Curbside Classic: 1974 Plymouth Gold Duster – There’s Gold In Them Thar’ Hips

(first posted 10/5/2012)      The two smartest things Chrysler did in the late sixties and early seventies: One: Hang on to the A-Body compacts, seemingly forever. Two: Give that line of rolling refrigerators some new pizazz with the Duster. In lieu of these, Chrysler’s 1980 brush with death undoubtedly would have come much sooner.

The Valiant and Dart had their last (and final) re-do in 1967, resulting in the first line of cars known more for their appliance-like qualities than style. And Plymouth didn’t shy away from that association: here’s the (now) rare 1968 Valiant Whirlpool edition, available in white, avacado or harvest gold. No ice maker, though.

The ’67 – ’69 Barracuda came in three body styles, including this svelte coupe, which could rightfully be considered a sporty Valiant coupe, given that’s what it essentially was (the upright windshield being the give-away, as if one was needed).  And no, the mod top wasn’t available on the Whirlpool. But for 1970, the Barracuda would morph into a whole different kettle of fish, leaving a bit of a hole in the A-Body line-up.

John Herlitz, who would later become Director of Chrysler Design, conveniently joined Chrysler after a short stint at GM, where he had seen the development of the ’68 GTO. That design continued on a theme started with the ’66 Olds Toronado, integrating its C-Pillar seamlessly between the lower body and the roof.

So how to do that with the Valiant body (or Dart, in the case of this picture), which had a very old-school “ledge” or character line that ran down the side, making the roof structure look like it was a slightly smaller box set on top of a bigger box.

Lots of clay; that’s how. Bulge out those hips, as if there were some giant drag slicks under them. As is clearly not the case with this one; but it did endear itself with the Big Wheel crowd. Well, that and lean back the windshield, and give it the most radically-curved side glass to date on a production car. Tricky, for the times, but Chrysler engineers were good at solving problems.

But a wider rear track sure would have helped. This one shows off the empty space under its hip-augmentation even more painfully.

Here we go; I knew I had a version with the right rear wheels somewhere in my files. And all of them are ’74s? Jeez, how many Dusters have I shot by now?

This was my first, a ’72, and one of the legendary 340s. A real speed freak, and my CC on it emphasized that aspect.

As well as the two layers of cord showing in the front tire. It was the best performance value for the buck at the time, by a good margin. Having done it justice (hopefully), we’ll stick to the Duster’s other qualities in this CC.

Like luxury. Presumably, that’s what the Gold Duster package was, at least for its time. It arrived mid-year in the 1970 model year, still a bit before the Great Broughamification of the compact class. That would come soon enough…

In early seventies parlance, a Gold Duster meant this, as shown: hardly loose-pillow velour and fake wood trim. Don’t ask what the basic Duster’s seats looked like; undoubtedly like the black taxi-cab seats in my Dad’s ’68 stripper Dart. Let’s just say they didn’t show it in the brochure.

The Plymouth marketing gurus got a bit carried away with the xxxDuster approach. A fold-down rear seat option was called the Space Duster Pak. Maybe they were using a bit too much dust themselves. But that was hardly the end of it.

In the Duster’s final year (1976), a Silver Duster also made the line-up. Love how that red accent band on its sides dips back up at the rear; classy.

But the Feather Duster has them all beat. In response to the energy crisis and the growing inroads of imports, the Plymouth engineers decided to show everyone what an economy-optimized American compact was capable of. Some 180 lbs were shed by using aluminum in certain body parts.

The 225 cubic inch (3.7 L) slant six got a smaller carb, a different advance curve in its distributor, a bigger exhaust for less back pressure, and a 2.8:1 rear axle. With the four-speed overdrive manual, it scored an EPA rating of 24/36. Pretty impressive, although those were the old un-adjusted EPA numbers. Maybe about 20/30 in today’s EPA numbers, or a tad less. Getting 25 mpg in a semi-decent-sized American car during the seventies was not exactly common.

The 198 inch slant six was standard for all Dusters through 1974, except the 340/360 versions. It used the raised block of the 225 inch version (which was optional), but had a shorter stroke. It was rated at 100hp, vs 110 for the 225. And the 318 was of course optional.

The Duster spun gold for Plymouth, with sales on a powerful upward trajectory, culminating in almost 300k units sold in 1974 (explains why I’ve encountered so many ’74s).  But then Duster sales dropped like a gold ingot in ’75 and ’76, as folks were ready for something newer, or Japanese. The typical A-Body buyer undoubtedly found Toyota to be a logical next step in utility, simplicity and ruggedness, especially considering that Chrysler’s replacement for them was the ill-fated Volare/Aspen twins.

Solid gold, these cars were, until the hips played out. And it’ll probably be quite a while before these have all turned to dust again.