Las Vegas obliterates your perception of nuance. When your eyeballs are bombarded with the constant distraction of wall-to-wall neon lights, dancing fountains, a fake Eiffel Tower, random Elvises, albino tigers, pirate-themed burlesque revues, and a general street scene that makes the Bacchanalia look like a PTA meeting, only the strongest stimuli register on the visual cortex. In Vegas, you might not notice an orangutan dressed as Bette Midler unless he was roof surfing atop a Ferrari Enzo and shooting Roman candles into passing vehicles. Thus, I recognize that it's no minor achievement when the valet at Mandalay Bay passes his gaze over the row of exotic machines lined up at the door and settles on my ride. I've been acknowledged. "Hey you," he says. "You can't work on that thing here! Move it!"
"That thing" is a faded, Petty blue 1972 Plymouth Duster 340, this particular example of which features a chronically overloaded taillight circuit. The Duster's taillamps have quit on me five times so far tonight, and I pulled in to Mandalay Bay for a bit of ambient light while I crawled under the dashboard to wrestle with yet another new fuse. The Duster, its dented glory parked directly in front of the lobby, my head under the dash and legs splayed out the driver's-side door, is making the Mandalay Bay people understandably irate. I imagine, in a security room somewhere deep inside the building, an alarm went off when I pulled in the driveway. "Sir, we have a Code Blue-a Level Seven Incongruently Crappy Car! There's a Plymouth Duster in the valet area. I'm sending a team right away before any guests become offended or start experiencing a sudden urge to listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd."
With a shower of sparks from the fuse block, the taillights come alive again, and I gun it back down to the Strip with all systems temporarily go. My business is kicking ass and changing fuses, and I'm almost out of fuses.
I picked up this car the day before in Los Angeles. My mission: drive to Mopars at the Strip-an all-Mopar extravaganza in Vegas-to spend the weekend living in 1972 and figuring out why Plymouth's compact is the redheaded stepchild of the muscle car era. Consider this: More than 1.3 million Plymouth Valiant-based Dusters were built, yet in the past eighteen years only seven Dusters have sold at the Barrett-Jackson auctions, which are widely considered the leading bellwether of the American collector-car market. Whither the Duster in the modern muscle car resurgence?
Part of the Duster's problem was its timing. It debuted in 1970, when muscle car makers were already feeling the debilitating effects of emissions controls and rising insurance rates. Big-block engines didn't fit under this gussied-up Valiant's hood. Revised horsepower ratings reduced the flagship small-block, 340-cubic-inch V-8 from 275 (gross) to 240 (net) hp. Although it was capable of 0-to-60-mph acceleration in the sixes, the Duster was the guy who showed up at the party with a pack of wine coolers just as the cops were hauling off the keg.
Its bargain-basement price also meant that the Duster would never be an aspirational item in the vein of, say, a big-block Dodge Challenger. That's probably a big part of the reason why the Duster name is now associated with sweatpants, public assistance, instant lottery tickets, Velcro shoes, loitering, Milwaukee's Best, double-wides, mullets, and the musical stylings of Eddie Money. What does it say about the Duster that DaimlerChrysler mocks it in its own TV commercials? (The sad-sack, Hemi-coveting rednecks in the Dodge ads drive a white Duster.) O'Bannion, Ben Affleck's freshman-paddling jock in Dazed and Confused, drove a primer-gray Duster. A number of The Simpsons buffs contend that Homer drove a Duster in a season-two episode. Al Bundy's "Dodge" on Married . . . With Children was actually a Duster. Todd, the bully on Beavis and Butthead, was prone to peeling out in his Duster. Happy Gilmore drove a Gold Duster. I don't think Randy Quaid ever drove a Duster, but he flew a crop duster in Independence Day.