With Father’s Day 2015 finally here, I think about my late father and my formative years growing up in Flint, Michigan in the 1970’s and 80’s. My dad passed away six years ago, but only positive associations remain of the stoic, Liberian expatriate professor who helped raise his three sons in this flavor-rich, historically working class city with his wife, a German-Irish American farm girl from northwestern Ohio. The subject car pictured above, photographed at the annual Back to the Bricks car festival, is the inaugural-year 1970 Plymouth Valiant Duster. My dad’s yellow, 1971 Plymouth Duster looked much like it.
Dad’s Duster was the first car I learned to associate with him, and it was like him in many ways. It was probably clear to most observers that neither the Duster, with its decidedly ChryCo shape, nor my father, with his thick accent, originated from these parts. Flint was a very General Motors-centric town, and had a lot of corporate pride in the company that was founded here in 1908, in a brick building (the Durant-Dort Carriage “Factory One”) located less than a mile from where the above photo was taken. When I was growing up, most cars I’d see on the street were GM cars, with a decidedly smaller percentage of Ford and Chrysler products (and with an even smaller percentage of imports and AMCs).
Dad taught Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus downtown, and on a few lucky days when I was in elementary school, I got to go to work with him. He shared a suite of offices with several other professors, and they all shared one secretary. There would be glazed doughnuts at the secretary’s desk, and there was a pinball machine (!) in one corner. The spiral exit ramp pictured below has since been removed from the parking garage structure, but I remember the fun, dizzying sensation of being buckled in and sitting low on the front passenger’s seat while Dad looped us around. (This ramp seemed much bigger back then.)
Dad’s Duster was bright yellow with black tape stripes on the sides, the cartoon “dust cloud” decals on the front fenders and rear panel, and also a blackout treatment on the rear as also offered on the “Twister” option package. The interior was black vinyl, and there was no AC. It likely had the base 198 CID Slant Six (given my parents’ frugality), and it had three-on-the-tree. When I think about it, this car was about as perfect as a bargain basement, strippo-special ever got, with lots of visual appeal and probably really good gas mileage for its day.
The Duster had a basic, likeable, honest, durable quality about it that was missing from our ’77 Volaré that Mom drove, with the latter car probably spending more time at (now-defunct) Chinonis Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge on Clio Rd. in one month than the Duster spent during its entire decade with our family. The Duster seemed as reliable as my dad was punctual.
I used to be on the lookout for cars like the ones our family had, and I remember not seeing a lot of the original-style 1970 or ’71 Dusters in the area by the early 80’s. Sadly, I can’t find any full shots of our Duster, but I did find a commercial on YouTube that features a dead ringer for our Duster, down to the “saltshaker” wheel covers:
I remember myriad sensory things about that car. The way the black vinyl seats scorched the backs of my legs in the summer, and the way it felt to trace my fingers along the vertically embossed vinyl. The whooshing sound made by sliding the horizontal dashboard vent control. The nasal whine of the Slant Six. How hard I had to thumb-press the AM radio pushbuttons. The distinctive, dusty smell of the interior, which was likely a combination of whatever material Chrysler was stuffing the seats with and baking vinyl. One of my favorite interior touches was that the rear quarter windows could be flipped outward, and I remember the feel and tension of those metal controls. (My brothers and I would fight over who would get the window seats back there.)
I’ll close with the only image I could find of the car, a sliver of which you can see at the far left of frame. This would have been from summer ’82 when I was 7 (and the car was 11), at a time when it was okay to ride your bike on the sidewalk with no shirt, helmet, or knee pads. (“Look, Ma…no hands!”) So here’s a tribute to my pop and one of my favorite cars that anyone in my family ever owned.
The subject car is as photographed August 2010, downtown Flint.
The now-demolished U of M parking garage exit ramp is as photographed July 2009, also downtown Flint.
The bottom photo was taken in front of our driveway in the East Village neighborhood of Flint, summer 1982. We sold the Duster the spring after this photo was taken for $300 to a guy in his twenties who seemed thrilled with his purchase. (You just know a 340 ended up under the hood.)