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Monday
Aug072006

Buried Treasure from Plymouth

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'57 Plymouth Belvedere Coupe
By JAMIE LINCOLN KITMAN at The New York Times

"MOST everyone knows an auto enthusiast buried in debt, crushed by suffocating monthly payments. You may also have heard of people who loved their cars so much that they wanted to spend eternity in the driver’s seat — their last request was to be buried in their automobiles.

But the burial of a car need not strike such sad, macabre or financially ruinous chords.

For example, Volvo dealers have been handing out treasure maps to help contestants find an XC90 sport utility buried “somewhere in the world,” as part of a promotion with Disney Pictures for the “Pirates of The Caribbean” sequel, “Dead Man’s Chest.” (http://thehunt.volvocars.net/us/thehunt.)

In August, seven finalists will be flown to an undisclosed location to begin a frantic ground search for the buried treasure, a new S.U.V. with seating for seven and a full factory warranty.

Somewhat less certain of good fortune will be the winner of a contest that began in 1957 and is still under way. To celebrate Oklahoma’s golden jubilee, city officials in Tulsa buried a time capsule in front of the county courthouse containing, among other things, a new 1957 Plymouth Belvedere hardtop coupe.

On June 15 of next year, the gold-and-white Plymouth will be exhumed for the Oklahoma centennial. The car and its contents will be awarded to the person who most accurately predicted, back in 1957, the population of Tulsa circa 2007.

In case you are wondering where the winning guess may lie, the United States census of 2000 reported 393,049 residents for Tulsa, or slightly more than 10 percent of all Oklahoma citizens. (The 2005 estimate shows a slight drop, to 382,457 residents.)

The person who came closest — or, under the contest rules, that person’s heirs — will be the lucky winner of a car that was covered in cosmolene, a metal preservative, then wrapped in plastic and placed in a concrete and steel box more than 49 years ago.

While the oil town of Tulsa has modernized in the ensuing years, Chrysler’s Plymouth division experienced a rise and then a fatal fall.

The style-setting 1957 model was notable for its large tailfins — the auto designer Virgil Exner’s creation that became known as the “Forward Look.” Indeed, the Chrysler’s 1957 models were so futuristic that they sent competing stylists scrambling to update their own cars; a memorable advertising campaign promoted the cars with the tagline, “Suddenly it’s 1960!”

In the 1957 model year, 762,231 Plymouths were built, including 67,268 Belvedere coupes, making the division No. 3 in sales after Ford and Chevrolet. The similarly styled 1958 Fury would later achieve fame as “Christine,” the demonic self-healing car of the Stephen King novel and the 1983 horror film.

In the 1960’s Plymouth built millions of Valiant compacts, and its Max Wedge and Hemi engines became legendary in stock car racing, thanks in part to the exploits of Richard Petty. Plymouth’s street machines — notably the Road Runner and Hemi ’Cuda — remain among the most sought-after and expensive muscle cars today.

In the 1970’s, Plymouth badges adorned many of America’s police cars, and in the 80’s, they appeared on some of the nation’s first minivans. But by the 90’s, a retro-style street rod, the Plymouth Prowler, provided only a short-lived spark as the brand grew moribund.

In 1999, after DaimlerBenz effectively took over Chrysler, the renamed DaimlerChrysler announced that it planned to bury not just a Plymouth, but all of Plymouth. The car division, founded in 1928 by Walter P. Chrysler as a low-price alternative to his Chrysler line, was shut for good.

For the winner of the Tulsa contest, a more pertinent question than what has happened to Plymouth may be what has happened to his or her Plymouth, the one whose warranty ran out 48 years ago?

According to Jim Benjaminson in his book “Plymouth: 1946-1959,” the chairman of the Tulsa festivities, Lewis Roberts Jr., had said the Belvedere was selected because it was “an advanced product of American industrial ingenuity with the kind of lasting appeal that will still be in style 50 years from now.” That may not be strictly true, but a car like the Belvedere would certainly turn heads on any American street today.

The Belvedere two-door was meant, along with other artifacts, to acquaint the citizens of the 21st century with life in the middle of the 20th.

In case gasoline was no longer available, the contest organizers thoughtfully packed 10 gallons of high-test and 5 quarts of motor oil into the Plymouth’s trunk. Owing to the passing of time, these ingredients are now likely to be a potentially volatile cocktail of unstable flammable chemicals — about as useful as the case of Schlitz beer and vial of tranquilizers that were also stowed on board.

The pills were among several last-minute additions — including a pack of cigarettes, bobby pins and an unpaid parking ticket — that were meant to represent the contents of the typical lady’s purse in the late 1950’s.

The winner’s haul will include prayer books, aerial photographs and aeronautic maps of the Tulsa area, as well as a bevy of portentous proclamations, letters and

poems from local officials. There is also $100 in a savings instrument, which presumably has accrued several hundred dollars in interest.

While the Plymouth’s outrageous tailfins aren’t remotely in style any longer, they will undoubtedly capture modern Oklahomans’ imagination, assuming they are still standing. For it is unclear what kind of shape the winner’s grand prize will be in.

Indeed, given the 1957 Plymouth’s often-noted propensity to rust, and the likelihood that its concrete time capsule has cracked over the years letting dreaded moisture inside, many people have wondered just how much Plymouth will be around for the centennial celebration and what, if anything it will be worth beyond its value as metal scrap.

In excellent condition, a ’57 Belvedere hardtop coupe might sell for as much as $22,000 today, and its component parts considerably less. So prospective winners of Tulsa’s underground prize might have been better off joining the Volvo treasure hunt.

On the other hand, the winner might want to take the proceeds from the treasure haul and use it to rebury the Plymouth."

More info on this, including pics and video, here at the Official Site

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Reader Comments (7)

Aww man i want that car. Bring back GT badges, racing stripes and fins!
August 8, 2006 | Unregistered Commentermushroom
and 2 door pillarless
August 8, 2006 | Unregistered Commentermushroom
I had a '55 Chev (original) and a '67 Pontiac (pillarless) Parisienne (327V8)
August 8, 2006 | Unregistered Commentermushroom
Great looking automobile.I also think that the 57 Chev (I think the 2 door was the Biscayne?) was one of the coolest cars of that era.
August 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Davies
Mike, I believe you're referring to the "Belair" - http://www.kipaddotta.com/1957-chevy-belair-two-door-hard-top.html

It also came as a 2-door station wagon called the "Nomad".

Sigh...why did I sell that '55 Chevy? (to pay the rent)
August 8, 2006 | Registered CommenterMalcolm Lambe
you coulda lived in a 55 chev, bigger than most one bedroom places in sydney
August 14, 2006 | Unregistered Commentermushroom
I nearly lost it in the surf when driving along the beach to Double Island Point north of Noosa. Misjudged the tide and stalled it on the edge of the surf. Had waves breaking over the boot as it sank in the sand. But in the nick of time some fishermen in a 4WD with an electric winch arrived on the scene. I have some photos on 35mm transparencies. Must get them printed. It was two-tone light blue and white with a straight six under the bonnet. Great car. Bought it for $400 in 1975. Imagine what it would be worth now. Sigh. '55 Chev is the car in "2-Lane Blacktop" - the movie with Warren Oates, Dennis Wilson and "Fire and Rain" James Taylor.
August 15, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLes Miserable

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