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Race, Daily, Restore: Economy Spec Oddballs

The progression from base model to top-of-the-line is usually quite logical and linear, wherein every model adds desirable content in an additive progression. But every once in a while manufacturers (or customers) take crazy pills and concoct specialized models that are, um, not so special. Oddball, low-power, decontented editions rarely sell in large numbers, or remain in the sales catalog very long. Such is the case with the three points of today’s vehicular trilemma:

  • The Plymouth Feather Duster was only offered for 1976, the final year of Mopar RWD A-body production. The Feather Duster version was a fuel-economy special, featuring lightweight aluminum parts for a 5% weight savings over the standard model. The body was purely plain-jane, right down to the steelies and dog dish hubcaps. Power was supplied by a one-barrel 225 Slant Six and an extra-high rear axle ratio. A 3-speed automatic was optional, but the standard overdrive 4-speed gearbox was cheaper, lighter, and got better fuel economy, so let’s assume our subject car has the manual.
  • The 1980 Chevrolet Malibu Iraqi Taxi was a special, non-catalog configuration built especially as taxi cabs for Saddam Hussein (yes, that Saddam Hussein). The Canadian-built sedans were definitely utility-spec, with a 110 HP carb’d V6 backed up by a floor-shift three speed manual, commercial-duty interior fabrics, heavy-duty cooling, steelies, and instruments that read in kilometers. The Iraqis quit the deal before the full quota was met (either because of Iraqi financial issues, or because the Malibus didn’t handle the stress of desert taxi duty particularly well, depending on who is telling the story). When the deal fell through, 5,000 “Iraqibu” Malibus had been completed but not yet shipped. They were sold to Canadians looking for basic transport for C$6,500.
  • When first introduced in 1999, the Nissan Frontier Desert Runner combined the truck’s base powertrain (143 HP SOHC 2.4L, five-speed gearbox) with the raised suspension, fender flares, and larger wheels of the 4×4 version—only without the driven front wheels. The “Faux-By-Four” concept of 4WD style with 2WD mechanicals would stick around, but it only used the base four-banger that first year; from 2000 on, Desert Runners switched the larger V6. One interesting note: Though the truck shown is gray, I have it on good authority that all first-year Desert Runners were white King Cabs. The lede photo is actually a 2000 model Desert Runner. Why? I was unable to find even one veritably accurate photo of a ’99; that should indicate just how rare they are.

So, there are your three oddball, econo-spec candidates. Your task is to chose one for each of the following roles in your conceptual garage:

  • RACE – build into some sort of dedicated racing machine (not street legal) for your choice of competition — any legitimate, sanctioned form of motorsport: road course, rally, drag, LSR, Baja, etc.;
  • DAILY – have as your sole street-registered car, for all your commuting and general transportation needs.
  • RESTORE – do a museum-quality, factory-correct, frame-off restoration, then add to your collection, but not drive on the street.

Your choices should be accompanied by your persuasive justification, or at the very least which choice you felt most strongly about.

As always, more caveats (there are always caveats) appear after the jump.

IMAGE CREDITS: Imgur.com, SeeWord.com, QualityAutoAR.com.

Caveats:

  1. Assume that you’re given these three vehicles outright, so there’s no acquisition cost, but the cost of race-prepping, maintaining, insuring and restoring them will be on you.
  2. Assume the cars are in “average condition” for their age; neither junk nor in flawless condition.
  3. These are your ONLY three cars. You cannot factor in any other cars you might actually own, e.g., “I’ll daily the MR2 because I have a van I can take the kids in…” Likewise, you can’t sell the restored car to buy another vehicle.
  4. You must assign one of the cars to each category. You can’t say, “I’ll race my street car,” or “I’ll drive that one for a season then restore it.”
  5. You can’t half-ass a car you don’t like, such as theoretically racing Lemons or doing a “20-footer” cosmetic restoration.
  • dukeisduke

    I like the Iraqibu – they were smart to equip it with the three-speed, and an A-6 a/c compressor instead of the sorry-ass R-4. As much as I hate the idea, I’d race that car, because the repaired rust is eventually going to reappear, unless you replace the complete doors.

  • P161911

    Race the Plymouth, because aluminum parts, with a 440 of course.
    Restore the Nissan.
    Daily the taxi, maybe with a LS and 6-speed swap.

  • GTXcellent

    Daily – well, being stuck with chauffeur duties for a couple of boys still in booster seats, that picks easy – the ‘bu. Slap on some snow tires and a couple of bags of water softener salt in the trunk and I’m good to go.

    Now, what to do with the other two – both are equally worthless. Alright, does truck and tractor pulling count as racing? That’s what I’m doing with that Nissan. Truck and tractor pull. Guess that means I’m stuck restoring the Feather Duster – although when’s the last time you’ve ever seen one?

    Ugh this game. So frustrating to have to pick between stabbing yourself in the eye with a sharp stick or cutting off your pinkie with dull scissors.

    • Well, if I picked universally loved cars, it would be too easy.

  • Papa Van Twee

    Race: Iraqibu. Unless there is really something special about it, this thing has “LeMons” written all over it.
    Daily: Frontier. And just hope the kids fit in the back, because the Iraqibu doesn’t look as appealing to drive as this.
    Restore: Duster with aluminum parts? Sounds special to me.

  • Alff

    Ugh, you’ve really served up a dog’s breakfast…
    Restore Iraqibu, donate to whichever Presidential library will take it.
    Race Frontier or, more likely, use it as a prerunner.
    Daily Feather Duster, constantly trying to sell it off as a “factory lightweight, kind of like the Thunderbolt”.

  • 0A5599

    Well, a stablemate to the Duster was the Demon. What a coincidence! There’s a Demon making a return soon. The new Demon Hellcat drivetrain into the Feather Duster’s lightweight shell, and I have a daily driver.

    Race the Nissan. There has to be some RWD Baja category it fits.

    That leaves the desert taxi for restoration.

  • Hillman_Hunter

    I learned how to do donuts in an Iraqi Special. You couldn’t pay me to get back into one of those penalty boxes (although you could run a butchers shop with the AC).

  • smalleyxb122

    If the ‘Bu was made for taxi duty, it should be suitable to drive every day, right?

    Desert Runner? That’s the name of a race-worthy vehicle if ever I have heard one.

    I guess that means I’m restoring the Feather Duster, and you know? That doesn’t seem like a terrible idea. As a one-year-only footnote to the ’70s gas crisis, it holds at least a modicum of historical interest, and it’s not the worst looking car to come out of that decade.

  • Zentropy

    I think the better challenge is when all entries are equally appealing to race, daily, or restore. I wouldn’t waste my time with either of the cars, but one can at least get some utility out of the truck. Truth is, though, I’d sooner sell them all as-is and invest in something comparably desirable, which in this case would qualify even if a homely AMC Pacer.

  • neight428

    If an engine swap is on the table, either the ‘bu or the Plymouth could run in the 12’s without trying too hard, though making any of the above compete in an event that involves a turn is just going to be punishing. If you could daily the Nissan, then flip a coin for the other two, it’s going to suck either way.

  • ptschett

    A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

    I don’t like any combination here but the one I dislike least is daily the pickup, race the Duster and restore the Iraqibu.

    • To agree and elaborate:
      A special aluminum body, a racecar does make.
      And I’m partial to a straight six, however angled.
      The pickup truck is modern enough to be mindless as a daily.
      The carb, on the other hand, is something I don’t want to deal with on the Iraqibu.
      Which will wind up as yet another uninteresting car in a museum.
      With some historical factoid on a plaque.
      Which you use to try to make the admission you spent seem worth it.
      And fail.

      • Zentropy

        I agree with you on the straight six. That’s my favorite engine configuration, unless you consider acoustics. V8s sound much better.

    • crank_case

      I agree, I still can’t get round the idea of restoring something and not driving it on the street whatever that means. Does it sit in an air conditioned garage? do you only trailer it to shows? I mean if you have the skills to restore something once, why would you worry about a bit of use? you can sort it again later..

  • Fuhrman16

    I’d daily the Duster, I’ve always loved these things.
    I’d race the Nissan, I think it be alright around a road course.
    I’d restore the Chevy, because it’s what left.

  • Maymar

    Daily the truck – it’s newish, gets half-decent fuel economy, could haul motorcycles, and I don’t really need a backseat for now.
    Race the Duster – it’s light, it’s neat, and it’d be fun to make a Slant Six breath a little freer.
    That leaves the Iraqibu, which is pretty neat (a professor of mine bough one new, he was quite fond of it), and I’d be perfectly content to put it into daily driver duty if I needed a little more passenger space. But I don’t so restore it and remember the novelty.

  • Sean McMillan

    Race the feather duster, build the slant six to the max and take it to Bonneville, set records.
    Daily the truck, get a rollup tonneau for lockable bed storage.
    Restore the taxi, cause it has an interesting story

  • Craig Blanton

    Race: Malibu – A fast 4 door G-Body with an odd pedigree sounds fun.
    Daily: Frontier – I already drive a Frontier daily and have had other Nissan trucks, so this is a no brainer.
    Restore: Duster – Odd-ball Mopars can bring decent money. This one may not be a Hemi ‘Cuda, but it still might bring a decent penny.

  • Fresh-Outta-Nissans

    daily: the truck would make me sad, and the duster would send the wrong message (that is, coolness). An aborted taxi is exactly my style.

    Race: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Nissan know how to build an engine. Lowered with a VVT 2-liter it would make a fabulous road racer.

    Restore: Plymouth feather duster. Of the three, it’s most likely to have a cult following, so it should be possible enough to rebuild.