Fact is, old trucks were almost always well-used — and hard. It’s usually the same story for their sport-utility-vehicle derivatives, even if an older SUV’s life of camping and hunting and people hauling is somewhat less harsh. That means finding a old truck or SUV in unrestored-original condition today is like striking gold.
Weylin Johnson’s 1976 Plymouth Trail Duster Sport is one of those gold nuggets.
“The Trail Duster has never been out of the state of Colorado,” Johnson said. “My next-door neighbor, Bob Stoody, bought it new at Sankey Motor Company in Delta, Colorado, and to be honest with you, I don’t think he ever drove it out of the county. It has original paint, interior looks like it’s never been used and still has the factory tires on it.”
And as if such a well-preserved 1970s SUV isn’t rare enough, when is the last time you saw Plymouth’s version?
In 1974, Jim Dunne, Detroit editor for Popular Science magazine, covered this new entry in the sport-utility market.
“Plymouth will introduce the Trail Duster four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle this month, marking the first time a Plymouth nameplate has graced something other than a passenger sedan. The Trail Duster — code named the ‘Rhino’ during development — is patterned after the Chevrolet Blazer and offers full-time 4-wheel drive, a chassis developed from the Dodge pickup, and a complete line of creature comfort options. The Trail Duster is a companion model to Dodge’s new Ramcharger. Except for trim items, the vehicles are identical. The addition of two Chrysler products brings to 10 the number of models in the sport utility market. Each of the Big Three manufactures has an entry.”
Only 10 sport utility vehicles in the market? Remember those days? And for the record, the Trail Duster was not “the first time a Plymouth graced something other than a passenger car.” From 1937-1941 Chrysler Corp. produced a Plymouth pickup truck, but as they say, that’s another story for another time.
Introducing the Trail Duster
Plymouth sold the Trail Duster from 1974 to 1981. As a companion to the longer-lived Dodge Ramcharger, it was based on a shortened-wheelbase version of the Dodge D-Series/Ram pickup truck chassis. Built only as a two-door SUV, most Trail Dusters were four-wheel drive but a two-wheel-drive version was also built later. Engines that could be installed in Trail Dusters during the model’s short life included the 225-cid Slant Six plus 318-, 360- and 400-cid V-8s with the 440-cid V-8 available in earlier model years.
Competition for the Plymouth Trail Duster came from its Dodge sibling, the Ramcharger (built for the U.S. market from 1974-1993); the Chevrolet K5 Blazer; the full-size Ford Bronco of 1978 and thereafter; International Scout II; and Jeep Cherokee.
A 1974 advertisement introducing the Trail Duster focused on styling, comfort and handling. Plymouth copywriters boldly stated, “It takes to the open road as well as it takes to off roading or no road at all.” The company also argued that its new SUV was the only four-wheeler built to not only get you there, but to get you there in comfort. “That’s why we introduced the Plymouth Trail Duster, the objective was to combine comfort and styling while maintaining off-road capabilities.”
For 1976, Plymouth continued to promote the Trail Duster as a “highly maneuverable, extremely capable sports-utility vehicle with up-to-the-minute styling that makes it at home anywhere.” By combining all required equipment into four specific gross vehicle weight (GVW) packages with 4,900-, 5,200-, 5,600-, and 6,100-pound ratings, ordering was intended to be simplified.
Due to its short wheelbase, the Trail Duster was considered perfect for pushing snow, so Plymouth offered an optional Sno-Fighter four-wheel-drive version based on the 6,100-pound GVW package.
In addition, Plymouth offered an assortment of wheel and tire combinations as separate options to meet customer demands. In 1975, Chrysler Corp. introduced two-wheel-drive Trail Dusters and Ramchargers with coil-spring independent front suspension and rear leaf springs. The four-wheel-drive models retained front and rear leaf springs as standard equipment.
Preserving a rare Plymouth
Born in 1974, the same year Plymouth introduced the Trail Duster, Weylin Johnson was raised on a farm near Delta, Colo. Agriculture drives the local community, and with over 300 inches of snow per year, the farming community has developed irrigation systems to collect snow as it melts, thus filling their nearby reservoirs. Despite all of the moisture in the area, this Trail Duster’s sheet metal wasn’t attacked by corrosion.
Johnson recalls seeing the Trail Duster being driven by Bob Stoody, its original owner. In the early 1980s, Stoody contracted a form of polio and as a result, the Trail Duster was only used occasionally until it was put to long-term rest in a garage during 1987. It sat in complete solitude until 2017. A sticker affixed to the driver’s door indicated the vehicle had 17,000 miles on the odometer when the oil was last changed. For more than 30 years, Johnson kept an eye out for a glimpse of the Trail Duster in the Stoody garage. Occasionally, he would spot it sitting in the same garage stall where it had been last parked in 1987.
Johnson operates his own pest control company and applied weed prevention and fertilizer on the Stoody property for years. In 2015, he mustered the nerve to write on the invoice that he’d like to be contacted if the Stoody family ever decided to sell Bob’s old Trail Duster.
In June 2017, Bob Stoody’s widow went into a nursing home and upon doing so, offered to sell the Trail Duster to Johnson. At the time of the purchase, the Trail Duster still showed 17,000 miles on the odometer. Today, it registers 18,800 miles. It’s driven locally and taken for occasional drives up to the mountains for getaway adventures.
The Trail Duster continues to wear its original 10-15LTB-B Goodyear tires with optional white-spoke wheels. It is powered by the factory-installed 150-hp, 318-cid V-8 engine and automatic transmission. It also has the standard 3.55:1 rear axle ratio plus power steering, power front disc and rear drum brakes, electronic ignition, air conditioning and large exterior mirrors.
The Sport Package-equipped Trail Dusters include an assortment of factory enhancements such as Sport medallions, windshield moldings and a bright simulated-woodgrain-on-stainless protective molding around the body. The Sport interior features deluxe bucket seats, a lockable floor console and a removable insulated cooler. This truck retains its factory-original tan-and-white interior that harmonizes with its factory-applied exterior paint colors of Golden Fawn (DT6442) with White (DT1417) lower accent.
Johnson’s Trail Duster did not require a restoration to look factory new. Care in the vehicle’s early years and 30 subsequent years of storage kept it in beautiful condition. To get it looking and running great again, Johnson cleaned years of dust off the exterior, but found the interior to be showroom clean. He replaced the two pneumatic cylinders on the rear liftgate with new old stock (NOS) replacements. Wes Carlson of Carlson’s Repair in Delta replaced the fuel pump as part of a complete tune-up. Kevin Peebler, also from Delta, matched and applied an exact copy of the original simulated woodgrain trim by photographing the original material and printing a copy. NOS parts for a 1976 Trail Duster are hard to find, but Johnson located a replacement front driver side quarter molding that houses the side marker lamp as well as moldings for the lower tailgate and quarter panels.
Plymouth’s first experiment in the SUV market resulted in just 36,000 Trail Dusters being built from 1974-1981. By comparison, Dodge Ramcharger production for the same period totaled 109,073. From these numbers, it’s clear to see why the Dodge Ramcharger charged ahead solo until it, too, ceased production in 1993.
The Trail Duster’s relatively short eight-year production run has provided Weylin Johnson with a rare and unique vehicle. Given the adventurous life that SUVs tend to endure, it might also be the most original and lowest-mileage 1976 Plymouth Trail Duster on the planet.
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