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After four years of government contract work working as an aircraft mechanic and technical inspector in locations like Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Korea, Rob Friso was prepared to calm down and turn his attention back to his 1973 Plymouth 'Cuda. The E-body has been Friso's baby, ever since he located the car in his grandfather's garage when he was seventeen, and over the years the 'Cuda had been treated to many different builds. As he looked the car over, with a 750-horsepower 340ci small-block build, he had a build plan stirring. He wanted the next build to be his ultimate plan for the Plymouth, a tribute build, something that had the kind of power that any military aviation enthusiast could appreciate, the kind of detail that any A&P mechanic would spend hours looking over, and the intimidation factor that comes with looking at supersonic warplane as it sits at the far end of the runway, a split-second before the afterburners light off, the jets of flame trail from the exhaust, and the world simply becomes a deafening roar of power.
But what should the car be a tribute to? If you narrow your focus down to just military aviation, you are still spoiled for choice. Do you pick a scrappy fighter of a helicopter, like the "Little Bird" that the Army's 160th SOAR unit uses? Maybe you want to pay tribute to traditional Cavalry steeds, like the Cobra and Huey of the Vietnam era, or the Apache and Kiowa Warrior of the modern age. For many, the sleek, ferocious fighters of the Navy and Air Force come to mind, with names like Hornet, Eagle, Phantom, and Tomcat. Maybe the sheer might of the B-52 Stratofortress does it for you. But for Friso, there was only one aircraft that was worthy of building his beloved 'Cuda into a tribute for: the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.
The SR-71 is, to this day, the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft to exist...that the public knows about, at least. A development of the CIA's A-10 "Oxcart" program, the SR-71's purpose in life was to streak high above enemy territory, photograph targets, and to get out of the airspace without being touched by anything the other side could throw at it. To start this aircraft required 30cc's of triethylborane, a chemical that ignites on contact with oxygen, and two screaming big-block engines (either Buick "Wildcat" 401ci engines or, later, Chevrolet LS-7 454ci V8s) just to get the J58 engines turning to 3,200 RPM prior to actual ignition. The titanium needed for the Mach 3.3-capable aircraft to survive at high speeds was sourced from the U.S.S.R., the intended target that the SR-71 would be flying over and photographing. With a service ceiling of 85,000 feet and the ability to outrun any aircraft or missile lobbed at it, the Blackbird's position as an aviation legend is cemented in stone. At full speed, the SR-71 flew from St. Louis, Missouri to Cincinnati, Ohio in just over eight minutes and flew from the west coast of the continental United States to the eastern coast in just over an hour. And above all else, there was the sinister look of the airframe...painted in a dark blue tone that was almost black and striped in red to show ground crews where to not touch, the Blackbird's flechette-like body inspired the residents near Okinawa, Japan to refer to the aircraft as "Habu", the name of a poisonous pit viper found in the Ryukyu Islands.
At the National Aviation Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony for Robert J. "Bob" Gilliland (center, seated), 2017.
With the inspiration picked, Rob decided that he wanted the 'Cuda to be vetted. Instead of taking the cheap way out and having a small mural of the spy fighter painted somewhere, Friso decided to do it right and reached out to SR-71 Chief Test Pilot Robert "Bob" Gilliland in the hopes of having a valve cover signed for the car. Having already been a part of the A-12 program for Lockheed SkunkWorks, he was a shoe-in to be the chief test pilot for the SR-71 program and was nominated for the role by none other than "Kelly" Johnson himself. He first flew the SR-71 on December 22, 1964 and flight-tested every SR-71 completed before they were shipped off to the Air Force. With so much seat time in the Blackbird, and officially having more seat time in experimental supersonic flights above Mach 2 and Mach 3 than any other pilot, his approval would be the icing on the cake. Gilliland not only agreed to sponsor the car, but he sent back the signed valve cover with an invitation for Rob to be his honored guest at his enshrinement ceremony at the Aviation Hall of Fame. In addition, the newly-dubbed "SR-71 Blackfish" has been endorsed by Thornton D. "TD" Barnes, a former Groom Lake test engineer, USAF Col. Richard Graham, the last squadron commander for an SR-71 wing, and Raymond "Ed" Yielding, the pilot who set four speed records with the SR-71 on the final flight before the aircraft's first retirement in 1990.
Proper endorsements obtained, it was now time to start putting the 'Cuda together to hold up to it's end of the story. The overall plan was to have a car that could do a little bit of everything...a multi-role weapon, if you will. A custom chassis that was designed to be able to both work the dragstrip and function in the corners was a must. The chassis is structured so that the car will be SFI 25.5 compliant once the driver's cage is complete. The chassis has a parallel four-link with a triangulated four-link configuration that can be interchanged, depending on what the 'Cuda is being asked to do. A custom 2-into-1 anti-roll bar system and QA1 shocks at all four corners will help keep the Plymouth planted, and 14-inch Baer brakes with 6-piston calipers at all four corners will bring the fun to a safe stop.
Knowing that car had to be fast to live up to the Blackbird's reputation, a For Hemis Only 590ci Hemi with Stage V "Millennium" heads was set into the engine bay, set six inches back into a custom-formed firewall that took four attempts to make before it was to Friso's liking. The Hemi utilizes a Procharger F-2 with a custom gear drive that allows the system to be disconnected, letting the Hemi run naturally-aspirated. The internals are composed of stout pieces from companies like Callies, Jesel, Crower, ARP and more. A trick dual-triangulated, double-bypass cooling setup featuring Autorad radiators and twin Spal brushless fans will their best to keep the Hemi's temper cool. The fuel system, "from the fuel pump all the way to the throttle body" is completely composed of Holley-sourced parts and is monitored with a Dominator ECU. Backing the Hemi is a Rossler Turbo 400 transmission and a Neal Chance torque converter, which will send the grunt to the Strange Ultra Fab rear axle via a Composite Drivelines carbon-fiber driveshaft.
Most will agree that a Plymouth 'Cuda is already a wicked-looking machine out of the box. But there has been considerable work done to the body to smooth it out. Notice the lack of side marker lights, or door handles...they were shaved, along with the drip rails. The glass is flush-mounted, the wing is made out of 2024 T-3 aluminum, and the hood is a one-off build from VFN Fiberglass. Look to the front of the car for most of the work, however: the front bumper was flattened and raised before being set over the bottom of the grille, and the bumper sides were raised up to close the gap to the bodyline. The lower valence is 1971 'Cuda with a hand-fabricated custom inlet for the ProCharger.
Inside the Plymouth, Friso aimed for a bit of aviation flavor to the 'Cuda, but as he told us at PRI 2022, "...without the car looking like the Batmobile or an airplane inside". While the car is still under construction, a carbon fiber transmission tunnel will grab your eyes, while the Sparco seats will offer plenty of comfort. The grip handle from a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter is slated to be a part of the B&M Pro Bandit shifter. A Flaming River polished stainless steel steering column with full linkage and U-joints will allow Friso to control the chaos.
With the support of many companies in the aftermarket, including GP Headers, Carrilo, RedHorse Performance, RC Comp and many more, the 'Cuda is shaping up to be a marvel. As it was, in it's incomplete form at the 2022 PRI Show, the Plymouth was attracting a surprising amount of attention from attendees. The end result, however, isn't for Rob to have an absolutely wicked car to himself, however. The SR-71 Blackfish is meant to be a tribute to all manner of military aviation, the men and women whom he has worked with, looked up to and admires to this day.