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.
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.
Back at the Mopar gang’s trailer, I’m introduced to a guy named Steve who asks how the Duster’s running. I tell him that it kept blowing the fuse for the taillights, but I fixed it by replacing the 20-amp fuse with a nice, hefty 35-amp. This doesn’t seem to go over well. I learn later that this Steve is Steve Strope-perfectionist muscle car restorer, proprietor of Pure Vision Design, and builder of one well-known 1971 Duster known as the Dust’Ya. This is the kind of guy who, if his car kept blowing fuses, would isolate the short circuit in the system, fix it, and then do a frame-off restoration just to be on the safe side.
Later in the afternoon, I get behind the wheel of a non-Duster for the only time all weekend when I make a pass down the drag strip in a new Charger SRT8 that’s fitted with a Mopar Performance intake and exhaust. As I pull to the line in the Charger, the announcer says, “In the left lane, driving the Charger SRT8, is Ezra Dyer . . . She’s a writer for Automobile Magazine.” Maybe my sideburns didn’t grow in as thick as I thought. I do a gratuitous burnout (Goodyear Eagles know no fury like a woman scorned), then click off a 13.8-second quarter mile at 102 mph. I feel bad for the Duster. At this point, 13.8 seconds is more like its 0-to-60-mph time.
You can’t complete a road trip to Vegas without cruising the Strip, so the next night I turn onto Las Vegas Boulevard in front of the MGM Grand. As I inch my way past the Aladdin, I confirm an unlikely sentiment I first noticed back at the Speedway: lots of people love the Duster. Yesterday, two different guys offered to buy it. On the Strip, everyone casts at least a bemused glance in the Duster’s direction. One guy hanging out the window of a Toyota Camry exclaims excitedly to his friends, “Look, a Duster!” as if he’d just spotted a Lamborghini. This is definitely not the response that I’d expected a battered, thirty-four-year-old, pedestrian Plymouth to elicit.
I think the Duster’s appeal gets back to the urge to root for the underdog, and 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. It’s antipretentious, and people seem to respond to that.
It’s also stalling. While the 340 hasn’t overheated or burned an ounce of oil all weekend-and the air-conditioning has worked flawlessly-after about twenty minutes of idling and crawling forward on the Strip, the engine starts misfiring and stumbling. I need to get out of this traffic. I bang a right on Flamingo and somehow find my way to the ultraswank new Wynn hotel, where I park in front of the Cartier store and toss the keys to a confused-looking valet. It’s time the Duster and I parted ways. I’m getting back into my time machine and returning to 2006. I’m ready to check e-mail and wear normal clothes and listen to whichever radio station I want. I’m ready to shave my sideburns and drive cars with fuel injection and six-speed transmissions and three-point seatbelts. I’m so ready to go to Starbucks that I can almost taste the white-chocolate mocha frappuccino already.
It turns out that I view the ’70s the same way I look at Las Vegas itself: a fun place to visit, but I’m glad I don’t live there.