Back when they were cranking up cars for Sunday afternoon drives, dusters were standard gear. Men and women alike wore the lightweight, long linen coats to protect their clothing from the mud and dust that went flying whenever horseless carriages came down the street.

Our grandparents might have looked funny in those wrinkled creations, accessorized with hats, scarves and goggles. But let's face it, the coverups served a real purpose. They saved washing galore. And what a pleasant, less complicated era they symbolized. Not all this modern hurrying and scurrying. Back then, everything moved at a slower pace, including transportation. Just thinking about it makes one nostalgic for the good old days. . . .Maybe menswear designers have been feeling nostalgic, too. That could explain why so many have included the style beloved by early motorists in their collections. But these are dusters with a difference. The baggy, unfashionable image synonymous with Grandpa's time has completely disappeared. These new dusters are as slick and smart and streamlined as Grand Prix race cars.

Designers have taken inspiration from the past, then updated and refined the idea. Even wrinkles, once as much a part of dusters as running boards were a part of cars, have been eliminated or at least minimized.

Linen is still being used. But it bears little resemblance to the unkempt variety once on the market. Creators of male apparel also are offering such stylish alternatives as permanently crinkled cotton and supple, featherweight silks, which give a definite dressy appearance to the once strictly utilitarian piece of apparel. And that statement brings up another thing that has changed. Today's unlined, unstructured coverups are meant to be seen; they've been designed to make a fashion statement and be an essential part of an outfit. Wear them simply to protect your clothes? No way!

For example, consider Tony Lambert's smart navy blue duster coat, a pivotal piece in the spring collection. Lambert likes to show it with a handwoven sweater and double-pleated pants. Without the topper, the outfit's certainly attractive. But the duster adds great dramatic impact and makes the entire turn-out more memorable.

Same thing applies to a striking duster in Bill Robinson's spring line. The minute the coat's draped over the shoulders of the designer's double-breasted jacket, the ensemble pulls together and snaps to attention.

Dusters, according to designer George Machado (he has a cream-colored silk in his collection for Zylos that's a beauty) can make any outfit more distinctive. They might not be for every man, he admits. Certainly, it takes self-confidence to wear something that makes such a grand entrance. But for the gent with a bent for high style, they make sense. And we promise: If you dare to wear one, the ladies will be enchanted and more than happy to go riding with you. Even if your car sputters like an old Model T!