My Duster for the weekend belongs to David Hakim, product portfolio manager from Mopar's performance division. He just bought it from one of the parts guys at Glendora Dodge in California, and Hakim hasn't even driven it yet. This means I'll have more than three hours between California and Las Vegas to sort out the car's . . . eccentricities. At thirty-four years old and unrestored, the Duster's definitely developed a few issues. The aftermarket gauge cluster under the dash was evidently wired through the taillight circuit, hence the aforementioned blown fuses. The brake lights suffer a similar affliction. Also taking a spell from their labors are the speedometer, the fuel gauge, one of the rear lug nuts (it fell off), and the cigarette lighter.
The lighter is actually the most troubling, because it's going to interfere with my vow to live, to the fullest extent possible, in 1972. The only clothing I've brought along consists of bell-bottoms, polyester shirts, Adidas Superstars, and Dingo boots. I've grown muttonchop sideburns and a truly creepy 'stache. Finally, I have a 294-song playlist on my iPod that consists solely of music released in 1972, lest I hear something newer and thus historically inaccurate on a so-called "classic rock" station. Unfortunately, the iPod broadcasts through an FM transmitter that's powered by the cigarette lighter. And every time I plug in a new fuse, it's blown again in five minutes. I'm getting angry. Seriously, if I can't listen to "Take It Easy" soon, so help me, I'm going to ram my Dingo straight through the stupid, ugly dashboard.
It turns out I needn't have worried about listening to tunes. As soon as I'm up to highway speeds, it's clear that the radio doesn't stand a chance against the maelstrom of noise that assails the white vinyl interior at all times. There's deafening wind noise, windows up or down. There's tire noise, exhaust noise, and high-revving engine noise, thanks to the three-speed automatic with no overdrive. The smallest bump or steering input sends the oversize front tires (wrapped around period-correct Cragar SS mags) grinding up into the ragged wheel wells. Every time that happens, I glance warily at the menacing, metal-spoke Grant GT steering wheel, which, given the lack of proper shoulder belts, is ready for a date with my face should an accident occur. If you've seen Apollo 13, the drive to Vegas is pretty much like the part where they're reentering the atmosphere-but for three hours.
The 340 V-8 is something of an enigma. It's hard to tell if it's making anywhere near itsoriginal 240 horses, because the transmission cracks off full-throttle 1-2 upshifts at roughly 2700 rpm. It revs out in second and third, though, and at higher rpm there's a nice little bump in the powerband. I can imagine that back in 1972, when Watergate was breaking news and Michael Jackson was still black, this thing might've had a satisfying bit of giddyap.
The next day I arrive at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Mopars at the Strip, and I proudly park the Duster next to the Dodge factory tent, only a few feet away from the orange Challenger concept car. As I walk around the show cars and the swap meet that sprawls across the parking lot, I get the sense that there's an underdog mentality among Mopar people. They fight the good fight with their Dodge Chargers and Plymouth Barracudas, able to drive past a Chevrolet Chevelle or a Ford Mustang on the street and know that they've chosen something a little more esoteric. And within the Mopar camp are the evermore specialized subsects: the Hemi guys, the 440 guys, the AMC guys, the funky-stuff-powered-by-Chrysler guys. The latter group would include the owner of a Jensen Interceptor convertible with a 440 under the hood. Jensen Man proudly informs me that only something like negative-five convertibles were made, implying that hardtop Interceptors are nice-if you're into really mainstream stuff.