Joe Miuccio was really into sport compact cars. Then, on his 30th birthday, Joe’s wife Ashlyn bought him a 1976 Plymouth Duster, telling him, “It’s time to get in a man’s car and not a little kid’s car.” After 10 years of work, all of it in his garage, Joe turned that rough shell of a Duster into this stunning 6.1L Hemi powered hot rod.
Ashlyn found the car in Ohio. It had been stored in a chicken coop, and, not surprisingly, was covered in chicken crap. On Joe’s birthday, she gave him the title and some pictures of the Plymouth and said, “We have to go get it. Pack your bags.”
Joe, Ashlyn, his sister and his brother in law made the two hour drive from their home in Ontario to get the car. “It was love at first sight,” Joe said.
Diving right into the project, Joe took the entire car apart. Just as soon as the entire car was in pieces, the Miuccios found out Ashlyn was pregnant. “You can see how that stalled the build”, Joe told me.
With a baby on the way, they moved to a larger home. In addition to more room for their growing family, the new house also had a big garage. And that was handy because Joe built the Duster right there. “Everything was done inside the garage in my home except for body and paint,” Joe told me.
Ashlyn had only one condition for Joe with regards to the build. “When my wife gave me the car,” he said, “we were a young couple with a very young child on the way, and she made me promise that I wouldn’t use any of the home finances to build it.” And Joe’s done just that, getting what money he could from parting out the 350 hp (!) Dodge Neon sport compact he had built, and working lots of overtime during the build.
Money from the Neon was used to finance the first part of the Duster’s rebuild – the suspension. Joe’s installed Reilly MotorSports components, using their coil over street front end and triangulated 4-bar rear suspension. The new suspension was given a final tuning by HHR Customs in Ontario.
Joe’s initial plan was just to go with another Mopar small block like the Duster had in it when he got it. But at that time, late model Hemi swaps were just coming out. “When I saw that,” Joe told me, “I said ‘I’m doing that.’”
He found a 6.1 Hemi out of a 2006 SRT Magnum on eBay. The Hemi puts out 450 horsepower and 430 ft-lbs or torque from the factory, and had very few miles on it, so Joe’s left it fairly stock. He added a cold air intake and TTi long tube headers that feed into a 3” dual exhaust system with an H-pipe and stainless steel MagnaFlow mufflers. “It’s not stupid loud,” Joe said, “but it’s got a good growl to it.”
And it wasn’t just that the engine already had plenty of power. Joe kept it mostly stock because he wanted his hot rod to be reliable. “I like driving it, cruising, and taking it for ice cream,” he told me. “I just wanted to get in and drive it. Since Day 1, I turn the key, it starts up, and away we go.”
It’s reliable, and pretty frugal with gas. Joe gets 26 mpg on the highway, and combined with his 43 gallon fuel tank, that gives him about 1,000 miles between fill ups.
(Wait. That can’t be right. *checks notes*)
Yep. 43 gallons.
The Hemi’s EFI needs a pressurized fuel system, and the Duster’s original tank wasn’t up to the task. Joe already had some plans for the trunk, so he had just cleaned everything out. And then… well, I’ll let him tell the story:
“The entire tank was custom built from stainless to fit between the frame rails of the trunk. The guy who built it said ‘Are you sure you want a tank this size?’ I told him I did and he said, ‘Alright, but it’s really big.’
“It was delivered to my door and I thought ‘Holy smokes this thing is huge!’ The first time I put gas in it I put in $20 worth of gas and the gauge didn’t even move. In 2019 I filled up with premium octane for $120 Canadian and I haven’t put gas in it since. But it’s been fine. The pump goes all the way to the bottom. It doesn’t bog in corners. I’ve never run out of fuel. I’m happy.”
I asked Joe what was involved in getting a late model Hemi into a mid-70s Duster. Reilly MotorSports components made that a simpler job than I thought it would be. Reilly provided a K-frame as part of their front suspension kits. Joe also purchased the engine mounts for the Hemi from Reilly. Joe built the front suspension on the K-frame out of the car, then he mounted the engine and transmission on it.
Using an engine hoist, he lifted the entire front end of the Duster eight feet in the air, and installed the engine/trans/suspension assembly from underneath the car. “That’s how the factory does it,” Joe said, “so I figured it might be easier, and it was. It fell right into place.”
The transmission is a T-56 6-speed manual out of a 1996 Viper. Joe gave that installation a lot of forethought as well. During installation, he first set the pinion angle at 3 degrees front and back, and then put the crossmember in. Since the T-56 is significantly wider than the original transmission, he had to build a custom sheet metal trans tunnel in the interior.
The six speed turns 4.10 gears in a Chrysler 8¾“ rear that came out of an E body. Joe had it up for sale, hoping to find an A-body rear, but when no one bought his, he narrowed it and put it in the Duster. You can probably guess that Joe can chirp the tires in first, second, and third gears, but with two overdrive gears in the transmission, he says the Hemi is basically idling at about 1200 rpm when it’s going down the highway.
Fitting a set of wide tires under the car required some rear wheel well work, and Joe was up to the task. Using information he got from the website abodiesonly.com, he built a set of mini tubs that sit flush with the frame rails. “It’s a big thing they did back in the 70s for drag racing,” Joe said. “Herb McCandless and all the guys who ran Dusters did it that way.”
The wiring for the Hemi started out as an adventure. Joe started working with a small company out of northern Michigan on a wiring harness. After eight months, the company just ghosted him and never did provide a harness. Fortunately, Joe contacted Hotwire Auto and they were able to quickly set him up with the correct wiring.
With so much go power, Joe needed some whoa power as well, and he gets it from Wilwood disc brakes on all four wheels. They were basically a bolt-in up front, but required a bit of welding to mount in the back. His original plans included a Hydroboost system, but the Hemi is so much wider than a small block there wasn’t room. The Duster has a Mustang II rack and pinion steering unit, assisted by the Hemi’s power steering pump.
The Plymouth rides on Boze Pro Touring wheels, 17x 8 in the front and 18 x 10 out back. Those are not just random sizes. They are another example of the thought Joe has put into the build. The 17” front wheels are a common size on Mustangs, and the 18” rears are the same size as Corvettes. “I’m going to drive this car,” Joe told me. “I’m going to do autocross. I want to do all kinds of fun stuff with this car. I wanted less expensive and easy to find tires.”
When you spend as much time driving as Joe and his family do in the Duster, the interior has to be a nice place, and sure enough – it is. There’s a complete set of New Vintage gauges in the dash. The seat covers and door panels feature CNC stitching on Alcantara and there’s new carpeting. Joe built the custom center console himself. The Vintage Air A/C is installed, but not fully plumbed yet. That will be a project for this winter.
Second Skin sound deadening insulation from the firewall to the trunk panel keeps the interior quiet enough for family conversations, and to make it easier to enjoy the complete Pioneer sound system. The Apple CarPlay dash unit drives a set of 6×9 speakers in the rear deck, 3½” speakers in the front dash and a 12″ subwoofer in the trunk.
And the trunk is also full of great details. The floor is made of laminate wood flooring boards for good looks and durability. Joe’s not afraid to load anything on that flooring. He custom built covers for the trunk hinges using “sweeps” he got from a friend who works in a tool and die business. And the custom tool box went through the same painting process as the body: cleaning, block sanding, painting, and buffing. The Duster emblem looks right at home.
The body required more work than Joe initially thought it would. When he first picked up the Duster, he thought the body was in great shape. But after giving it a complete blasting, there were significant areas that needed work. Joe replaced the rotted out driver and passenger side front floor pans. The rear quarter panels needed a lot of work, but Joe told the body shop he didn’t want any bondo, so they did a lot of cutting and welding.
As you can see, the resulting Granite Crystal Metallic paint is beautiful with the original chrome accents. Joe relies on products from Adam’s Polishes to keep it looking great.
Joe’s really happy with how his Duster turned out. “It’s an absolute thrill to drive,” he said. “And It’s an enjoyable car to drive. It’s super comfortable. It holds the road well. I take the kids and the wife for ice cream and I don’t worry about it. I have absolute confidence in the car.”
The Duster is a regular sight at car shows. It won the Maurice Cassidy Memorial Trophy at the 2019 London Speed and Custom Show. Joe’s also a big fan of Cars and Coffee events. “I like to go to car shows, meet new people and learn about their cars,” he said. “I have friends who are AMC, Chevy, Ford guys. In this area everyone hangs out. We don’t care what you drive.”
His ten year project came to fruition with a lot of planning and hard work. “I spent from 2009 to 2019 building the car,” he said. “It’s 100% built in my garage. Every single nut and bolt has been cleaned and fixed and upgraded.”
Joe also remembers and appreciates the help he’s had along the way.
His friend Greg has been able to discuss things along the way and add valuable information to help when things got difficult. Greg also kept him going by discussing each small component in order to help keep Joe focused. Greg is now in Kentucky building his own Duster.
He gave a huge shoutout to his buddy Jeremy, who owns Drag U Down Customs hot rod shop. “About six or seven years into the build,” Joe recalled, “I was getting depressed because I wasn’t driving it. He kept me going. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’re almost done. We’ll get there.’ He was one of my main helpers on the build along with my wife.”
His friend Jeff of Jeff’s Powder Coating in Michigan has powder coated numerous parts off the Duster, including the intake manifold and suspension pieces. “He’s been awesome,” Joe said, “Anything I could take off and have powder coated, he’s done it.” And fellow Mopar enthusiasts on forabodiesonly have freely shared their knowledge with him since the car is older than he is.
But first and foremost, Joe loves the support he gets from his family. And that started when he was a kid.
“My dad was very influential to me when I was growing up,” he said. “He always had some muscle car or truck. Same with my mom. My earliest memories of driving around with my mom were in a Hemi Orange ’69 Charger with a 440.” (That’s his dad standing by his 1964 Plymouth Sport Fury III Convertible with a 383 and a four-speed in the picture below.)
And Joe’s trying to pass the hot rodding legacy to his children as well. His daughter calls the Duster “the fast car” and wants Joe to drive her to school in it on her first day. Joe’s son has already been helping out in the garage, assisting with some brake work on the Duster, and he and Joe completed the process of building a minibike with a 5 hp Briggs and Stratton engine.
And not surprisingly, Ashlyn has been there for Joe every step of the way, starting with that great birthday present. “She still supports it,” Joe told me. “Every once in a while she’ll say, ‘Hey, you’re kind of getting a little grumpy. Go get in your car and go for a drive.’”
Ashlyn’s incredible birthday gift has not only set the stage for Joe to keep a classic American hot rod going, it’s also keeping a great Miuccio family tradition alive for a third generation.
All photos courtesy of Joe Miuccio
Click here to see more photos of Joe’s Hemi Duster
You can follow Joe and the Duster on Instagram via @hemiehbody