By Sanford Miles
It was June 1957 and the beginning of a seemingly never-ending “I spy a new car” story.
Back in the day, Elvis was King, everybody liked Ike, Robert Young was the father that knew best, the Russians were about to launch a dog into space and Dr. Seuss put a cat in a hat. In Little Rock, Ark., educational and racial barriers were on the verge of being smashed.
Some 300 miles west of Little Rock, in downtown Tulsa, Okla., Golden Jubilee officials were preparing to bury a new gold-and-white 1957 Plymouth Belvedere as part of a Tulsarama time capsule that celebrated 50 years of Oklahoma statehood. The plan was to unearth it for the state’s centennial in 2007.
By now, Old Cars readers know how that turned out: “Tarnished Gold” blared the Tulsa World headline the day after the Plymouth was unearthed from its murky concrete grave below the Tulsa County Courthouse lawn on June 15, 2007.
Courtesy of the good citizens from 1957 Tulsa to the thousands from around the globe who gathered there in 2007, as well as the millions who watched the proceedings stream on the internet or on their local evening news, for your viewing displeasure, we present to you our recap of the sunken “Titanic” — water included.
Experts surmised that, due to the vibrations of overhead traffic, a water main break on a nearby street in the 1960s, heavy rainfall in Tulsa — including major floods in 1973 and ’84 — and the fact that one little fissure in the concrete vault could cause a continental divide, well, you can imagine what happened, even if you didn’t read about it in Old Cars.
Buck Rudd, Deputy Chief of Building Operations for the Tulsa courthouse at the time, wasn’t optimistic prior to the unearthing.
“There’s a lot of heavy traffic going by only 15 or 20 feet from the car, Rudd said. “The vibrations from that might have caused part of the vault to crack. If moisture started getting in there, it would cause things to deteriorate over time. And 50 years is a long time. Water and time; that’s not a good combination.”
A prescient Rudd was asked if any maintenance was done on the time capsule to keep the Plymouth safe and sound all these years.
“M-maintenance?” he said, momentarily taken aback. “Yeah, we cut the grass on top of it.”
Judging by the many different water lines surrounding the vault, the Buried Plymouth might have been submerged a good part of its 50-year stay under the manicured lawn.
Immediately upon its unearthing, it looked like the rusted hulk of the ’57 Plymouth Belvedere two-door hardtop was destined to fade away. That is, until the skillful and gentle hands of one Dwight Foster, owner of Ultra One, stepped in. Ultra One is a Hackettstown, N.J.-based company that specializes in high-performance cleaners, de-greasers, rust removal products — and hope. After seeing the condition of the car after being freed from its courthouse tomb, Foster offered his company’s services to the relatives of the winner of the Plymouth Belvedere in the “Guess the population of Tulsa in 2007 and win a ‘new’ car” contest initiated during the 1957 Tulsarama festivities.
A keg-like time capsule was also buried with the 1957 Plymouth and it escaped in remarkably unscathed condition. Besides a dazzling 48-star American Flag surviving along with other Tulsa items such as city and state documents and restaurant menus — make my 15-cent hamburger well-done, please — contest entries were also found in the capsule.
However, the winner, one Raymond Humbertson of Maryland, had passed away in 1979, so his two sisters were awarded the now-rusted Plymouth. The story goes that Humbertson, a career Marine stationed in San Diego, was returning home to see his ailing father (who passed away two months later) and stopped in Tulsa along the way, eventually making his way downtown to Tulsarama! headquarters on Boston Avenue, putting his date with fate in motion.
Rumor has it Chrysler offered the sisters a new car in exchange for the rusty Plymouth Belvedere, a car inspired by bubble-topped jet fighters of that era, and one with lines to die for. But, with the sisters in their eighties and nineties and their driving days long past, and with so many nieces and nephews in the family, giving a new car to only one of them wouldn’t work too well, either, so they easily nixed the offer.
As for just keeping “Miss Belvedere,” as the Plymouth was dubbed by Sharon King Davis, the 2007 Tulsarama! chairwoman,
“With 18 of us,” joked nephew Don Humbertson, “if we couldn’t find a permanent home in a museum, Plan B was that every year-and-a-half the car would rotate through the family...I didn’t foresee too much of a problem with that. Would anyone?”
Foster was confident that he could resurrect the old gal with his Ultra One product and bring her back to life, at least cosmetically.
For Foster and Ultra One, it was part publicity stunt, part passion. The opportunity would present Foster, a classic car lover, with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with a once-in-a-lifetime car. And, indeed, when he was finally done years later — after investing countless hours and sinking some $20,000 into the project — “Miss Belvedere” now looks refreshed; some might even say she looks “simply mahvelous, dahling.” Some of her bright chrome and stainless-steel trim now wink dreamily in the sunlight. Her crisp, aerodynamic lines show beautifully, despite bubbled paint and rusted holes, with her wide whitewalls and cone-style moon wheel covers accentuating her timeless, ethereal beauty.
Foster acknowledged that, at first, the extent of the corrosion wasn’t apparent until the car was in his shop. So, he did his best to clean “Miss Belvedere” and to stabilize her condition. Given the car’s fragility and the fact that many parts were frozen, he said it would not be possible to make “Miss Belvedere” roadworthy.
Foster always believed that the Plymouth — “a true piece of Americana” — deserved to be in a permanent museum exhibit, but most museums he spoke with said they could only offer her but temporary shelter.
Foster and the owners thought, “no dice.” They felt the Plymouth deserved better.
When Foster spoke with representatives of the Smithsonian, they essentially said they only accept “pristine” pieces. Other museums of note said much of the same.
Even Tulsa, which hadn’t seen this much publicity since 1949 when 100,000 people jammed downtown for a parade for the movie premier of “Tulsa” (in Technicolor!), didn’t want the Plymouth anymore.
Sure, “Miss Belvedere” could’ve been put up for auction or privately sold, and she would’ve sold in a heartbeat, no doubt — possibly for an ungodly sum despite the caked-on mud, burnt-orange rust and an interior minus an interior. Who knows what somebody would pay for a one-of-a-kind time capsule/rustbucket?
However, a new owner-entrepreneur might undertake the current rage in the e-commerce marketplace, as has been done with pieces from the Titanic or Michael Jordan’s playoff jerseys: he could cut up “Miss Belvedere” into a zillion pieces and sell them online as automotive art for $19.95 a pop.
Forget about scoring a pair of leaf springs, however. According to lawnmower man Buck Rudd, one of them fell off when the car was being lifted out of its personal watering hole, as did many other smaller pieces (along with a shower of rust). Most of the vault was filled in with earth soon afterwards, leaving below parts that didn’t disintegrate (and a potential payday for automotive grave robbers).
Considering what a buyer might do with “Miss Belvedere,” her owners and Foster weren’t about to let her go to anyone unless it would be displayed in a public setting. Besides, the sisters thought it would be disrespectful to their brother, Ray Humbertson, a kind and loving man who always gifted presents to his family (although those gifts were usually in a bit nicer condition than this last gift to them).
Enter Wayne Lensing, owner of Historic Auto Attractions – A Journey Through Time, in Roscoe, Ill. Admittedly, Lensing had never heard of “Miss Belvedere” despite knowing a thing or two about unique automobiles. But after a phone call from Foster in 2015 offering to donate the car to his museum, and a quick Google search by Lensing, the deal was sealed.
Lensing, 73, and a member of the Illinois Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame, which is housed in his museum, couldn’t believe his good fortune.
“When I saw the pictures online and briefly read up on ‘Miss Belvedere,’ I said, ‘Good gosh! What a story! People love a story like this. And what a main character!’”
Many famous cars have stories to them. Some are true, some are made for publicity, some to spice up a sale — maybe even some of the cars in his very museum — but a story like this? One that’s lasted 50 years and comes with provenance?
“Nope,” Lensing said, “ain’t none around like this. I wanted the car here right then and there.”
It wouldn’t be until late 2017 that the 1957 Plymouth Belvedere was finally delivered to the museum in Roscoe, a small village about 80 miles west of Chicago. The museum may be in the middle of nowhere, but to Lensing, it’s in the middle of everywhere. He owns Lefthander Chassis, one of the country’s largest high-performance parts suppliers for racing cars, which is located across the street from Lensing’s museum. The business has been located there for more than 40 years, the museum for 20.
The museum started when Lensing bought a black 1960 Cadillac limousine once owned by Howard Hughes and stored it in the former schoolhouse where he started his parts business. He was amazed by the reactions of friends and customers alike. And, unlike The Righteous Brothers, he’s never lost that loving feeling for both his cars and the reactions of people when they see them.
“I can’t tell you the joy I get when I see that,” he said.
Lensing believes that maybe, just maybe, the two-tone Desert Gold and Sand Dune White 1957 Plymouth Belvedere Sport Coupe, one of 67,268 manufactured for 1957 with a base price of $2,419, was supposed to end up here all along, as if the fickle finger of fate beckoned her to him.
Consider this: Lensing, who was born in Iowa, moved to nearby Belvidere, Ill., in 1968 when he got a job as an assembly-line worker there for, you guessed it, Chrysler-Plymouth, where he worked until 1984. He currently lives in Belvidere, and now he owns “Miss Belvedere.” — Believe it or not!
When the Plymouth finally made it to Roscoe, there was just one problem for Lensing: where would he put her?
His 36,000-sq.-ft. museum was filled to the brim with 100 cars, countless pieces and exhibits of American history, including one of the largest John F. Kennedy collections in the world (“my favorites,” he says). It also features an incredible “Day in Dallas” display, as well as the original flag that was draped over JFK’s casket in 1963. There’s even a piece from the remains of the 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder in which James Dean perished.
The time-ship delay gave Lensing a chance to sort things out for “Miss Belvedere,” his newest star attraction. Parking space in his museum was at a premium, so much so that ground was just broken for an additional 50,000-sq.-ft. building that he hopes will be ready by next summer. That leaves “Miss Belvedere” in a cramped corner, a place where she probably feels right at home, at least for now.
Some of the famous cars “Miss Belvedere” is teamed with include a trio of “Batman” movie cars and the iconic “Batmobile” from the 1960s TV show; the Delorean from “Back to the Future II;” the original “Family Truckster” from “National Lampoon’s Vacation;” a recreation of the “Ecto-1” from “Ghostbusters,” as well as a dozen world leaders’ cars. There’s the 1956 Cadillac Secret Service car that was directly behind JFK’s car on that fateful day in Dallas, Adolf Hitler’s monstrous six-wheel staff car; Joseph Stalin’s 1937 Packard Super 12 and land yachts from the Eisenhower, Truman and Calvin Coolidge administrations.
Elvis and Conray Twitty’s personal rides are here, too — their towering images, guitars, gold records and music accompanying each exhibit — and there’s even a “finger lickin’ good” Kentucky Fried Chicken display featuring Colonel Sanders’ enormous black-and-yellow 1939 Lincoln limousine.
But, alas, despite dozens one-of-a-kind vehicles of every size, shape and year, none of the 4,000 or so Amphicars are on hand to make “Miss Belvedere” feel even more at home.
As for “Miss Belvedere’s” new digs, a lit exit door and a brick wall behind her offer little means of egress. But, if somehow she developed a mind of her own à la “Christine,” the 1958 Plymouth Fury starring in Stephen King’s thriller of the same name (Lensing’s working on nabbing her one day), and “Miss Belvedere” decided to blow this joint and get her kicks on Route 66, she’d first crash through a cabinet filled with the signatures of former presidential first ladies, then plow smack-dab into the back of the Donald Trump’s 2008 Lincoln presidential campaign limo. Then, having rejuvenated herself, sail past the half-ton pickup truck from “Sanford and Son” and on her merry way to the “Mother Road,” which wends through Illinois.
And, if any unfortunate museum goers happened to be in Miss Belvedere’s path in the midst of her apoplectic fit, the 4077 M*A*S*H unit is right around the corner to treat them, and the 1962 Ford ambulance that transported Lee Harvey Oswald to the hospital after he was shot by Jack Ruby could give them a lift to the nearest medical center.
The Plans of Mice and Men
“For the two years I had ‘Miss Belvedere’ in storage, I can’t tell you how many people contacted me, not only from the local area and this country, but all over the world,” Lensing said. “They’d call or e-mail me all the time, asking about her. ‘We’d love to see her; how’s she doing?’ they’d say. ‘We’ve been waiting all these years, do you think she’ll be on display soon?’ They wanted to know. ‘Do you think I could borrow her for my son’s Bar Mitzvah? He’s really into cars....’
“People from as far away as Australia and New Zealand wanted to know what the story was,” Lensing said, his exasperation still evident. “And the truth is, I didn’t want to put her on display until I could do her justice... and I just didn’t have a place to put her.”
Last year, Lensing finally caved.
“I just had to get her out of storage and into the museum. For the good of everyone, including myself!” he chuckled.
Although “Miss Belvedere” is now in a space that’s slightly bigger than the 12 ft. x 20 ft. tomb in which she was mired for a half-century, Lensing is quick to assure that things will be just fine for the classy old gal. “Don’t worry,” he says, “in the new building, ‘Miss Belvedere’ will have triple the space and people will be able to view her from all sides, along with her story and original pictures.”
In addition to the images, a television plays a documentary of the car.
Long in the Tooth?
While some skeptics might think that “Miss Belvedere” has had her day in the sun after a very dark past, and interest in her has faded (much like her paint job) over the 14 years since she was unearthed, we kindly direct you to YouTube. Just search “THIS NEW CAR WAS LYING UNDERGROUND 50 YEARS.” And please note the 21 million views.
*Sanford Miles is a Florida-based writer who’s putting the finishing touches on his historical novel, The Buried Plymouth – A Story Unearthed in Tulsa. In his story, there’s something a bit more relevant planted in the car than a case of Schlitz in the trunk and a lady’s purse with $2.73 in the glove compartment. And, it’s a lot more valuable, too — if it’s survived. He can be reached at email@example.com if you have a tale to tell regarding The Buried Plymouth.
Check out Miss Belvedere over the years
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