It’s the project car of our dreams.
For years, my dream car has always been a Plymouth Duster. This little beast of a muscle car was always on my radar as a car I wish I could have. From searching online salvage auction sites looking for Dusters to bring home as my first car at age 16, to scouring classic car dealership lots earlier this year looking for the perfect daily driver, Plymouth Dusters have always been on my mind.
When properly equipped, they are the perfect blend of power, style, and muscle car swagger that many brands still try to harken back to today in modern muscle cars. For seven model years, 1970 to 1976, the Plymouth Duster was a hot seller for performance-minded tuners and commuters alike.
After years and years of searching for the perfect Duster, I finally found it, here is the story of my Plymouth Duster.
Like many auto enthusiasts, I spend some time during the week searching online for deals on classic cars. While most of what you find online is priced out of the realm of a great deal, I stumbled upon a 1974 Plymouth Duster, located in the Central Valley of Northern California.
Many great finds come out of the Central Valley, with most of the area consisting of desert and year-round dry conditions, cars rarely rust. After a quick conversation with the seller and confirming that the car was real and for sale, I made plans to see the car in person the next morning.
After a few hours of driving through the desert the following day with the help of some directions, I found myself in front of the 1974 Duster in all its rattle-can primer-black glory.
This Plymouth was no garage queen like many classics, in fact, this one was street parked, and had been sitting for years. While this Duster did, in fact, run, it ran rough. For better or for worse, the Duster also had a myriad of aftermarket parts installed as well. With just a glance, it was easy to see that this Plymouth was built for racing.
The stock 318 V8 engine had a Weiand Stealth intake manifold installed, as well as an Edelbrock carburetor, and a brand-new radiator. The stock wheels are long gone, and in their place are a set of classic Cragar wheels, upon starting the engine, the loud aftermarket Flowmaster exhaust sounds incredible, but with its current air and fuel mixture issues, this exhaust note is quickly drowned out by engine sputters and backfires.
But worst of all, under the oil fill cap and radiator cap, was a disgusting mix of oil and coolant. This engine is mixing oil and coolant somewhere in the engine, leaving a sticky chocolate milk-like substance throughout the engine and radiator.
After looking over some paperwork and working through some negotiations, I sent over a couple thousand dollars online to the owner, and this Plymouth Duster, my dream car, was finally mine.
If you live in America and you need to get a car home that will hardly make it down the street under its own power, chances are you tap on the shoulder of the biggest truck rental company in the country, U-Haul, and that is exactly what I did.
After picking up my U-Haul auto transport trailer and a pickup truck, I made my way back to the Central Valley with a Duster key in hand, ready to take the Plymouth home.
Upon returning to the Duster, I turned the key, and to my surprise, nothing happened. No buzzers or turns from the engine, the battery was completely dead. With only my U-Haul truck with me and no jumper cables in sight, I ran to the nearest auto parts store and bought the first battery I could find. After a quick install, the Duster was on the trailer and making its way back to San Francisco with me.
After getting the Plymouth home and slowly taking the car apart, I’m finding that the Duster is everything I had hoped it would be, and then some. As many Mopar enthusiasts will tell you, there is just something different about classic Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth cars that you don’t get elsewhere. That “It” factor is present, even when the car can hardly make it out of the driveway under its own power.
Working on classic cars is also generally easier than modern cars. With most pre-1975 cars consisting of mostly mechanical parts and hardly any wiring compared to today’s cars, many cars can be taken apart by hand by the owner with a little research, making this car perfect for any backyard mechanic looking for a part-time project.
With the current oil and coolant mixture taking place somewhere in the engine, along with intermittent stalling issues, I expected that a full-rebuild would be in order for this engine, but I was surprised to find that under a compression test and a head-gasket test, this is a healthy engine with solid compression and no head gasket leaks.
There are only a few other places in this V8 that coolant and oil could mix, including the timing cover gasket, and intake manifold gaskets. With this knowledge and some hand tools in hand, we will be taking the top end of this Plymouth Duster engine off, searching for the cause of this coolant and oil mixture.
Even as it sits, the Plymouth Duster truly is a special car and a steal for anyone looking for classic Mopar muscle for cheap. Keep an eye out for a Duster! You might just be surprised about what's out there.
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Steven Teleky is an educational professional in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is formerly the Educational Specialist for the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Working on American cars his entire life, Steven has extensive history with all GM, Ford, and Mopar vehicles, as well as experience with German and Japanese imports as well. Currently, Steven races in California Rallycross with a 1987 Pontiac Fiero, and is always scouring dealer lots and junkyards for a forgotten classic or neglected daily to bring back to life.
It’s the project car of our dreams.