Although the Jeep CJ, International Scout and Ford Bronco got the ball rolling on small personal off-roaders, it was the Chevrolet Blazer that really jump-started the interest in full-size SUVs.

Based on a shortened pickup truck platform, the Blazer was more of a play toy than a work truck. While it was able to go off road for camping, hunting, fishing or just boonie-whacking, most Blazers tended to be used on the highway as all-season vehicles in suburbia. As such, creature comforts were just as important as off-road durability.

Sensing this shift in the truck market, Chrysler Corporation figured that it was time to quit sitting on the sidelines. While Chrysler can be considered one of the pivotal builders of 4x4s, the vast majority of theirs were pure work trucks such as the 1946–68 Dodge Power Wagon and 1957-and-later W-series pickups. Indeed, the smallest four-wheel drive they built was the W100 half-ton with a short pickup box. And that was their jumping off point for a Mopar multi-purpose vehicle.

Essentially mounting a Blazer-like body on top of a shortened W100 chassis and borrowing every possible light truck part possible to save tooling costs, Dodge introduced the AW100 Ramcharger midway through the 1974 model year. However, the Ramcharger wasn’t the only Chrysler product to compete with the Blazer.

Plymouth wants to play too

Chrysler-Plymouth had also taken notice of the shift in tastes from large cars to MPVs, with Grand Fury station wagons essentially rotting on dealer’s lots during the OPEC oil crisis of 1973–74. With MPVs still holding their own in the market, Plymouth wanted in on the action. So, in addition to the Ramcharger, the first, only, and last Plymouth 4×4 SUV — the PW100 Trail Duster — also premiered as a mid-1974 model.

While the name was an obvious tie-into Plymouth’s popular car of that time, the vehicle was a classic example of badge engineering. Aside from the grille and emblems, both trucks were identical. Even the series name was something of a copy — PW100 (essentially Plymouth Power Wagon 100 series).

Right out of the gate, it seemed like both models were out to capture sales more from the Jeep CJ-5 than GM’s Blazer twins. Unlike the Blazers, the off-road Mopars came without a top as standard equipment, with a factory-fitted hard top or dealer-installed soft top as an extra cost option. Additionally, most were also austere entry-level models. However, paying customers clamored for well-optioned hard tops.

At the kickoff of the 1975 model year, Chrysler went in for greater fuel economy in their MPVs. At introduction in ’74, each featured the 318-ci V8 as the standard engine. For 1975, not only was the evergreen 225-ci slant six the new standard motor, but Chrysler also added two-wheel-drive variants: the AD100 and PD100 (the latter really showing it to be a copy, essentially standing for Plymouth Dodge 100 series). The 440-ci big block remained on the top of the option list through 1978.

Capitalizing on a moving market

Despite the OPEC oil crisis a few years earlier, light-truck sales began to blossom again in the later 1970s, and the Trail Duster was there at the right time to have a part of it. As more buyers were clamoring for more trucks with luxury features over the spartan open-bodied models, Plymouth gladly obliged.

Sport packages with upgraded trim appealed to the off-roaders, along with football and hockey moms (since no self-respecting kid played soccer in the 1970s), and a Macho package with bold graphics was added in 1980, fitting between the base and Sport models. Even a Sno Commander package was available (only in four-wheel drive, like the Macho package), complete with front-mounted snow plow — confirming why so few survived past the 1980s.

End of the trail

The biggest changes began in 1979, when the roofless open body was no longer standard — or even available. The hard top became standard equipment, as sales were driven to it far more than the dealer-installed soft top, which still remained as an option. And like the Dodges, the Trail Duster used single round headlights on lower-end models and quad rectangular headlights on the posh series.

The platform saw its only significant change in 1981, when the roof became an integral unit with the body. The rear quarter glass curved into the top of the roofline, and now there was a full-height liftgate instead of a tailgate like in previous models. Demand for an open-body Trail Duster (or Ramcharger, for that matter) was all but nil, as most buyers preferred a leak- and squeak-free insulated and upholstered roof in lieu of the bolted-down shell.

Because of the new body, the ’81 Trail Duster is also the most unique and rarest, since it was discontinued at the end of the model year. By then, the new-in-1978 full-size Ford Bronco had been drop-kicking both Mopars in sales. As for the Ramcharger, it soldiered on with the rest of the Dodge truck line (mirroring the changes in powertrain and trim with the pickups) through the end of this generation of trucks in 1993.

Looking for the not-so-dusty trail

The Trail Duster hasn’t really proven to be worth either more or less than its Ramcharger siblings. And Ramchargers are generally on the bottom of the Blazer, Bronco, and even Jeep Wagoneer/Cherokee MPV pecking order.

Offsetting the “gee, I didn’t know Plymouth made a Blazer” factor for rarity is that the unique trim bits are impossible to find, since there is no Plymouth pickup to contribute to the parts gene pool, unlike a Ramcharger, with its copious quantities of available like-trimmed Dodge pickups.

Ramchargers occasionally surface in the market (we have 10 1981-and-later examples in the ACC database), but Trail Dusters are virtually extinct. Few were carefully preserved; most were worked hard in harsh winter weather and subsequently rusted away. None are in our database, and barring the occasional hit on eBay (where I’ve found more NOS emblems than actual trucks), I have yet to find one in any auction company’s online archived results. So unfortunately, values are essentially conjecture. But one thing’s for certain: If you do find one, you’ll most assuredly have the only one at a vintage-vehicle event — if not in your entire state.

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