When Tom Watkins heard the news that he was going to have a baby, he was faced with a tough decision. In an act of adult responsibility, he decided to give up on his motorcycle road racing career and get back into cars. Long before he turned to handling two wheels, he bled Mopar and owned a '71 'Cuda and Panther Pink '70 AAR 'Cuda. He was really into E-Bodies, but this time, with a child on the way, he decided to look for something a little more affordable. He figured a Plymouth Duster would be an excellent fit and hold his need for driving excitement.
Tom found this '70 Duster just across the Georgia/Florida border and made the trek to check it out. It was a good-looking car, but he could tell that the paint wasn't the best. That didn't bother him, so a price was negotiated and he took the car home on a trailer behind his truck. What was important to him was that the car had a straight body. "The body was solid, it was a numbers matching car, had a cool color, and it was a four-speed," Tom says.
He started to research the car to find out more information about its life and previous owners. His investigation led him to a guy who purchased the car used in 1973, and between him and a couple other owners, he found that the car spent its entire life in Florida. "At one point, the car was hammered on pretty hard-evident by the split in the floor from a clutch explosion-and spent many years sitting in a car port in Fort Lauderdale," he says.
Shortly after his son Tyler was born, another change in his life resulted in the Duster becoming his daily driver. This put a hold on his restoration, but he began taking Tyler to cruises and car shows in the Sarasota area. Eventually, the Florida heat and humidity took their toll on the car so the Duster once again became a "toy."
Shortly after relegating the Duster to "toy" status, Tom started a minor restoration on the car that ultimately ended up being a rotisserie restoration. His day-to-day work began taking him to new living locations like North Carolina, Illinois, and Ohio, and he brought the car along with him at each move. The frequent moves and lack of storage meant he had to leave it in pieces in a storage unit at one point. It took seven years, but he was slowly bringing the project to life.
Tom was able to complete most of the work on his own with the help of his son, but he did, however, know when he reached the limits of his skills and called upon experts to get the job done. "My good friend Mike Gemza from Creations by Gemza in Denver, North Carolina, helped me with what little bodywork that was needed and applied the basecoat and clearcoat PPG," he says. "I did the final wet sanding and buffing and applied the stripes." Tom also happens to be a machinist and was able to do most of the engine work himself, but turned to XRE Performance in Mooresville, North Carolina, to do the final fitting, assembly, and engine dyno. They started with the original 340 small-block, but now the final engine produces 416 cubic inches and twisted the dyno to 505 hp and a tire-melting 565 lb-ft of torque.
The air cleaner says it's a 340, so it must be, right?
Tom and Tyler did all the interior, electrical, and assembly work with help from friends like Eric Walker. The electrical upgrades consisted of an MSD ignition module that he hid in order to retain the factory look under the hood. They converted the car from an ammeter to a voltmeter and modified the headlight relays to apply solid power to the Hella H5 beams and LED bulbs in the dash. These modifications made the electrical system reliable, and the modern headlight upgrade made the car more enjoyable to drive at night.
The chassis was modified to compensate for the healthy LA under the hood. Tom fabricated frame connectors and installed polyurethane bushings, a Cal-Trac rear suspension, and a driveshaft loop. This wasn't enough to cage the animal, so to speak. Tom found out the hard way that the stock drivetrain wasn't up to snuff, and he quickly broke an axle. He upgraded them to Dutchman axles and replaced the driveshaft with a stronger one. With these modifications in place, Tom used the powerful small-block to thrust the A-Body down the quarter-mile in 11.86 seconds at 116 mph with the BFG Radial T/A tires you see here. "I know the car is capable of more with some tweaks to the chassis, a gear change, and tires," he says. "I don't think I'm going to make any changes, though. It's just too fun to drive the way it is."
Since he and son Tyler completed the car, it has received two celebrity awards at Carlisle along with class awards and has won two consecutive first place awards at the Mopar NATS-that's impressive. Tyler spent a lot of time with Tom in the car when he was just a baby, and Tom felt it was appropriate that he learned to drive in the car and that's exactly what he did. His crowing achievement was to drive the car down the strip at the NATS for the trophy run.
Restoring the car so closely with his son has only brought them closer together, and the next project will also include Tom's father. "When I was growing up, my dad had a '68 Coronet R/T that we worked on together," he recalls. "Just recently, I was able to pick up an R/T project car and we're planning to do a family resto with my son, myself, and my father." Family projects are always a blast, and we're sure an R/T restored with the same care as Tom's Duster will be a killer. He says he may even give the keys to Tyler when they're done with it . . . maybe.
'70 Plymouth Duster
Owned by: Tom Watkins, New Waterford, OH
Engine: The original small-block was machined to produce 416 cubic inches. The oil crossover was modified and the deck was squared and line bored with plates. Filling the bores are forged 4.07-inch JE Pistons attached to SCAT rods and a 4-inch forged Eagle crankshaft. Port-matched Edelbrock heads with 2.02-inch intake and 1.88-inch exhaust valves accept the incoming air from the Mighty Demon 850 carb and Edelbrock RPM Airgap intake. The exhaust was kept simple with 1 3/4-inch tti headers connected to a Flowmaster exhaust. The ignition was converted over to an MSD system. Tom and XRE Performance in Mooresville, North Carolina, performed the machine work and assembly.
Transmission: The factory four-speed was rebuilt by Tom to hold the power of the modified Mopar mill and uses a McLeod clutch.
Rearend: The original 8 3/4-inch rear boasts Dutchman axles, 3.55 gears, and a Sure-Grip.
Suspension: Tom went through the car and replaced every bushing with polyurethane. He fabricated his own frame connectors and installed 1-inch over arch springs with Cal-Tracs in the rear.
Brakes: Factory front discs and rear drums.
Wheels and Tires: Factory-style Rallye wheels. The front 15x7-inch wheels have 235/60R15 BFG Radial TAs mounted to them and the rear 15x8-inch have 265/60R15 tires.
Paint and Body: Tom sent the car off to his friend Mike Gemza of Creations by Gemza in Denver, North Carolina, to have the car sprayed down. Mike started with a clean canvas with little bodywork needing to be done. Several coats of PPG Rallye Red base were shot followed by clear. Tom took the car home and performed the final wet sanding and buffing, then applied the stripes. Every piece of the car is original.
Interior: Tom and Tyler restored the factory black interior at home, converting the dash to LED lights for crisp, clean, bright lighting.