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This or That – Season 2: 1969 Chevy Nova SS 350 or 1971 Plymouth Duster 340?

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1969 Chevrolet Nova SS 350 (top); 1971 Plymouth Duster 340 (bottom); images by the author.

This or That is not a comparison report between two vehicles, but rather a feature that enables us, in an idyllic world, to add a collectible vehicle into our dream garage on a weekly basis, but with a catch: We can only pick one vehicle from this pairing and it has to be for enjoyment purposes rather than as an investment.

Featured in this edition of This or That are two well-known titans of small-block power prowess in compact form: a 1969 Chevrolet Nova SS350 and a 1971 Plymouth Duster 340. Sure, the platforms were designed for, and mass-produced with, less nefarious power units hidden below the hood, but just like their larger siblings, each stable of engineers made sure to incorporate room for an injection of large-displacement and/or high-horsepower DNA. Here’s a small look at each (if you’d like to read more than we provide here, both were featured in our Hemmings Muscle Machines magazine; just click on the provided links above).

Let’s start with the Nova, which Chevy engineers and stylists redesigned for the 1968 model year. At the time of its introduction, a contemporary road test magazine stated that the SS 350 version — which we will focus on in this space — was similar to a Camaro, albeit with more room. It made some sense in that the Chevy II Nova (the Chevy II portion of the name dropped for 1969 and beyond) was — more or less — Camaro’s divisional sibling: a unit-body car with a bolt-in subframe that incorporated the engine, front suspension, and transmission crossmember. For 1969, the base Nova SS engine was the four-barreled, L48-coded unit rated for 300 hp, and bolted to it was the choice of the three-speed manual, Muncie four-speed manual, or THM-350 automatic. The rest of the chassis composition included the F40 suspension system (the F41 upgrade was optional), a 12-bolt differential, 14×7-inch wheels and power front disc brakes. Exterior differences between the base Nova and the SS editions included simulated ribbed rectangular air intakes on the hood, black-accented grilles and rear taillamp panel with obvious SS emblems, and SS front fender nameplates.

Few Novas were tested by contemporary new-car media types, given the demand for the more popular high-powered ponies and intermediates at the time. Motor Trend (April 1968) tested a ’68 Nova with a 325-hp 327, backed by a four-speed manual and a differential containing a 3.55:1 gearset, which furnished a 0-60 mph time of 7.7 seconds while covering the quarter-mile in 15.9 seconds (a quarter-mile mph was not listed). The same magazine, in the March 1969 issue, released a road test of a ’69 Camaro RS/SS furnished with the 300-hp 350, in conjunction with a four-speed manual and 3.31 gearset within the differential; the report claimed a 0-60 time of 8.3 seconds and a quarter-mile ET of 15.9 seconds @ 88 mph.

Across town, Mother Mopar was making changes of her own. Compact power had always been a part of their sales portfolio with the Dodge Dart GT Sport and Plymouth 383 ‘Cuda; however, when the Barracuda line was scheduled to transition to the newly developed E-body platform in 1970, it seemed the Plymouth division was going to have a conspicuous void in the budget muscle market segment. Enter the also new-for-1970 Duster 340.

Derived from the Valiant, the Duster 340 had a unit-body core that incorporated a front subframe. With a wheelbase measuring 108 inches, the structure supported an independent front torsion-bar suspension complemented by multi-leaf rear springs. It was a heavy-duty system; the front torsion bars measuring 0.87-inches in diameter. A 0.88-inch diameter front anti-roll bar was also installed. Other key components included Chrysler’s heavy-duty 8¾-inch differential, beefy 10-inch drum brakes (front discs were optional), and 14×5.50-inch wheels. The model’s name was a direct correlation to what lay straight below the hood: a high-output, four-barrel carburated V-8 (introduced for 1968) that, during our featured year of 1971, touted a factory rating of 275 hp and 340 lb-ft of torque. Backing the block was a choice of a floor-shifted three-speed manual, Chrysler’s A-727 TorqueFlite automatic, or the A-833 four-speed manual featuring a Hurst Competition linkage. Like the Nova, the Duster 340 was offered only in two-door coupe form, and visually it included wide body side stripes — available in black or white only — and could have been optioned with a blacked-out hood and a sizable “340 Wedge” canted hood decal; not forgetting to mention the rear “Go-Wing.”

In terms of performance, Motor Trend (January 1971) also tested the new platform, although in this case it was a 1971 Dodge Demon 340 fitted with — naturally — the same 275-hp 340, as well as a four-speed manual, a 3.91:1 geared differential, power steering, and power front disc bakes. Their staff recorded a 0-60 mph time of 6.5 seconds and tripped the quarter-mile timing lights in 14.49 seconds @ 98.25 mph.

Given the opportunity to add a purpose-built budget muscle car to your collection, which of these two would you add and why?