An Old Car Interred

Bud & Walter Brewer Collection/Tulsa Historical Society, via The New York Times.

Fifty years ago last Friday, the people of Tulsa, Oklahoma, assembled downtown and buried a brand new Plymouth Belvedere hardtop as a time capsule to be opened in 2007. The car, and $100 plus 50 years worth of accrued compound interest (a bit more than $700), would be awarded to the person (or his or her heirs) who most accurately guessed what the population of Tulsa would be in 2007.

The event was held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Oklahoma’s statehood, but also had the effect of forcing people to think about the future. How would people get around in the future? It was an age of remarkable technological advancement, and the ideas must have been limitless.

Along with the car, there were a number of odds and ends buried: Microfilm containing all the population contest entries, the contents of a woman’s purse, a wedding photograph, a case of beer, an unpaid parking ticket and a flag. But there is one other item that marvelously hints at the optimistic sensibility of that time.

Along with that tail-finned, chromed sedan, the people of 1957 buried 10 gallons of leaded gasoline, on the chance that in 2007 gas stations would be unknown to a people jetting around in personal flying machines fueled by iPod-sized nuclear fusion reactors.

Imagine the thought they may have had: June 15, 2007, comes around and we’d dig up the old car and blink at it, perplexed:

"That’s a great old car, but how do we get it to move?" some official would ask.

"Historical evidence suggests that in the mid 20th century, these automobiles were fueled by a refined hydrocarbon admixture called ‘gasoline’," a historian might report. "Our boys at the lab believe they can re-engineer the stuff, but they need a couple of months."

But here it is 2007 and automobility is little changed from the way it was in 1957. The tailfins and chrome are gone but our cars are stilling running on pretty much the same fuel. We’ve removed the lead from the gas and added MTBE. Sometimes gas is now made from ethanol, its energy coming from a season’s worth of solar power rather than the 400 million-year-old bounty of Jurrasic sunlight that we call "oil." We’ve tinkered with the system but the fantastic paradigm shift imagined a couple of generations ago is nowhere on the horizon.

What was an asset in 1957 has become an enormous national liability. Fifty years ago, the oil fields of Oklahoma were awash with ever increasing amounts of oil and the United States produced more oil than any other nation in the world. We didn’t have to import a drop. Nobody had ever heard of the terms global warming or climate change.

After Tulsa buried its Plymouth, U.S. oil production continued to increase. Until 1970. Since then, no technological breakthrough and no amount of private investment or public subsidy has been able to reverse declining production rates. Today, we continue to feed our addiction to the automobile by sending our hard-earned national wealth overseas and by intimidating oil producing nations with our military power.

But every year, we produce a little less oil and import a little more, all while poisoning the atmosphere. Now, the tankers steaming across the Atlantic are carrying not just oil, but gasoline. Presidents have admitted that the U.S. is addicted to oil. But no president has suggested that we end the oil addiction in any way that alter what Dick Cheney calls our non-negotiable lifestyle.

What sort of time capsule might we leave for the people of 2057? Here’s an idea: A letter of apology wrapped in a Hummer.

19 thoughts on An Old Car Interred

  1. This was very interesting until the real story was told with the GREEN slant and pot-shots at the Hummer. Nice try on the globla warming front of confusion and misdirection. Cool picture from ’57 though. Libs.

  2. I’m curious what the mileage expectations were from that power plant. Have we progressed? And if so, by how much?

  3. This proves one thing: People really like convincing themselves that 50 years is a long time.

  4. I know this blog is very NYC centric, and I do enjoy as a resident of NYC. This post bothered me though.

    It bothers me because most people fail to realize that outside of a few major cities having a car is not an option for most people. It is a requirement. Our country is vast, and no country this size has great public transit in every city.

    What I am trying to say, is the car is a way of life, and we need to accept that. Instead we need to work on better fuels, and better batteries for electric cars. We do need to improve public transit, but in many areas that’s just not something that will be done quickly.

  5. Also, taken as a whole, the rail network of Europe is “pretty good” public transit and Europe is pretty big. Comparing countries that are the same size limits us to only a few examples. Some people will still need to drive, but the more public transit we have the less fuel we’ll waste on trips that could be done in a more efficient way. We CAN change the way that our country works, there’s not need to be so fatalistic about our current infrastructure.

  6. Of course, it is not just a matter of improving public transit but also of building pedestrian- and transit-oriented development. Sprawl suburbs cannot be very well served by transit, and people cannot walk for local trips.

    Before World War II, all American cities were built around the pedestrian and around public transportation. That was changed by post-war policies supporting freeways and sprawl development. Now, we need equally strong policies supporting transit and transit-oriented development.

  7. Cars as a way of life are dying. If you’ve built your suburban economy around people being able to drive to various places, you are going to find the cost of continuing that lifestyle to be prohibitive. Gas is at $3.50-$4/gallon in many places in a “good” economy without any external shocks. Will Matt continue to drive his hummer if gas is $7? $10? Or will we see car enthusiasts beg for further government subsidies so they can keep their lifestyle on life support just a little bit longer?

    The ostrich-like mindset that this isn’t a problem today, therefore we don’t need to worry about it tomorrow is just going to doom us to a major economic contraction when the cost becomes too much for the economy to bear.

  8. I read about this event over the weekend and found it curious but not very thought-provoking. Your take on it made me think – thanks. Nicely done.

    I think our new time capsule should consist of ALL the Hummers and an apology.

  9. Biobob, you are right in that we certainly aren’t going to remake vast swaths of this country so that people can get around by foot or public transportation. Areas around Atlanta, Phoenix, and the spawling ‘burbs of other cities may be a lost cause.

    But that does not mean we should continue to build sprawl? Right now, people in cities such as the ones listed above have to drive absolutely everywhere, even to get a gallon milk or to take their kids to school. Alternative fuels are all fine and good, but we should also focus on alternative developments, alternative zoning (to permit businesses and residences to be located closer together), and alternative thinking. Maybe what is needed is not fewer cars, but fewer trips.

  10. Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR, 4th District), chairman of the House subcommittee on highways and transit, wrote a letter to Spitzer saying he has “serious doubts” about whether NYC’s congestion pricing plan is eligible for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid.

    DeFazio of course is simply wrong. But his irresponsible letter once again represents how the Democratic party is backsliding on progressive transportation policy.

    Even though most Streetsblog readers don’t live in Oregon, I’d urge you all to give his office a call to register a complaint and let them know somebody’s watching.

    (202) 225-6416

    It’s extremely frustrating to see the Democrats stonewall on every progressive transportation initiative, from improved fuel economy standards, to congestion pricing in NYC, to California’s right to enforce its own clean air rules.

    For most of the time since 1957 it’s been the Democratic party that has controlled Congress. It isn’t only the fossil fuel lobby that’s responsible for the backwards state we’re in.

  11. Sorry, Biobob, you’re wrong. Dead wrong, as in the thousands of people who die on the roads every year, and the people who die of obesity-related causes. The car is a way of life, but it’s a destructive one. Maybe you can make a car that runs on three farts a day and produces nothing but pure honey, but can you make a car that won’t kill people or other animals when it hits them? Can you make a car that gets people to walk enough to keep in shape?

    That said, I doubt that your fancy fuels and batteries will ever provide enough mobility to sustain the sprawly suburbs of Phoenix or Raleigh. It’s a good thing they were built so cheaply, because they’ll eventually be torn down to make room for more compact communities. And in case you were getting ready to make a comment about carpetbagging New Yorkers, the tearing-down will be done by the children of today’s proud SUV owners, who won’t be able to afford to live two miles from the nearest supermarket. Even with the wonders of biodiesel.

  12. It sounds as though, back in the mists of antiquity, those 1957-ites had the number of us far futurians: leaded gasoline isn’t that readily available. Enough to tour that primitive, no-longer-legal artifact around a little was indeed thoughtful.

    Motorists now subsidize government. That is why the civil servants who live off that subsidy do not “focus on alternative developments, alternative zoning (to permit businesses and residences to be located closer together)” as ‘dg’ recommends.

    According to an Excel file downloadable from BP, nuclear reactors in 1965 produced as much electricity as would otherwise have required 5.8 million tonnes of oil. They don’t give a number for 1957, but extrapolating the 1965-1970 trend backwards suggests 1 million tonnes.

    Last year, 635.5 million tonnes. There has been a “fantastic paradigm shift”; it’s going on now. They look different from inside.

  13. “Motorists now subsidize government.” How is this true, can you explain more? Do you mean, they pay taxes that go to build roads? What about all of the other costs cars have for the public, what about the crash deaths, air pollution and ruined downtowns… do they pay for that? Maybe I’m missing your point here.

  14. I mean government behaviour largely reflects government employees’ marginal gain of a few tens of dollars for each extra barrel of petroleum sold. The roads have to be maintained whether or not that barrel is sold.

    Crash deaths are paid for by insurance that motorists buy. The more influential government employees tend to live in less air-polluted parts of town. Where there’s muck there’s brass, and there’s also brass elsewhere, in this case.

  15. The mainstream media have treated this as a fluff piece avoiding the obvious and ominous symbolism of the situation. The description of the “palpable disappointment” of the crowd however suggests there is more to this story than meets the eye. I think you really captured it.

    Someone has placed a wreath of yellow roses on the spot where the car was interred. Could it be that we’re at the point where we must recognize that a way of life is dying, or at least transforming?

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