DUST-OFF: Tom Houghton

DUST-OFF: Tom Houghton’s ’70 Plymouth Duster

There’s a well-known saying for Chrysler performance fans — “Mopar or no car.” For 54-year-old Tom Houghton of Queens New York, this old adage shaped a childhood dream into his badass, restomod ’70 Plymouth Duster.

First and Forever:

Tom grew up as a self-described car kid with neighbors that embraced both GM and Chrysler muscle. In fact, according to Tom, a “big Mopar guy” named Bob lived right next door. Bob is the previous owner of our subject car, which he acquired at auction. From the factory, this ’70 Duster was originally white with a black vinyl top and red guts. It was an H-code, small-block 340ci car equipped with a three-speed, column-shifted automatic trans.

Bob meant business from the get-go and intended to race the Duster at local drag strips like West Hampton Speedway. So, he swapped the 340ci mill with a 440ci six-barrel for that purpose. To accommodate the larger engine, modification of the inner fenderwells commenced, as was the installation of a new K-member.

Tom was gifted the Duster for his 16th birthday in 1981, after years of seeing it around the way. The car was somewhat of a bribe from his mother, with a prerequisite for Tom to pursue college. Tom drove the big-block Duster every day to high school, college for two semesters, and to work as a plumber after that.

He ran the 1320 feet, regularly, at ATCO Raceway in New Jersey. Tom is quick to point out, his consistent 12.20 e.t.’s were accomplished with a pair of JCPenney slicks — which he still has today. Tom’s Duster is such an integral part of his life; he even mentioned his first romantic interlude taking place in the red vinyl interior — that’s all we’ll say about that, though.

Grand Theft and Track Duty:

In 1987, with a few extra bucks in his pocket, Tom bought himself a brand new, bad, black Buick Grand National — relegating the Duster to track-use only. To make a long and painful story, short, the Grand National was stolen after only six months. The poor G-body had its windows shattered and body damaged by the joy-riding car thief. Tom was living in Queens, one of the car-theft capitol’s of the nation at the time. Eventually, the sky-high insurance rates forced Tom to sell his beloved Buick.

Daily driving was now the duty of a six-cylinder ‘67 Chevelle sedan. Tom moved full speed ahead with the Duster’s drag-only transformation in the meantime. He gutted the interior, installing a single second-Gen Camaro bucket seat. Tom also performed some top-end work to the Duster’s 440ci motor. Of course, it wouldn’t be complete without a towering six-pack scoop and fresh paint. He let a friend spray on some pearl white paint in his makeshift garage paint booth.

Spun and Done:

In ’89, Tom was heavily bracket-racing the Duster at New York and New Jersey tracks like ATCO, Englishtown, and Island Park Raceway. He finally broke into the elevens, when on one fateful day, catastrophe struck. The big-block had enough and spun a bearing while soaring down the strip at ATCO. The Duster was taken off the road and consigned to a rented spot in an old lady’s garage, for the next 21 years.

Family Project:

By 2010, Tom was married with two kids. Family life, with his 10-yr-old son Thomas Jr. and 8-yr-old daughter Haley, was the focus of all of his time. When he wasn’t with them, he was working for the NYC Department of Environmental Protection as an operating engineer. Life was busy, to say the least. The Duster wasn’t even in Tom’s consciousness until Thomas Jr. raised the proposition, “let’s do something with the car.” Tom agreed, but only if it could be a family affair.

The Duster was taken out of mothballs and totally disassembled, but this time with the kids recruited. The children bagged and tagged every single panel, piece, nut, and bolt — leaving nothing but the shell on the frame. The initial intention was to have professional bodywork done and a top-notch paintjob laid down in a two-stage, vintage Mopar color. Clearly, that plan changed.

The Journey Begins:

At this point, the skeleton and its parts were brought to Two Eagles Autobody, in New Hyde Park, New York. The Duster was put in the capable hands of owner John Rossi, of whom Thomas says, “we couldn’t have done it without him.” Little did Tom realize at the time, this was the start of a nine-year process. It morphed from a supreme paintjob to a full restoration — with all the trials and tribulations that entails. In fact, the car sat untouched for another three years; a result of a changing shop staff, Tom dealing with some health issues, and low cash flow. Real work didn’t commence until a new rotisserie hoop arrived in 2014.

Classic or Modern:

By 2015, Tom needed to decide about the heart of his beast. Should he overhaul the period-correct 440ci motor/727 Torqueflite automatic transmission, or go for something more modern? Tom’s friend, Sal, was a strong proponent of modern Mopar power. Emphatic, he sold Tom on the advantages of the new engine’s ability to make gobs of power with its trouble-free, turn-key operation.

Convinced, Tom, scoured the internet for a suitable powerplant. It wasn’t long before an eBay search revealed a 990-mile 392ci motor out of a burnt ’15 Scat Pack Challenger complete with its Tremec TR-6060 six-speed transmission. The hi-tech engine would shape things to come.

Resto Duster:

Now the vision was clear. The Duster would be restomodded, combining modern drivetrain and suspension components with a mostly stock-looking exterior/interior. Tom states, “I had this in my head for a very long time.”

Before the big 6.4-liter 392ci Hemi could sit pretty in the Duster’s engine bay, original factory fenderwells were reinstalled. These pieces, along with fenders, rear lower quarter-patch panels, and a trunk floor were supplied by Auto Metal Direct (AMD). Tom was sure to replace the factory Protect-O-Plate in its original position after the methodical body/paintwork was done. A truly nice touch.

Tom then ordered an engine performance package from Bouchillon Performance Engineering in South Carolina. This included a tuned PCM/ECM, wiring harness, radiator, fans, power-steering pump, and A/C compressor. Bouchillon’s tuning talents allowed for 550hp — a 65-horse increase over the stock tune. Tom installed the motor, transmission, and tackled the wiring himself. Tom was hands-on throughout every aspect of assembly, save for the contributions of the shops mentioned.

Exhaling the Duster’s emissions, are a pair of TTI ceramic-coated long-tube headers, flowing through a Dynamax exhaust. A menacing lope and angry bark exits from two single round Magnaflow tips.

Deeming an upgrade to the transmission was necessary. Tom sent the TR-6060 to Texas Driveline Products for a full T-56 Viper-spec, bulletproofing-work-up.

Completing the drivetrain is the stock 8 ¾ center-section, with an Eaton Truetrac differential and Strange 3.91 gears. Tom credits Moonlight Garage, Inc. in New Hyde Park with installing the rearend.

Tom knew to get it all to the ground was imperative, so he called Reilly Motorsports to get the suspension sorted. Up front, is its Alterkation K-frame/coilover IFS system with the addition of Viking double-adjustable coilovers. Out back, lives the Street Lynx triangulated four-bar system fitted with the Viking DAs as well. A mini-tub was also applied to the Duster’s hind in anticipation of some heavy-duty rear rollers. Tom feels the Duster’s stance is perfect. No argument here.

Hauling-it down and putting it to the pavement are SSBC 13 1/2-inch rotors at all four corners, with four-piston binders in front and rear. It all rolls on chrome Foose Knuckle three-piece wheels, 18×7 fronts and 18x10s out back, wrapped in asphalt-grabbing Nitto 555 RS rubber.

The Duster’s in the Details:

From the outset, Tom wanted to keep as much factory 1970 Plymouth Duster as possible. And this was certainly accomplished in the cockpit where a quick glance at the fully restored, black vinyl interior reveals few secrets. Upon closer inspection, both inside and out, the individual details present themselves.

Beginning with what Tom states is his favorite aspect of the car – its exterior color. It’s called Orange Crush. It’s a modern Chrysler hue that exudes a classic Mopar muscle car vibe.

Inside, the stock Duster Rally gauge package is enhanced via Abbots Cable X-box. This blends the old with the new by enabling electronic control of the Duster’s mechanically-operated speedometer.

There are more neat tricks like a Ward’s factory-appearing AM/FM stereo radio which features Bluetooth/MP3-connectivity. The addition of Classic A/C keeps things cool. Even cooler, is the ultra-modern push-to-start button, clandestinely-placed in the ashtray’s lighter slot. Final, yet equally creative touches include a modern Challenger gas cap, a mix of modern and vintage badges, and relocation of the battery to the trunk.

Leaving Dust: Conclusion

After just short of a decade, Tom’s ‘70 Duster was completed in May 2019. Not only is the result his dream car, but it’s an accomplishment of longevity and persistence. Moving on his young son’s words, after 21 years off the road, Tom created a timeless machine.

As for the future, Tom plans to “drive the hell out of it.” In October, it will be present at his old drag strip haunt, ATCO Raceway, to lay down some runs and see what Orange Crush can do. Thanks, Tom, for bringing us your slick ’70 restomod Duster. You really dusted-it-off big time.

About the author

Andrew Nussbaum

Pontiac possessed by Smokey and the Bandit at 6 years old, and cultivated through the '80s by GTAs, IROCS and Grand Nationals, Andrew hails from Queens NY and has been writing freelance for ten years.
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