Unearthing the ’70-’71 Rapid Transit System Caravan Duster.
Story and photos by Cliff Gromer
When it comes to customized Dusters, it doesn’t get much wilder than this. A charter member of Plymouth’s famous travelling road show Rapid Transit System Caravan, this 1970 A-body was a stable mate of the RTS Road Runner that we featured on our August ’05 cover. It’s no surprise to learn that both these Caravan cars are owned by the same Mo’fan-noted collector Steven Juliano. One of the quartet of cars that broadcast their visual music at dealerships around the country, and at the big new-car shows. The Duster made its appearance supported by the ’Runner, a Hemicuda and a clone of Don Prudhomme’s flopper. The Caravan was to hit the road with 1970 models, which meant that the customs had to be created before the production models were minted.
Noted designer Harry Bradley was assigned the job of coming up with artwork for the customs. Since he didn’t have a real Duster to base his drawings on, he had to use sketches of what the stock Duster would look like. Plymouth had to sign off on Bradley’s work before his ideas were realized in lead and paint. It wasn’t a shoo-in. Bradley came up with another cool touch—large flip-style racing-type gas caps—one for each quarter. Since the Duster only had one gas tank, the second cap was a dummy. So, if a dummy gas jockey filled you up through the dummy cap, he filled the trunk, not the tank (big deal, gas was cheap back then.) The gas cap was the same piece used on the Ford Cobras, but it wasn’t a Ford original. The Blue Oval boys had borrowed it from its original application-on an English oil truck. The same cap, by the way, is used today on Vipers.
The gas caps weren’t the only items from across the pond. The good ol’ reliable sealed beam headlamps were replaced by a spiffier set from Lucas, “the Prince of Darkness.” Guess the Duster wasn’t scheduled for much night driving. Once Bradley’s drawings received the corporate blessing, the job was turned over Byron Grenfel’s shop, in Marquette, Michigan. Each of the Caravan cars was farmed out to a different custom outfit. Grenfel had recently made a name for himself by creating some outstanding customs that were well received at the big custom shows. Most notable of these was the Crown Coupe—not an Imperial, but a heavily-worked ’35 Ford 3-window with an Edsel grille. This car won the International show Car Association (ISCA) championship in ’69 and ’70. Grenfel was friends with Bob Larivee, the top guy at the ISCA, and he asked Larivee to keep him in mind for any special project. Sufficiently impressed with his work, Larivee assigned Grenfel the Duster project. Grenfel was delivered a white ’70 Duster along with Bradley’s drawings on Oct 13, 1969. He was told the car had to be finished and in New York City for the auto show by November 21, or Chrysler would turn him into a pumpkin. The 1970 Rapid Transit System Duster was painted Candy Apple Red covered by a pearl clearcoat. The front and rear pans were rolled, the body was cleaned up, removing trim and shaving the door handles. Unlike the Road Runner, which also had its door handles removed, the Duster had a small lever mounted in the outside doorsill so you could unlock the door in case you locked yourself out. The ’Runner had no such provision, with the fallback method of entry into the locked car being a large fire axe.
Other custom touches on the original RTS Duster included a spoiler mounted on the rear of the roof and four center-mounted exhaust tips, which, according to Grenfel, were functional. The hood, resculpted in lead, rather than plastic, did not have the benefit of springs. Hefting that heavy hood on a regular basis eventually would guarantee you Schwarzenegger-like biceps—or a hernia. The rocker panel moldings were from a ’64 Chevy II Nova, and the grille was reshaped using aluminum with mesh up front.
Aside from the custom visuals, the Duster was lowered all around by three inches. The rolled front pan reduced the room available for the radiator, so the stock cooler was cut four inches and installed without a shroud. Since the RTS Caravan was a 2-year program, the Duster, with its carryover basic bodyshell for ’71 could be recycled. The RTS Road Runner, on the other hand, had to be created from scratch due to the all-new body for ’71.
Bradley went back to the drawing board (or dinner napkin) and came up with a redesign. If the ’71 version of the Duster looked better than the ’70, probably it was because he had more time. Grenfel was tapped again to handle the metal and leadwork, and Butch Brinza was called in to shoot the paint.
The ’71 version saw the Duster with a new nose job. The grille and front valence were changed. Longer rectangular air intakes were built into the roll pan. The hood now sported a lip which came out to a vee. Hood locks, bought at Gratiot Speed Shop were installed. The bumperless ’70 would now have a front bumper. Bradley suggest- ed taking a ’68 Camaro rear bumper, cutting the ends off, vee-ing the center, adding a 2- inch metal strip to the top to give the bumper some more depth, taking ’64 T-Bird bumper ends and turning them upside down, shortening them and then welding them on to the Camaro piece. Hey, piece of cake.
The rear end saw the roof wing disap- pear, and in its place was a lip fabricated from round rod as the framework, and filled in with welded sheetmtetal. The finishing touch were the dummy roof vents that were created from sctratch. The exhaust was changed to two large rectangular tips that were non-functional.
The trickest part of the revamp Duster was the acrylic lacquer paint. Starting with a white underbase, Brinza sprayed on several shades of candy green and applied the intricate graphics. You’ll notice the large “340” callout on the hood. Production 340s had a red “Wedge” as part of the “340” callout. Bradley’s original sketches called for that red “Wedge” callout on the RTS Duster hood. What happened? As it turned out, Grenfel forgot to do it.
After the RTS Caravan was trotted around for the ’71 season, the cars were stashed by Chrysler. But, they eventually made their way into private hands. Steve Juliano, for reasons known only to himself, took on the formidable task of finding and restoring the Caravan cars. Guess he likes a challenge.
Tracking down the Duster wasn’t easy. Juliano made countless phone calls, followed up every lead and did everything short of consulting a ouija board and Madame Loosefingers’ Fortune Teller Parlour. Juliano even placed “wanted” ads in all of the major car mags. In 1994, one of the ads was noticed by Dave Smith. He remembered that a car looking very similar to the one in Juliano’s ad had been sitting in a public parking garage in Detroit. Smith checked out the garage, and found the dust-covered Duster still parked there. Smith called Juliano, who immediately hopped on a plane to Motor City.
Juliano found the garage easily enough, but when he showed the parking attendant a photo of the Duster, and asked if the car was in the garage, the car jockey said “No!” End of conversation. Well, maybe the end of the conversation for most folks, but not “Bulldog” Juliano. Being a native New Yorker, Juilano knew what it took to get the job done. And he did what any streetwise, battle-toughened New Yorker would have done. He drew back his right arm and…opened his wallet. Holding out some long green, he repeated the question. This time, the attendant brought Juliano around to the back of the garage, and showed him the Duster. “Is this what you’re looking for?”
Juliano asked if he knew who the owner was. The answer was no. It was still “no” even after after several wads of bills were offered. The dough was refused, but the attendant took Juliano’s name and number, and said he would be in touch.A few weeks later, Juliano received a call from the garage guy. He told Juliano to come down and pick up the car. The Duster had been auctioned off for back storage fees as an abandoned vehicle, and the attendant had bought it on behalf of Juliano. Yeah, right!
The paperwork that came with the Duster, showed that a police officer had bought the car with 80 miles showing on the clock, in 1975 at a Chrysler surplus auction. He drove it for a while, parked it at this garage in 1978 and then disappeared. The Duster at this point was in sad shape, as any vehicle would be if left to its own devices for 16 years, and it had to be unearthed—literally. But, The Duster was even worse off due to the body leading and paint that did not hold up as well as stock sheetmetal and factory finish.
The stuff Juliano found inside the car is a story in itself. Included, was a supply of bullets, brass knuckles, underwear and a leopard-skin rug and a machete lying on the back seat. The rear of the car sagged, and Juliano expected to find a corpse or two when he popped the trunk. The heavy object inside turned out to be a household air conditioning unit.
The Duster needed a total restoration. But, restoring this custom to Caravan trim would make a concours HemiCuda job seem like child’s play. Roger Gibson probably didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he took on the job, and it practically drove him to the brink. The demanding Juliano was under some stress himself, and the two didn’t exactly have a marriage made in heaven during the 6-year resto ordeal. ’Course, they both laugh about it now. The Duster had to be redone from scratch, lining up panels that had been welded in place, and redoing all the custom work with modern materials (including lead) that would hold up over time. Mo’fans can credit Juliano with rescuing a unique piece of Chrsyler’s heritage that would otherwise most likely have gone to the crusher.