymouth burial. He was at work and didn’t witness the ceremony a few blocks away. “Dad said he wouldn’t be around (when the car was unearthed), ‘but you boys will.’ And we are.”

Blissit, who now lives in Norman, Okla., and his brother, Richard, who still calls Tulsa home, are both involved in antique car ownership and restoration. Ron has restored three Pierce-Arrows, one of which, formerly owned by movie star Marlene Dietrich, was a winner at Pebble Beach. He still has a 1933 Pierce-Arrow and has a 1937 Packard in the wings as his next project.

Ron and Richard have offered to help the winner put the 50-year-old Plymouth into operating condition. “I still have all the special tools for those cars,” sai d Blissit. “My dad thought I was crazy when I paid the Snap-On salesman $30 for a set of screwdrivers, but I still have them ‘ with the lifetime warranty!” Ron went to Chrysler Master Mechanic school after high school graduation and became the youngest certified mechanic at age 18. After some years of oil field work, he operated a mechanic shop in Norman for many years.

“The question is,” he says, “will we recognize the (Plymouth) when it comes out” of its courthouse square tomb. “If any moisture has gotten in, it’s a dead duck.” He plans to be on hand for the unveiling on June 15, and he’s optimistic that the car will be in reasonable condition. What happens then?

“The worst thing,” according to Blissit, “would be for someone to put in a battery and crank it over.” Five gallons of gasoline were pumped into the tank before the burial. He says he’d pull the tank, clean it out along with the fuel system, put a kit in the fuel pump and rebuild the carburetor. The brake master and wheel cylinders will need to be rebuilt. The engine, transmission and cooling system should be drained and refilled. Ron would pull the spark plugs and blow “pickling oil” into the cylinders, and lubricate everything.

Digging up a 50-year-old “new” Plymouth is shaping up as the most popular draw for the 2007 Oklahoma Centennial. A half-dozen car clubs are planning national meets in Tulsa, and at least two 1957 Plymouth Belvedere owners have said they will come for the event.

A Tulsarama Invitational Auto Show, limited to 125 cars, is scheduled for June 15-17 inside the Tulsa Convention Center. The 1957 Belvedere will be unveiled there at 6:30 p.m. Friday evening, after having been taken from the ground at noon. An open car show will occupy designated downtown parking lots close to the convention center on Saturday and Sunday.

Of course, everyone hopes the Plymouth will be in great condition ‘ and worth 10 times the 1957 sticker price of approximately $2,800. If it falls short, the winner will still get a “trust fund” that started out at $100. Buried with the car and having accrued interest since 1957, it could be worth more than $500 by now.

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