(first posted 3/28/2011) You know those anti-meth ads, which graphically show the physiological effects of speed—lots of bad skin and rotten teeth? Well, this car is the automotive equivalent of the tweaker. I found it sitting forlorn among the dust bins in a dirty alley, complete with lumpy, flaking yellow skin, bald tires revealing their cords, and exuding the smell of cold, stale tobacco. And desperately awaiting its next hit of cheap crank. The Duster 340 is the speed freak incarnate.
Recently, I spelled out my Curbside Classic check list. Here’s the fail list: perfectly restored Duster 340s and all the other vintage cars, rods and exotics tucked away in their cozy garages only to come out on warm Sundays. There’s plenty of places to see them in the flesh, in print, and on the web. I’m looking for unvarnished street-side authenticity. And this Duster is dripping with it.
No polished Cragar S/S’s with big fat rubber here. Just two pairs of mismatched el-cheapo Pep Boys wheels and original-sized threadbare shoes. And check out that interior: all business (and butts). I wouldn’t want to meet this tough customer in a dark and dusty alley—oh, wait, I just did.
And not for the first time either. My traumatic stress-inducing encounter was in a purple-colored doppelganger of this car including a bald tire (right rear in this case, couldn’t help but miss it as I walked up to the passenger side door)). Once again, a hitchhiking story or, rather, nightmare. Heading to Baltimore to visit the folks, I got picked up by a crazed-looking human counterpart to our featured Duster, right down to the yellowish tint to his skin. There wasn’t much doubt in my mind about the role amphetamines were playing in his metabolic processes.
He drove like an utter maniac (it was probably the most terrifying ride ever). I couldn’t relax enough to enjoy the 340’s heavy-metal glass-pack shorty-pipe solo. At nothing less than 95, the trip from Hagerstown to the Beltway was at least mercifully quick. I’m sure we exposed one more layer of polyester cord on his baldest tire. Good thing it wasn’t the last.
In every way possible, it was the polar opposite of my earlier hitch-hiking ride , a slow and steady chuff through swirling snow in a 1951 Plymouth Cranbrook. But then, the Duster 340 was the yang to the Cranbrook’s yin. Exactly what Plymouth needed in 1970.
When the ChryCo big-wigs decided to split the Barracuda from the Valiant A-body for 1970, it created both a legend (in the ’cuda) and a problem (for the Valiant). Through 1969, the mini-Marlin had been the sporty Valiant variant. Now, Plymouth was looking at a 1970 compact line-up of nothing but boxy sedans—Cranbrooks reincarnated. And right during the nexus of the youth and performance-oriented sixties-seventies carmonic convergence.
Something had to be done and quickly as well as cheaply. And so it was. Out of new-car development dust (a mere fifteen million bucks and six weeks from sketches to tooling) the Duster was created. Obviously, it rode on Valiant underpinnings and shared its front end sheet metal. But the transformation from the boxy donor to the bumble-bee shaped Duster was a neat trick, especially that first application ever of 45-inch radius curved side glass. It put your head mighty close to the window, but then Duster 340 drivers were more likely to be wearing mullets than fedoras.
The Duster was an instant hit: almost a quarter million sold in 1970 alone. How’s that for ROI? Thanks to the little tornado that could, Plymouth reclaimed the number three sales spot in 1971 and 1974. The Duster really was the anti-Cranbrook (and the anti-Claybrook), if not the exactly the Demon himself; that would be Dodge’s badge-engineered Duster equivalent. As usual, Dodge muscled into Plymouth’s action—when it had any.
Speaking of muscle, the 340 had more than plenty. Advertised at an insurance-friendly 275 horsepower (in 1970), the informed-user consensus had it pegged at more like 325+. Maximum revs: 6,000. Weight: 3110 lb. Good to go for a six second zero to sixty, and the quarter mile in 13 something @ 100+ mph. That’s with the pathetic bald little tires of time. Good enough, too, to dust 350 Novas and Camaros all day long. It would take a hemi ’cuda or a healthy 427 Chevy to make the pesky twister eat dust.
Compared to that kind of big-block metal, the Duster 340 was a steal: $2547; that’ll buy you an Aveo in today’s dollars. It was the best dollar to performance equation in the land. Fast fun was dirt cheap in 1970!
But the fun wouldn’t last. Although plain-Jane Dusters stayed hugely popular right to the end, the 340 had its best year in 1970, with over 25,000 sold. It morphed into the de-smogged Duster 360, and by 1975, a mere 1400 were sold. The vortex had dissipated, but not before it became a legend—or a living relic—like this one.