A look back at the 1970-1976 Plymouth A-Body Duster, an all-time mini muscle car that, though short-lived, had a long-lasting impact on American muscle. 

The Plymouth Mini Muscle Car 

1970 Plymouth Duster - carsforsale.com
1970 Plymouth Duster - carsforsale.com

Automotive history is loaded with iconic American muscle cars. Nameplates like Chevelle SS, Boss Mustang, and Hemi ‘Cuda come to mind. You know what doesn’t immediately come to mind? The Plymouth Duster. True, the Duster was never going to compete with the likes of its big bad ‘Cuda brother, but it was never intended to. However, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t one cool car as we’ll discuss in this 1970-1976 Plymouth A-Body Duster retro review.

Unlike many of its peers that spanned multiple generations, the 1970-1976 Plymouth Duster A-Body was built during that short span of the early ‘70s on, yes, the automaker’s A-Body platform. Backing up a step, to the latter half of the 1960s, Chrysler was the big name in domestic compacts with the Plymouth Valiant and Dodge Dart taking some 30% of the segment sales.

During this time, the Plymouth Barracuda shared the Mopar A-Body with the Valiant as a sporty coupe variant. But for 1970, the third-gen Barracuda rolled out on the E-Body platform and Plymouth was looking for a new 2-door dancing partner to go with its Valiant. So, a relatively small $15 million development budget was put to work on what would become the Plymouth Duster.

A New Two-Door Valiant 

1970 Plymouth Duster - carsforsale.com
1970 Plymouth Duster - carsforsale.com

Arriving in 1970, the 2-door Duster was billed as “A brand-new Plymouth. A whirlwind out to prove that a compact car can deliver handsome styling and big performance in a hardy sporty package.” Though it shared the front-end design of the Valiant, the semi-fastback Duster was fresh from the cowl back. Design modifications versus the Valiant donor car included a more steeply raked windshield, a more radical tumblehome, a sloped roof, and a special rear valence without bezels.

Plymouth tried to follow the success of its Looney Tunes-branded Road Runner car by applying the Tasmanian Devil to its new Duster. But, negotiations with Warner Brothers fell through, so the automaker came up with its own interpretation, a dusty whirlwind with a pair of eyes. Chrysler has never been a stranger to bold and wacky vehicular branding, but the Duster remains one of the most recognizable and memorable efforts.

Aimed at the Ford Maverick and AMC Hornet, this new fun-focused Valiant counterpart offered 198 or 225 CID straight-six engines on base models. There was an optional 318 CID V8 making 230 horsepower and the standalone Duster 340. This top-line model had a 4-barrel carb, wider tires, disc brakes, and a dual exhaust system. Period testing clocked the Duster 340 in the low 14’s for the quarter mile, thanks to its potent 275 hp and 340 lb-ft of torque.

Duster Success 

1970 Plymouth Duster Twister - Lou Costabile on Youtube
1970 Plymouth Duster Twister - Lou Costabile on Youtube

With a starting MSRP of just under $2,200, the new Plymouth Duster quickly made a name for itself as a value-packed coupe with the ability to go fast for those interested. It also became a favorite platform for fun optional packages like the Gold Duster trim that featured a sweet “gold reptile grain” vinyl roof, complimentary paint finishes, gold-colored badging, and wall-to-wall carpeting.

The 1970 Plymouth Duster hit the ground running with some 217,000 units built the first year. That success drew the attention of corporate cousin Dodge who wanted one too. Chrysler obliged this sibling rivalry and the Duster spawned the first Dodge Demon in 1971. In exchange, Dodge donated the Dart Swinger hardtop coupe, which became the Valiant Scamp over at Plymouth.

That same year saw the Valiant badge disappear from the Duster body, while non-functional hood scoops were added. Duster 340 models received a new electronic “breakerless” ignition and the Duster Twister package debuted. Really playing up the tornado theme, this option applied the big 340 model’s appearance – racing stripes, matte black hood, and shark tooth grille – to Dusters with the smaller motors.

The First Oil Crisis 

1973 Plymouth Duster - carsforsale.com
1973 Plymouth Duster - carsforsale.com

By 1972 – with the first fuel crisis on the horizon – power outputs started to come down on the Duster. In particular, the 340 CID V8 was now advertised as making 245 hp, a 30 hp drop. Along with moving from a gross to net horsepower rating, the motor had a newly reduced compression ratio and smaller intake valves.

The following year, 1973, Plymouth performed a comprehensive mid-cycle refresh on the Duster. It consisted of a new front fascia, revised bumpers at both ends and an updated taillamp design. On the mechanical front, simpler sliding-type single-piston brake calipers replaced 4-piston units on some models and all Dusters received larger front wheel bearings and increased spindle diameter.

Space Duster 

1974 Plymouth Duster 360 - carsforsale.com
1974 Plymouth Duster 360 - carsforsale.com

Buyers also saw the Space Duster option for the first time. Regrettably, it had nothing to do with outer space and came with no wild graphics. Instead, the Space Duster was aimed at increasing cabin space. To that end, the rear bench seat on these models could fold down to open up a 6 ½-foot long bay with 50 cubic feet of cargo room. An optional metal sunroof opened things up further.

In the throes of the oil crisis, Plymouth unveiled the Duster 360 in 1974. Though it was the biggest engine ever offered in the Duster by displacement, it actually made the same amount of horsepower as the prior 340 V8. It also shared that motor’s camshaft, heads, intake manifold, and carburetors. Nonetheless, it was the most successful sales year across the 1970-1976 Plymouth A-Body Duster timeline with over 281,000 built.

Duster Madness 

1975 Plymouth Duster - carsforsale.com
1975 Plymouth Duster - carsforsale.com

Between 1975 and 1976, the final two years of Plymouth Duster production, the big 360 CID V8 saw a further reduction in power. However, there was the addition of more fun and silly option packages with the Feather Duster and Silver Duster.

Silver Dusters have not exactly aged well what with the blood red “Boca Raton style” cabin featuring slabs of shag carpeting, a red vinyl roof, and a special Silver Cloud Metallic paint finish. Feather Dusters, on the other hand, were well-executed fuel economy champs.

Far funnier sounding than Lightweight Duster, these Feather models shaved nearly 190 pounds of mass through the use of aluminum for the intake manifold, bumper brackets, and bracing for the hood and trunk. Between that work, the single-barrel carb on the small slant-six motor, a low-restriction exhaust system, and an extra-high rear axle ratio, these Dusters could hit 36 mpg on the highway. That was impressive then and remains so today.

Legacy of the Plymouth Duster 

1975 Plymouth Duster - carsforsale.com
1975 Plymouth Duster - carsforsale.com

This also sums up the 1970-1976 Plymouth A-Body Duster overall. Though only produced for a few years and replaced by the forgettable Volare, these so-called “mini muscle cars” offered a relatively high level of style and power for the price. It may not have Hemi power and it won’t be confused with a ‘Cuda or Superbird, but the Plymouth Duster remains an affordable muscle car to this day and is one we would happily have in our garage.

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Niel Stender

Niel Stender grew up doing replacement work on his 1990 Cherokee and 1989 Starion, so it’s not surprising that he would put his mechanical engineering degree from the University of New Hampshire to use in the car world as a vehicle dynamics engineer. Now engineering sentence structures, his writing infuses his auto experience with his time in marketing and his sales experience. Writing about cars for close to a decade now, he focuses on some of the more technical mechanical systems that are found under the hood and throughout a vehicle.

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