What Happened To The 1957 Plymouth Belvedere Buried in Tulsa? Updated 2/24/2012
Reading a story on Jalopnik this morning about how a 1985 Pontiac Fiero was removed from a Houston reservoir after 22 years underwater caused my mind to wander to the last rusty submerged car that I remember seeing in the news. Of course, that car is the 1957 Plymouth Belvedere that the city fathers of Tulsa, Oklahoma buried in front of their city hall in 1957, to be unearthed in 2007 and awarded to the person who most closely guessed Tulsa’s 2007 population.
You’ve probably seen what happened to the car - despite precautions being taken back in 1957, the underground vault leaked (unbeknownst to anyone) and filled with water. After a few decades of submersion, the Belvedere wasn’t looking too good when it again came to see the light of day.
The car was awarded to Raymond Humbertson, who died in 1979. His sisters, Levada Carney, now 88 if she’s still alive, and Catherine Johnson, 97 if she’s still alive, own the car instead. The car’s exhumation happened four and a half years ago – and what in the world would two very old ladies want to do with a very old, undriveable car?
Online research today led me to a two year old article from the New York Times about how a man named Dwight Foster, owner of a company called Ultra One Corporation, happened to have the car in his care at his garage in New Jersey. This one was pretty far gone – so forget about them stopping along the way at a shop for Austin TX auto repair.
It turns out that Foster’s company sells a rust removal chemical called “Safe Rust Remover.” Considering that rust is basically all that remains of the Belvedere after all these years, it may be a perfect match. Yet the presence of rust also means that some (or all) of the underlying metal has been consumed. Remove the rust, and you’re removing metal. Foster says as much in a quote in the Times article.
“A lot of the original paint is still there. What we’re doing, it’s like an artifact from the Titanic, you strip a layer at a time and not be too aggressive. You can’t rush this. It’s fragile. It’s like tissue paper.”
Ultra One’s “restoration” of the 1957 Belvedere is being done purely for publicity for the Safe Rust Remover product, a fact that Mr. Foster freely admits. The company’s website also does not promise miracles:
There is no other product in the world that can remove rust delicately, without destroying any of the fragile parts such as seals, gaskets, and original paint and decals. The goal is to restore Miss Belvedere to the most orignal state possible and no other product can achieve this.
The Belvedere is in sorry shape, and will never drive again, certainly not in its original form without serious replacement parts. The Times says:
There are holes in the valve covers and oil pan, and red clay got into the engine and dried like concrete. The frame is rusted and in some sections he can put his hand through the holes. He is not sure the doors can be opened without risking what’s left of the car’s structural integrity.
Though it’s older than the New York Times piece referened above, there was a blog post on Hemmings Collector Car Radio that looked into the car and has a few more recent photos of its rust removal. Some spots look all right to the point that you can see original paint, and the interior looks much better. The car is still a basket case. And given the photo of the kiddie pool beneath the car collecting used rust remover, exactly how many gallons of that stuff are they using? That blog post also has photos of Catherine and Levita, the car’s elderly owners.
The most recent information on this car dates to early 2010, and the latest progress update was that Mr. Foster was going to replace the Belvedere’s completely disintegrated frame with one from a rust-free Southern donor car. Hopefully that transplant worked and the car didn’t snap in half.
Update 2/24/2012: I got a call back from Dwight Foster. He said that he still has “Miss Belvedere” in his possession. While the car was offered to Tulsa for a special exhibit, they have no interest in it due to (in his words) the necessity of police overtime and other expenses they weren’t willing to incur a second time. One of the car’s elderly owners has passed away (he didn’t say which one, but presumably it’s Catherine, who would be 97 if she were alive today. Mr. Foster stressed that the car is in terrible shape – basically, as it sat in a cauldron of water for the better part of five decades, the water became acidic from the various chemicals within the car, and more or less “ate itself.” So the sheetmetal is extremely thin. The car will probably never get much better than it is today.
Mr. Foster noted that he has a donor car, but is only using it for parts to get “Miss Belvedere” rolling on her own again. He abandoned the idea of replacing the car’s frame with one from the donor car because he didn’t believe it would be able to withstand something so dramatic (even without seeing the car in person, I tend to agree). For this reason, he hasn’t even tried to open the doors. He did note, however, that the car has just 4 miles on its odometer.
The car’s owners and Mr. Foster are hoping to have the car placed in the Smithsonian or in a museum in Tennessee, but nothing is set at this time.