COAL: Another One Bites the Dust(er)

How could anyone that loves cars not love a Plymouth Duster?

Those of us of a certain age remember them well when they were just cars on the road.  They were the Corollas of the ’70s.  Any shopping center parking lot would have had several of them within its confines, and if you were wandering around that parking lot trying to find your green, brown or tan /6 Duster, chances are when you heard that majestic Chrysler starter, it was bolted to an engine under the hood of a Duster or one of it’s Valiant or Dart A-Body counterparts.

And they did come with the best engines.  The rugged, reliable, economical, and may I say, as car engines go, somewhat loveable, slant 6s and 318s that most of them were born with from the factory had their own personalities, and if you ever had the opportunity to drive one of the factory 340 cars, well then you’d know that not only was it a monster on a drag strip or in a street fight but it was also probably the best balanced performance package car of the muscle era.

Sure, looks are always subjective, but while many may not judge it to be a gorgeous design in the likes of say, a Duesenberg or a Miura, but, for a high-volume, mass-produced vehicle, is there a bad line on it?  They are quite pleasant to look at, aren’t they?  And that little Tasmanian Devil-looking character.  To coin the late, great Bob Ross, you might call them Happy Little Cars.

But they all have a dark side.

Welcome to my next COAL, which is actually the story of 3 Dusters (and a doppelganger Dodge Demon) I have had over the years.

I love Dusters.  While they may have been the Corollas of the day, and no offense to anyone that loves them, but I have never paid any attention to Corollas, and old Corollas aren’t exactly setting the collector car market on fire.  But I love Dusters, and even back in the day, I knew that even a /6 Duster was just an engine swap away from becoming a street beast.

How did I know this when I was in my single digits?

Ive written about how many cheap, used up musclecars there were around my neighborhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s and I made it a point to know them all.  There was a guy in the neighborhood that had swapped some kind hot rodded V8 (Im guessing a small block) into a yellow ’70 or ’71 Duster (I vividly remember the split taillights and how mean they looked) and after he swapped the V8 into it, the exhaust dumped in front of the axle.  It was so loud and fast and obnoxious.  My 7 year old self was euphoric when I saw and heard it.

It was also the same time that Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” was a hit on the radio, so this would have been the summer of 1980.  In the song, there is the reverse guitar effect that reminded me of the sound of that loud yellow Duster when it drove by.  Then a couple of years later, a band that I was already big fan of, The Cars (RIP Ric Ocasek,) released “Heartbeat City” and look what was on the cover…

The late 1970s and early 1980s; great music, great cars, and a great time to be a car kid.

1991 rolled around and I was a senior in high school.  I had my ’77 Grand Prix that I still have (and wrote about it) and the ’80 Firebird that I mangled that year.  I loved (and still do) my Pontiacs but at heart, Mopars are and will always be my first love.  So, after I wrecked the Firebird, I came across an ad for a ’71 Dodge Demon 340 4 speed for $1500.

Yep, that’s what a $1500 musclecar looked like in 1991.  Originally, it was a factory 340/4 speed, FY1 Top Banana yellow with a black interior and stripes and few options.  The seats were all torn up and covered with cheap black fuzzy seat covers.  It was loaded with ’70s leftover performance parts; an old Edelbrock LD340 intake, rusty old headers, an MSD ignition, a ’70s-vintage Sun tach attached to the steering column with a pipe bracket and a Hurst T-Handle shifter.  I never found out how it ended up with grille and hood scoop from a ’72 Dart but it was definitely a ’71.    But by the time I got a hold of it, it was a tired, used up, 20 year old musclecar that was too much for a high school kid; too much power and it needed too much work but I didn’t care, I picked it up on a Saturday morning and that night, took it out cruising on Deer Park Avenue.  Even though it was tired, it had no problem dusting off 5.0 Mustangs one by one.

But that didn’t last long.  Within a couple of weeks, a wheel bearing went bad and I almost lost a wheel; luckily I was in my buddy’s driveway when that happened, the transmission continually bound up and would get stuck in 3rd gear until I actually had to get under the car and wrench the shift rod loose, the rear end howled so loud, it drowned out the stereo, the valves all floated over 3000 rpm, the header collectors were so low that they continually bottomed out and when one of them completely blew out, I noticed that it had been sloppily welded back together several times over the years.   But it was fast, looked cool and it frightened all the rich preppy kids.

Anyway, it lasted maybe 4 months before I sold it.  Hopefully it got the restoration it deserved so if anyone up on Long Island knows of any 340/4 speed Demons that were originally yellow, that was probably my car and I would love to see what became of it.

Onward to 2008.

A green Duster with a Slant 6.  Is there anything more Mopar than that?

In 2008, I got orders to Camp Lejeune, almost 4 hours away from home.  At the time, my drivers were my 2004 and 1996 Ram pickups, my recently resurrected 1977 Grand Prix first car, and my 1968 Coronet R/T.  Obviously, none were mileage masters; the Coronet got all of 11 mpg with its hot rodded 440 Magnum, the ’96 pickup was starting to have transmission issues, and I didn’t want to put all the miles on my late model Ram pickup.

One Saturday morning I was at one of my Mopar buddy’s houses, and he had just picked up this little gem of a Duster from someone he knew at his job-a one owner, 40K mile /6, 3 on the tree 1973 Duster.

And it was green with a green plaid interior.


I was in love.

I told him if he ever wanted to sell it to let me know.  He told me to go to the bank and get $2000 cash.  Well, yeah, of course I did, and I drove the car home.  Even though it had low miles, it had been neglected and it was far from perfect.  The right rear quarter panel was rusty with a huge dent in it, the right front fender was crunched.  Mechanically, it needed a water pump and it had an annoying exhaust leak.  I got it home, fixed the broken exhaust manifold stud and put a new water pump on it (I think the water pump was about $10 at the local Napa.)

The car came from the West Virginia mountains and it had one old lady owner before my buddy’s buddy, who was some kind of relation to her, got a hold of it.  Except for factory undercoating, presumably due to its location, there was not one single option on the car.  For those that know Mopar fender tags, it was blank except for its VIN and sequence numbers and engine, transmission and color codes, which was F3 Sherwood Green with matching green interior.  There was no factory radio but someone did install a 1990’s vintage Kenwood head unit with a couple of speakers when I got it.  By 1973, most Mopar A-bodys came with front disc brakes but this one still had drums at all four corners, plus a foot pump windshield washer, but in 1973, Chrysler went to across-the-board electronic ignitions and this one was so equipped.

What a great car!

After working the bugs out, the Duster became my primary commuter to the base and I put about 30K on it in the 3 years I owned it, which is a lot since I spread my routine driving out among multiple cars.  It routinely got 25 mpg on the road and I remember my personal best was 28 mpg.

This was mainly what my drive looked like on the backroads of VA and NC.  One of my ‘happy places.’

I picked up a set of vintage Keystone Klassics and a Mopar twin snorkel hood scoop to give it a period-correct street machine look.

I had the car for 4 years and the only repairs I made in that time, besides the initial water pump and exhaust, was a faulty brake light switch (which almost caused me to be rear ended by an MRAP,) and a set of universal joints.  The manual steering was slow even by 1970s manual steering standards and the 9″ drum brakes were frighteningly bad; luckily most of my driving was on those rural highways, if I had to drive the car around town with any regularity, a disc brake upgrade would have been a must.  As miserable as that car was to drive, I loved driving it, especially on those low-traffic roads.  Accelerating, turning and stopping were all challenging but cruising at speed was no problem.  Since owning that car, a V8, power steering, and disc brakes are must-haves in my old cars.

The car became well-known on base and I would frequently be greeted by the MPs at the entry guard shacks by name when they would see me approach the gate.  But that wasn’t always a good thing since it was hard to keep a low profile in a pea green 35 year old Duster so trying to leave early on a Friday afternoon was a challenge.

Not long after I bought the car, I was talking with one of my senior enlisted Chiefs, a very squared away and intimidating-looking guy that spent most of his career in marine law enforcement and was a boot camp Company Commander and definitely looked that part; he looked like he had stepped out of a recruiting poster.  He was a few years older than me and was a teenager in the late 1970s and had joined the Coast Guard in 1980.  When he saw the car, his eyes lit up and smiled and said “we used to do a lot of partying in a lot of cars that looked just like that!”

I got the bug to build it.  Normally, I like leaving nice, original cars as nice, original cars but it was banged up pretty good and would need a new fender and quarter panel and a resulting paint job to make it nice so I thought, why not?  Besides, they built hundreds of thousands of /6 A-Bodies and nice, original ones aren’t hard to find if you know where to look.  I found a complete 340, a complete 4 speed, and a bigger rear end, and I wanted to do a lacey ’70s vintage bass boat paint job.

But, like so many of us know, classic car dream builds don’t always become reality.  I never did do the bodywork but I did pick up a used fender for it that went with the car when I sold it.  I finished up my orders in 2011 and went home to VA and sold the car to young guy who wanted a cool vintage car to drive.  I really liked that car and its one of the few that I regret selling, but now I didn’t need a mileage master anymore and stumbled across a real ’71 Duster 340 so now I wouldn’t need to build the green car.

I sold the car, the 340 and the transmission that I had picked up and bought this ’71 in 2012, which had been sitting for a long time.  It was complete, had a non-numbers matching 340, the original 4 speed and a 3.55 Sure Grip rear end and it was a rare color, Winchester Grey.  Other than the passenger side floor board, it was pretty rust-free if I remember correctly.   It was quite the street beast back in the day but it wasn’t running when I got it.  I found the culprit to be a bad starter relay and a tune up and fresh fluids got it running again and it was indeed, a street beast.

I don’t know what the history of the car was but the engine had a very rumpity cam in it but it did have a slight rod knock at idle.  The interior was also beat up pretty bad so, just like my Demon from when I was in high school, the car essentially needed a full restoration.  Here we go again….

Those taillights.

I got the car running and streetable and I put maybe 1000 miles on it in the time that I had it.  Boy, was that a fast car.  I never took it to the track but it outran a late model Camaro SS on the street one night and it was just a blast to drive.  Its smaller than a standard mid-size musclecar so it felt less cumbersome than the ’68 Coronet I had at the time.   It had cherry bomb mufflers and the carpet was ripped out so it was obnoxiously loud and that was OK with me since it fit the car’s personality.

But, just like with the Demon 20 years earlier, it needed more work than I was willing or able to put in to it and I sold it after about a year and from what I’ve heard, its being treated to a full rotisserie restoration, of which it was certainly well-deserving.

Now it’s today.  In the pecking order of my favorite musclecars, 1970-73 Dusters are my close third to ’69 Chargers and ’71 Road Runners as my Greatest Of All Time.  The problem is, Dusters have appreciated in value at a greater rate than my salary and I have seen some very nice, original 340 cars sell for over $50K.

A $55K Duster.  I never would have guessed that day would come.  Now, granted, that’s an exception, not a rule, and that’s a dealer asking a full retail price, but nice, original 340 cars are routinely selling in the $30K range now.  Up until recently, the 340 A-Bodys were the cheap entry point into the Mopar musclecar world and it wasn’t hard to find a good one at a reasonable price.   Remember, these were the Corollas of the ’70s and I remember when $500 would get you decent, running Duster.  Just for grins and giggles, I did a quick internet search for 1970s-vintage Corollas and, well, there just aren’t many out there.  But, the Corolla is still in production and most Dusters are car show poodles now, living mainly in the memories of those that remember them as regular cars, so I guess the Toyota won.

Anyway, I’ve been wanting to get back into a nice Duster for a couple of years now, and by nice, I mean one that does not need a complete restoration and can be driven reliably like a ‘normal’ car.  Sure, I would love a 340 car but they really have become prohibitively expensive.  A 318 car would be great but it seems like most of them have either been converted into 340 clones or poorly hot rodded with questionable workmanship.   No six cylinders; BTDT and sorry Slant 6 fans, but I just don’t love them, and at this stage in my life, I don’t want any projects to convert one to a V8.

As I have since I moved back to the east coast, this past summer, I attended the annual Chryslers at Carlisle megashow and swap meet and I was on the prowl for a 1970-73 Duster.  There were quite a few, and as expected, they were either expensive show cars or rusty basket case projects.

This great looking ’70 340 wasn’t for sale but if it was, I couldn’t afford it anyway.

But then, I came across this little sweetheart:

A 1973 Duster with a 318, original FE5 Rallye Red paint, disc brakes, a factory sunroof and 61K original miles, and as a bonus, it had all of its original dealer paperwork.

It also had an affordable price tag.

I was miserable and sick for the show, having come down with a virus that kept me down for most of the summer, but this little red Duster instantly made me happy.  The owner and I talked and I made him an offer on the car.  He declined, as it was well below his asking price and understandably, was hoping to get more at the show, but we exchanged information and I told him if the car didn’t sell at the show that my offer would stand.

He contacted me about a month after the show ended and asked me if I still wanted the car.  I said absolutely!  I sent him a check and made arrangements to have the car shipped as he was about 500 miles away on the West Virginia/Ohio border and I just didn’t have the time to go out and pick it up anytime soon.

If you read my COALs, you’ll remember that I bought my ’69 Charger in exactly the same way.

The car was delivered on the day before Hurricane Dorian was supposed to hit us head on, but when it took a last minute turn after hitting the Outer Banks head-on, it almost missed us completely and all we had was some wind, rain and a high tide for a few days.   But, since I live in a flood-prone area, I made sure to keep the car on high ground anyway, just in case.

I got all of the original dealer paperwork with the car including the bill of sale and window sticker, plus it had the assembly line build sheet and fender tag, verifying the options and build date.  I’m not sure of the progression of ownership between the original owner and the gentleman I purchased it from, but it appears to be a two owner car;  I need to call the guy back and get the ownership history.  But I do know that the car was sold new in Beckley, WV, which is not far from the VA border in the Shenandoah Valley.  Gorgeous country out that way but they do salt the roads in the winter and thankfully this car seems to have been spared; it must have been garaged its whole life and certainly, it appears to have been loved, as it will be under my ownership as well.

The car is not perfect and I don’t want it to be; although its a nice survivor, its not going to be a pampered show poodle under my watch; cars are self-lubricating machines that need to be driven and I will expect it to serve first and foremost as a car to do car things, just like the others.  Relax, relax;  it wont come out in the rain or snow and it will be garaged.

In my daily-driven classics, I require disc brakes (check,) an electronic ignition (check,) a decent stereo, (check-its a late 1970s-vintage Radio Shack cassette deck receiver that still works great) and working air conditioning, if so equipped (not applicable but it does have that nice big hole in the roof).

Mechanically, the car is sound.  The 318 starts right away and idles smooth and quiet.  I’ve never driven an A-Body with a 318 in it, only 340s and /6s, and its quite fun to drive.  Its not as brutally fast as a 340 but its not too far behind; I would guess the car is capable of a 15 second quarter mile and I don’t have an obnoxiously rumpity camshaft to deal with in traffic.  It drives nice and straight, there are no odd behaviors or noises and its just an overall nice car to drive.

You can see the original paint is still in good shape and the original tape stripes show just the right amount of patina to match the parking lot dings here and there.  The original dealer tag is on the tail panel.  There are only a few tears in the black bench seat but otherwise the interior is in great shape as well.   Like I said, this car has been loved.

I had to lose the factory hubcaps.  I know this is CC and its generally frowned upon here, but they remind me of all the grandma brown Valiant sedans from back in the day, however, they will live as garage art.  I had a set of ’70s Appliance slotted mags on good tires in my garage that look oh-so-perfect on the Duster, completely giving it the straight-out-of 1975 vibe.  It even still has a “CBers Do It Better” and Montgomery Ward owners club bumper stickers.

I put about 200 miles on it since I got it.  The weather has been absolutely perfect the last couple of weeks here; sunny and in the low 80s.  I was sitting at a red light the other day all the windows and sunroof were wide open, and “Baker Street” was on the radio.  The older guy next to me in the late model Silverado, also with open windows, looks over and says to me “that’s the right car with the right wheels and the right song!”

So, that made the Chevy guy happy, that made me happy and, at 46 years old, the Duster is still a happy little car.

Until next time, Enjoy The Drive.