Car of the Week: 1970 Plymouth Duster

Two Dusters in two different decades for this owner. Forty years couldn't erase the memory of man's first MoPar.
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Car of the Week 2020
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In hindsight, the Plymouth Duster 340 was one of those cars that probably deserved a better fate. The premise of the car seemed rock solid: offer an affordable alternative to flashier and more beastly muscle cars, but make it reasonably practical as an everyday driver and give it performance to run with the big boys.

The Duster 340 was all that and more, and it had two good years right out of the box. But in the end, the Duster 340 was a bundle of good ideas that came just a bit late in the life cycle of the American muscle car. The feisty Plymouth was a solid hit in late 1969 when it debuted for the 1970 model year, and came back with a strong sophomore season as well. But times were-a-changin’ for muscle cars in the early ‘70s and before long — six years to be exact — the Duster had joined a long list of other memorable pavement pounders that fell victim to oil embargos, rising insurance rates, tighter safety regulations and the evolving needs of American car buyers.

The original Duster that started it all for Terry Richard circa 1970

The original Duster that started it all for Terry Richard circa 1970

Not everybody remembers the Duster 340 these days, but Terry Richard certainly does. The Stansbury Park, Utah, resident bought a new one right out of high school back in 1970 and fell in love. Some 44 years later, he decided he had to have another one and relive those good times.

The second time, however, he went out looking for a Duster 340. The first time, he wound up with one sort of by default.

“The first one that I bought new, I didn’t actually want that car,” he laughs. “ I had a bunch of old Chevys and I got tired of working on them, so this was my very first new car. I had never had a new car up to that point. So I went to the Plymouth dealer and I actually wanted a Road Runner. Back in 1969 that was the Motor Trend ‘Car of the Year’ and I really liked the Road Runner, but that car was so popular even in ’70 that the dealer had none of them on the lot.

“There were two cars sitting side-by-side on the lot. He had a 340 Duster — it was a Valiant, but it was brand new. They changed the body style and everything…. And he was trying to sell a Cuda that was sitting right beside it, but it was like $3,000 more. And I said, ‘I can’t afford that.’ You look back now and think, boy, only $3,000! [laughs]. But I told him, ‘Nah, I’m only making $2-something an hour, there is no way I could afford that.’ So long story short, I took the Duster for a ride and went around the block. I wanted a stick shift, which it was. I didn’t want an automatic. And I ended up buying it.”

Richard had the car for a few years, but wound up having to sell it after his pregnant wife Gaylene gave him an ultimatum: sell the Duster 340, or sell the 1957 Chevy pickup he was working on. He tried to convince her to keep the Duster and drive it herself, but she wasn’t digging the four-speed manual transmission — not to mention no power steering or power brakes.

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“So I ended up selling the Duster and getting her a ’71 Chevy Monte Carlo with a big-block in and it was all loaded up with power steering and everything. And I really liked the truck so I ended up selling the Duster. Later I knew that was a mistake. It had less than 30,000 miles on it … I sold it to a guy at work. He was a Marine, so I wondered if that car would wind up getting wrapped around a tree! That car could get away from you real quick, especially if you hit a little water. You step on the gas and that back end would come around and do a 360 real quick.”

Fast-forward 40 years or so, and Smith became a retiree with an itch to revisit his Duster days. He could have opted for a muscle car that was a little easier to find, but he had his heart set on a Plymouth similar to his first new car. “I’ve owned so many cars over the years you wouldn’t believe it, and I’ve restored cars myself. But for some reason I started thinking about the Duster. You know, I go to all these car shows and I never see them. What happened to all of them?’ … You just don’t see any around. I was thinking I’d like to get another Duster 340, if I could find one. So I looked and looked and looked, and thought, ‘Oh man, what happened to all these cars?’ They were either in a junkyard or got wrecked. I couldn’t find one.”

Richard kept looking, however, and eventually a promising example turned up in Topeka, Kan. It was a long way from Southern California, where Richard lived at the time, but he received enough convincing from the car’s owner that he sent the seller a check as a deposit to hold the car, then showed up with Gaylene a short time later to inspect it in person.

“I liked the car and I didn’t try to talk him down or nothin’ I had it shipped to California and I still have the car sitting out her in my garage,” he says.

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There were a few differences between Richard’s first and second Dusters. His original one was painted blue, had bucket seats and was brand new from the factory. His second was one red, had a bench seat and was 44 years old. But the red one had been nicely restored, and Richard was tickled at his purchase.

“It’s funny, but when I went out to Kansas and got the car, I hadn’t driven a stick in so many years. All my cars during that time were all automatics. That was weird. I did buy a new Mazda pickup a while back that was a stick, but there is a big difference between a pickup and an old muscle car! I had to get used to that 4-speed plus the car had no power steering, no power brakes, no nothing. And my original one was the same way. It was just a bar-bones muscle car with no extras. So I’m driving it around thinking, ‘I wonder if I can get used to this?’ I’m trying to turn the steering wheel … and it was weird. But I liked the car anyway and so I bought it. And since I’ve owned it I’ve gotten used to it, but driving it is a little bit of a challenge when you are used to all the luxury stuff."

“Boy, when I got it, it brought back a lot of memories. I bought my other car new in 1970 and the next year I got married, so my wife knew that car too. We drove everywhere in that car.”

THE DUSTER BLOWS IN

New for 1970, the Duster was a derivative of Plymouth’s Valiant compact. Both cars were built on the same platform and shared the same front end sheet metal, but they were different from the cowl back. The Duster came only as a two-door sedan or coupe. Prices for the new model started at $2,172. It cost $11 to add a V-8, but the high-performance 340-cid engine brought the base price up by $375.

Plymouth certainly didn’t anticipate the public’s response to the redesigned compact. Valiant production increased from 107,218 in 1969 to 268,002 in 1970. Of that number, most of the cars that sold were Duster models. The regular Valiant Duster found 192,375 buyers, while the Duster 340 appealed to 24,817 customers. The Duster 340 had a distinct role to fill in Plymouth’s “Rapid Transit System” — it was the entry-level muscle car for young enthusiasts.

A look a the Duster's popular 340

A look a the Duster's popular 340

The Duster replaced the rather staid two-door sedan in the Valiant lineup. Its body styling was characterized by a contemporary look, with bulging lines from the firewall back. This was known as the “Coke bottle” shape, of course. The same 108-inch wheelbase unitized chassis was used for both models and both were 188.4 inches long. Standard V-8 for these cars was the 318-cid V-8. The Duster 340 weighed 3,110 lbs. — considerably more than the 2,865-lb. Duster with a 318-cid V-8.

Doing for compact cars what the Road Runner did for mid-sized cars, the Duster 340 was the low-priced performance machine. It came standard with a 340-cid/275-hp V-8 that had been used in Plymouths since 1968. It again had a 4.04 x 3.31-inch bore and stroke. The five-main-bearings engine had hydraulic valve lifters, a 10.5:1 compression ratio and a Carter Type AVS four-barrel carburetor. The engine produced 275 hp at 1500 rpm. More goodies included a three-speed manual gear box with a floor-mounted shifter, a heavy-duty suspension, E70 x 14 fiberglass belted tires, styled steel wheels, body striping and the obligatory cartoon character—in this case a friendly dust devil.

The Duster 340’s bottom-line base price was only $2,547. Front bucket seats and other dress-up items were optional, ala Road Runner. A total of 24,817 of the growling little Plymouths were built for ’70 — two of which have wound up in Richard’s possession.

Car Life tested an automatic-equipped Duster 340 and found that it could go from 0-to-60 mph in only 6.2 seconds and concluded that it was a great buy. The buying public felt the same, which made the Duster a success in general and the 340 version a particular hit.

A NOMADIC PLYMOUTH

Richard is a little incredulous when he starts recalling the many different ownership chapters his cool red 340 has survived over the years. It’s a really nice car that couldn’t seem to find a stable home.

“The guy I bought it from gave me a folder full of all kinds of paperwork that he got when he got it. It’s been registered in at least six states, and most of the people who had the car never drove it,” he pointed out. “They were like collectors. Even the guy I bought it from in Kansas, he had it for two years and put less than 300 miles on it.

“I tried to contact these people and one guy I got ahold of in California who had it the longest amount of time — the car was actually manufactured in California in LA in June of 1970 and he bough ti about 12 years later and I don’t know who the original owner was. But the second guy lived in Petaluma, Calif. … and I talked to him about the car, and his friend said he had seen [it] on a used car lot and it was painted purple. He went and looked at it and he opened up under the hood and it was orange under the hood!… It was a real Earl Scheib paint job — they didn’t even paint under the hood!”

This Duster crossed the block not once, but twice under Barrett-Jackson's hammer.

This Duster crossed the block not once, but twice under Barrett-Jackson's hammer.

The car had crossed the Barrett-Jackson auction block in Scottsdale not once, but twice. Richard has a photo of the car from one of those sales. He has actually considered selling the car himself in the past seven years, but said he quickly came to his senses. “I’m going hang onto the car. I was actually thinking about selling it because I wanted to get a tri-five Chevy,” Richard admitted. “But then all my friends said, ‘Hey, you know all those shows you go to, how many do you see? And how many tri-five Chevys do you see?’ And they had a valid point!

“I think all the previous owners, they wound up buying it through auctions or whatever, and they just had it in their collections and never drove it. Nobody ever really enjoyed the car, except for me.”

Aside from replacing the windshield, which had been scratched by a windshield wiper, Richard says he has had to do little in the way of maintenance and repairs to his Duster. He added a few reproduction decals that the restorer didn’t apply for some reason, and did a little bit of carburetor work. The original numbers-matching engine is still in place, and Richard says he simply can’t find much to upgrade.

“I replaced the seatbelts,” he noted. “I found some originals on eBay, so I put them in … Everything is pretty much standard equipment. The motor clamps, hoses, everything is just like knew. I could be missing something, but I don’t think so. My original car had bucket seats. It was sitting on a lot, so that’s what I bought. This one has a bench seat and that’s the way it came from the factory. Even the AM radio — you really can’t get any stations an more on AM radio, but that’s the way it came.”

“The car is a 50-year-old car, so it drives like a 50-year-old car. Unless you drive one of these old cars, you don’t realize what a harsh ride it is. Plus the tires are Cokers that are exactly the same tire that would have came on it in 1970. Just fiberglass belted tires, so it’s not really a smooth ride, but the power that thing has! The car is a fun car to drive. I really like it and it brings back a lot of memories, and the stick shift is just, you know, just so much fun. I love it.”

New day and a new Duster

New day and a new Duster

Rowing gears is a pleasure in this MoPar

Rowing gears is a pleasure in this MoPar

This Duster has acquired it fair share of admirers.

This Duster has acquired it fair share of admirers.

Like many cars of this era, the Duster's interior is all business.

Like many cars of this era, the Duster's interior is all business.

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