Anybody in Tulsa who hasn’t been under a rock for the past week is aware that Friday was the day the city unearthed the 1957 Plymouth Belvedere that was buried under the courthouse lawn 50 years ago.
We found out a couple of days ago that water had infiltrated the concrete vault that contained the car. That should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the plight of historic gas stations, many of which have been orphaned by the insurmountable costs associated with removing leaking underground gas tanks from the property. Many of the tanks in question are — you guessed it — about 50 years old.
Several people have made comments online, suggesting that the water in the vault was somehow a reflection on the people who buried the car or on Tulsa itself — as if it is the organizers’ fault that 1957 technology wasn’t quite sufficient to protect a car from the ravages of 50 years’ worth of weather, jarring from traffic on the nearby street, and the innate permeability of concrete.
The upshot of the naysayers’ comments is that the organizers of the first Tulsarama! were stupid to bury the car and that the layer of rust covering the Belvedere when it was finally unveiled makes the entire idea an abject failure.
The organizers were stupid, all right: stupid like a fox. All 7,000 seats for the unveiling sold out weeks ago, and I’m told that the line of people waiting to see the car come out of the ground Friday afternoon stretched for blocks. I personally talked to people from as far away as Norway who had come to town for the express purpose of seeing the Belvedere. It seems like everybody I talked to Friday night was from out of town, out of state, or even out of the country. I have no idea how much money is flowing into Tulsa’s economy this weekend, but I suspect the number is going to end up in the millions.
Bury a golden car, dig up a gold mine. If that’s failure, I don’t want to succeed.
Besides all that, I get the impression that the whole buried-car idea was done largely on a lark, and I don’t think anybody who was around back then had any real belief that the car was going to come out of that vault looking like it just rolled off the showroom floor. I’ve always suspected the whole thing was done more along the lines of the infamous Herrin High School 1992-93 Art IV Bean Check.
When I was a senior in high school, four guys in my art class decided — for no apparent reason — to wrap a clump of cold baked beans in a paper napkin and hide them in a seldom-used drawer.
Every few weeks thereafter, when the teacher was out of the room, one of the guys would yell, “BEAN CHECK!” and the four of them would scramble to extract the beans from the drawer, examine their condition, wrap them back up, and put them away before the teacher had time to come back and see what they were up to. If you can imagine a cross between a science-fair project and a Chinese fire drill, that’s basically what it was.
I have a pretty strong hunch that the decision to bury the car and dig it up again 50 years later was motivated by something close to whatever insane whim got hold of my classmates 15 years ago. I really think that what we have here is, in essence, a Bean Check on a grand scale.
For my classmates, the joy in the Bean Check was not some ridiculous belief that the beans would survive in pristine condition. The joy was in doing something utterly silly — and in satisfying their curiosity about what would happen to the beans if they were stored in a wildly inappropriate location for an extended period of time. Same thing goes for the Belvedere: Tulsa got to do something utterly silly, and then 50 years later, it got to satisfy its collective curiosity about what would happen to a car if it were stored in a wildly inappropriate location for an extended period of time.
I think the Belvedere is great. It’s a history lesson that gives you a little insight into the sort of crazy things that captured the public’s imagination in 1957. It gives a bit of insight into the technology of the day — which is exactly what a good time capsule ought to do. It’s a bit of a science lesson — if we didn’t know it before, we are all now well aware that concrete is permeable. It even strikes me as being a sort of public art display, vaguely reminiscent of Prada Marfa.
And on a more practical note: While there are a few shortsighted individuals who think the winner of the car is getting a raw deal, I think the vehicle’s fame makes it a prime candidate for eBay; if the winner is unhappy with his prize, he should be able to get enough for it at auction to buy his own ’57 Belvedere in showroom condition, if that’s what floats his boat.
Personally, though, I would do no such thing. If that car were mine, I wouldn’t sell her, I wouldn’t put her in a museum, and I wouldn’t try to restore her to mint condition. If she were mine, I’d call up the best bunch of gearheads I could find and set them to work replacing her guts, installing hydraulics, and turning her into the sweetest rat rod you ever saw.
And then I would spend the next 50 years kicking butt and taking names at every car show in the United States. 🙂
UPDATE: The Tulsa World has video of the unveiling here. Something I consider even more precious and beautiful than the Belvedere was unveiled this weekend, too — and is in immaculate condition — but I’d rather show you what it is than tell you. Stay tuned; I hope to return with photos in a few hours.