Although it was sold for only seven model years, the life of the Plymouth Duster spans the automotive landscape of the 1970s. The two-door Duster, the fastback flagship of Plymouth’s long-serving, entry-level Valiant line, debuted in the 1970 model year – arguably the peak of the muscle car era. A 275-hp (gross), 340-cubic-inch V-8 propelled top-spec Duster 340s with sufficient gusto, while budget-friendly engine options, ranging from two slant sixes to a 318-cubic-inch V-8, helped put the sporty Plymouth – albeit far less fierce than the Road Runner or the ‘Cuda – in 217,192 driveways that year, making it the brand’s most popular car.
As the ’70s went on, gasoline prices soared and engine outputs plummeted. Even so, the Duster continued to offer V-8 power and muscle car decor such as hood scoops, stripes, and wild colors with names like “sassy grass” and “lemon twist.” Famous drag racers Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen and Mopar’s Sox & Martin duo campaigned Dusters to enhance the model’s image. Graphics packages and other gimmicks (e.g., Duster Twister, Gold Duster, Silver Duster, Space Duster, Decorator Special) also made these coupes stand out at the drive-in.
The Duster continued to pace Plymouth sales each year until its final season, 1976, when it was eclipsed by the similarly sized but brand-new Volaré. By that time, the Duster’s top engine was a 220-hp (net), 360-cubic-inch V-8, but few consumers wanted the top mill anymore. During the U.S. bicentennial year, buyers were much more interested in the Feather Duster package, which featured the base 100-hp slant-six engine, lightweight body panels, and other weight-loss tweaks designed to wring maximum fuel mileage from the 2700-pound vehicle.
Chrysler wasn’t the only manufacturer to offer a fuel-economy special in the years following the 1973 oil embargo, of course. Automakers rushed to slap together fuel-saving versions of existing Me Decade cars. The Feather Duster – and its lean companion from Dodge, the Dart Lite – had a mantra similar to that of other bare-bones, mileage-focused marketing exercises such as Chevrolet‘s Chevette Scooter and Ford‘s Pinto Pony MPG and Mustang II MPG.
Nearly a quarter of all 1976 Dusters were ordered with the $51 Feather package, including Mike Wintgens’s jade green metallic example shown here. When Wintgens bought the needy Duster six years ago, he planned to turn it into a big-block-powered, tarmac-chewing monster, as has been the recipe with countless Dusters. But when he realized its rarity and wallet-friendly appetite, Wintgens decided to preserve the car’s factory-delivered miserliness – which fortunately was fairly easy to do, since none of its feathery parts had been pilfered by Mopar drag racers looking to shave weight. Indeed, Plymouth trimmed nearly 200 pounds from the standard Duster, largely through the use of aluminum in the intake manifold, manual-transmission case, hood, deck lid, and bumper reinforcements.
Even though V-8-powered Dusters can be set up to rival the overall performance of many pony cars of the period, the Feather Duster – despite its low-cal load – isn’t focused on acceleration, braking, or handling. It seems as if dragging your feet on the ground would stop the car more quickly than applying the unassisted four-wheel drum brakes. Luckily, high speeds aren’t readily accessible: the single-barrel Holley carburetor gingerly delivers fuel to the 225-cubic-inch six; the Hurst-shifted four-speed manual requires slow, deliberate movements and a determined stomp on the long-travel clutch; and the wheels are wrapped in squishy Goodyear bias-ply tires and rotated via a tall 2.94:1 axle ratio. Steering feel is an abstract concept, and the beach-ball-sized wheel turns a recirculating-ball setup that isn’t power-assisted.
The featherweight version’s distinct charm lies in cruising in a comfortable, stylish, and relatively affordable American car caught somewhere between muscle car glory days and OPEC malaise – all while getting respectable fuel mileage (Wintgens has averaged 29 mpg on long interstate jaunts).
Respect, unfortunately, isn’t something Dusters often get. Was the car’s credibility crippled by its initial popularity and low price? (“America’s first super-low-price supercar,” touted one commercial in 1970, when the Duster 340 started at an impressive $2547.) Is the negative perception a rub-off from all those Valiants, driven by vast armies of the elderly until the cars rusted into the asphalt, their slant-six engines still purring? It’s tough to pin down the reasons for the Plymouth Duster’s Rodney Dangerfield-like reputation. Perhaps the Duster is just too strongly identified with its era, a dark time in automotive history ruled by rising gas prices and tightening emissions standards. Or maybe, as contributor Ezra Dyer wrote in these pages after driving a 340-powered example in 2006, “The Duster is nothing if not the ultimate underdog – the bottom-of-the-pecking-order performance car from the defunct division of the smallest company of the Big Three.”
So why not love the underdog?
3.2-liter OHV I-6, 95 (net)-125 (gross) hp
3.7-liter OHV I-6,100 (n)-145 (g) hp
5.2-liter OHV V-8, 145 (n)-230 (g) hp
5.6-liter OHV V-8, 235 (n)-275 (g) hp
5.9-liter OHV V-8, 220 (n)-245 (n) hp
3- or 4-speed manual
Suspension, front: Control arms, torsion bars
Suspension, rear: Live axle, leaf springs
Brakes F/R: Vented discs/drums or drums/drums
Weight: 2700-3300 lb
1,324,833 (including 69,115 Duster 340s, 5390 Duster 360s, and about 5900 Feather Dusters)
$5000-$25,000 ($7500-$15,000 for a Feather Duster)
Common enough to be affordable and easy to get parts for – but not so popular that there’s always one parked at the local A&W – Dusters offer attractive styling, a comfortable ride, a large trunk, and spacious rear seats. V-8-powered cars are most desirable, but six-cylinder models are appealing, too, thanks to the slant six’s run-forever reputation. We’d avoid cars with “pro street” modifications such as supercharged big-blocks and tubbed rear wheel wells – even many Mopar people don’t care for such cars.