Ashes to Ashes – 340 Duster to Dust

Our neighbor recently acquired a really clean and complete 1971 Plymouth Duster 340 with medium brown paint, rally wheels and white 340 billboards. I’ve always had good feelings about the Duster 340 – as they were terrific and under rated performers. The 340 engine could reliably turn over 6,500 RPM and with traction a good running Duster 340 was a bonafide 13 second car. In high school there was a particularly hairy ’70 340 Duster that easily tore up a lot of the local big block cars.

For the first few weeks, my neighbor’s Duster occupied that proud and honored spot in the driveway just in front of the garage door. But as the autumn days progressed, the car just kept moving further and further away from the garage. First to a muddy spot next to the garage, and then to a grove of trees about 30 yards away. Wet oak leaves and pine needles first started collecting on the wipers and drip rails, and then really began to pile up in earnest in November.

I cringe each time I drive by the neighbor’s house. Mopars have always been known as enthusiastic rusters, and the thought of this legendary muscle car sitting on mud and covered by wet, acidic leaves is making me crazy. I can almost imagine the quiet crinkling sounds of the torsion bar mounts rotting away and the steady crackling noises as the clutch disc slowly fuses itself to the flywheel.

The other day, the inevitable happened. The emergence of the ubiquitous bright blue plastic tarp. It’s now carelessly draped over the Duster and all of the wet leaves. Only a single ralley wheel and a tantalizing bit of the (now filthy) right side 340 billboard peaks out.

I absolutely despise blue tarps. In New Hampshire, you see them everywhere – on cars, boats, motorcycles, tractors, barns and houses. For sure, they are appallingly ugly, but my loathing for the blue tarp extends well beyond questionable aesthetics. It’s what the blue tarp has come to represent over my 40+ years of passion for wonderful machines:

Blue tarps are the international flag of unconditional project surrender.

I’ve seen far too many rare and excellent cars die a horrendous death under the blue blanket of failure. The storyline is predictable. The once enthusiastic owner removes the air cleaner, a few pieces of trim, tosses the parts in the back seat, sticks a rusty screwdriver down the carb throat and then calls it a day. Then out comes “old blue” to cover over the mess. Weeks, months and decades pass, and before long the tarp is hanging in dirty tatters.

In the delusional minds of the owner, the car remains totally safe and secure under that tarp. Like the 1958 Fury in the movie Christine, they imagine the car is slowly restoring itself – ready to emerge like Dorian Gray directly onto the podium at the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance. With each jump in the Old Car Price Guide or record setting hammer drop at Barrett Jackson, they puff their chests with pride over their now priceless backyard treasure.

Perhaps they should peak under the tarp, because really, really bad things are happening under there. The car is slowly becoming its own ecosystem. With relative humidity under the tarp at a sustained 100%, cars become 3,000 pound terrariums. Mildew clouds the glass, and entirely new species of mold set up residence on the upholstery. After several years the mold spores have become intelligent life forms, and within a decade have established a language and tripartite form of government. Mice, squirrels, chipmunks and possum have established condominium associations in the mufflers, seat springs and heater plenum – and then packaged and sold the mortgages to a rodent hedge fund.

If by some miracle the owner ever pulls back that tarp, it’s as if they are blind to the devastation they’ve wrought. Our local edition of Craigslist is lousy with blue tarp refugees, with laughable taglines like “was running when parked”, “Solid, just needs paint” or “one just like it sold at Barrett Jackson for $150,000 asking $149,000” The Craigslist pictures are often similarly tragic – featuring an upended plastic gas can, rusty hammer and a cracked battery laying in the foreground.

That said, there is still hope for this lovely 340 Duster. It’s only been neglected for a few months and can likely be saved before it totally returns to the elements. I’d buy it myself, but with tuition bills looming, a project vehicle just isn’t a fiscal priority for our family at the moment. However, I’d be happy to let you know where to find it, should you be so inclined.