When Tulsa authorities pulled the 1957 Plymouth Belvedere that had come to be known as Miss Belvedere from a sealed concrete time capsule after 50 years, revealing a zero-mileage car caked with mud and shot through with rust, it immediately became the most notorious 1957 Plymouth Belvedere on the planet. Notorious, however, does not always translate to valuable or desirable, and as a result, Miss Belvedere sits largely forgotten on the floor of a New Jersey warehouse, unwanted by just about everybody.
The hype surrounding the retrieval of Miss Belvedere, as the car became known, was inescapable in the summer of 2007. Just about every media outlet from CNN to the Podunk Times covered the speculation about the Belvedere’s condition, whether it would start up on command after being pulled from its sarcophagus, who would get the car, and what they would do with it. Boyd Coddington, then at (or at least near) the peak of his popularity, was even on hand for its unveiling that June, but as the layers of plastic wrapped around the car to protect it from moisture damage and oxidation were peeled back, it quickly became evident that water had flooded the vault during the Belvedere’s subterranean sentence, covered it in a mud mixed with all the chemicals that had leaked out of the car over the decades, and possibly destroyed it. Looking to put a positive spin on the debacle, the Tulsa Historical Society displayed the car alongside other relics from the time capsule in a temporary exhibit, and visitors came in respectable numbers to see the car in person.
When the car was buried in 1957, Tulsa residents were given a chance to win the car by correctly guessing the population of the city in 2007. The man who had come closest to guessing the actual population of 382,457 was Raymond Humbertson, who had died in 1979. His wife had also died by then, so ownership of the car went to an older sister named Catherine, but at age 93 her days of driving (or taking physical possession of a rusted 1957 Plymouth) were behind her. Catherine’s younger sister, LeVeda, then age 85, was also named as an owner, but LeVeda died in November 2010. That leaves three actual owners of Miss Belvedere today: Catherine, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday (and still has a rusty Schlitz beer can, pulled from Miss Belvedere’s trunk); her nephew, Robert Carney; and his sister, M.C. Kesner.
Carney, in turn, handed Miss Belvedere over to Dwight Foster of Ultra One, a New Jersey manufacturer of a rust-removing chemical that’s claimed to be safe for the surfaces (like paint) beneath the oxidation. In November 2007, with the approval of the car’s owners, Miss Belvedere was shrink-wrapped and shipped to Ultra One’s warehouse in Hackettstown to begin a process of de-rusting and preservation. At first, it was believed that Miss Belvedere’s engine could be saved and restored to run again, and that her lights could be wired to provide a dramatic touch for display. Foster even procured a 1957 Plymouth Savoy as a donor car, and work began in earnest. Miss Belvedere’s leaf springs, which had long since rusted through in the acidic water of the time capsule, were replaced with donor springs from the Savoy. The Ultra One process removed a significant amount of the car’s exterior rust, and in 2009 pictures began to circulate showing Miss Belvedere in a superficial state of preservation.
Shortly after those images circulated, however, Miss Belvedere dropped off the public’s collective radar, and classic car enthusiasts were left wondering what had become of the wayward Plymouth. When the New York Times caught up with Foster in 2010, they described Miss Belvedere as “more rust than bucket” and quoted Foster as saying that the offer to de-rust the car was a promotional stunt. Late last year, news surfaced that Foster, with Carney’s permission, was attempting to donate the car to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. While it’s known as “America’s attic,” Smithsonian representatives told Foster that they do not see it as “America’s garage,” and the offer was rebuffed, leaving Foster in continued possession of the car. The city of Tulsa also turned down Foster’s request to send it back home for public display, noting that the cost to retrieve a rusted and useless car from an old tomb (and, presumably, the giant letdown experienced collectively by the town) still left a bitter taste in some residents’ mouths.
As Miss Belvedere sits today, its condition remains largely unchanged since 2009, with all of the reasonable preservation work done that could be done. From a distance, the car almost looks presentable, but up close it becomes evident that the damage is irreversible. Foster compares the car’s frame to papier mâché, admitting that “there are spots I could put my hand through if I’m not careful.” Utilizing the frame from the donor Plymouth Savoy would be an option if Miss Belvedere were stronger, but the car’s sheetmetal is in equally poor condition, especially in the rear. While the exterior has been cleaned, the interior of the body is still caked with mud, and as Foster said, “this is actually shoring up the body panels.” The car’s laminated safety glass is damaged beyond repair after water seeped between the glass and plastic layers during the car’s years in storage. While the steering was functional at first, the steering box is “melted inside,” the result of years of corrosion, and none of its electrical systems are even close to functioning. Even transporting the car to another location would be a major undertaking, given Miss Belvedere’s fragile condition.
Foster admits that he has somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 invested in Miss Belvedere’s preservation, but he’s equally clear that the car is still the property of Robert Carney, his sister and their aunt Catherine. While Carney did not respond to our request for comment, his sister, M.C., did, and said that she would like to see the car returned to Oklahoma for permanent display. With little interest from the city of Tulsa, that’s not likely to happen, but Foster remains hopeful that another museum will show interest in the car. The Smithsonian is clearly off the list of potential museums willing to take possession, but Foster is hoping that the AACA Museum (or a similar institution) has an interest in the car, which exists in an odd void between collector car and historical artifact. As a vintage car, its value is minimal, but as a slice of mid-century Americana, Miss Belvedere is potentially invaluable, particularly if displayed with the other rusted relics from the Tulsa time capsule.
Until Foster finds a museum or other sympathetic caretaker willing to embrace Miss Belvedere, however, it sits in a corner of the Ultra One warehouse, free from its watery tomb but no less trapped in time and place.
Article courtesy of Hemmings Daily, written by Kurt Ernst.