In fashion, new brands pop up all the time. Slap a logo on a T-shirt and—poof!—you’ve got a new label. The tech world is similar with new startups that promise ever-easier ways for you to have a burrito delivered to your mouth. Cars, not so much.
The Big 3 American auto manufacturers have been the Big 3 for a long time without much threat of adding a fourth. A huge part of that is the tremendous amount of capital, engineering and manufacturing resources it takes to get a new car company off the ground. But another factor is inertia. Cars roll off the assembly line year after year without much introspection. There has to be a 2016 model because there was a 2015 model and a 2014 model, who cares if there isn’t much difference between the three?
Continuing to do things the way they’d always been done never sat well with Icon 4x4 founder Jonathan Ward. After a career in the entertainment industry, he veered in a different direction and started a Toyota Land Cruiser service and parts shop in California when those vehicles weren’t as appreciated as they are today. After that got a little boring, Ward launched his own car company, Icon, recreating classic 4x4s (these are cars that were invented long before the term “SUV”) that had all of the modern features as far as engines and chassis and interior were concerned but packaged them in a retro body style with timeless appeal.
The cars—modeled after vintage Ford Broncos, Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40s, and Chevy Thriftmaster pickups—aren’t cheap (production models are in the $160-260K range). But they are tough to resist, as evidenced by the years-long waiting list to buy one.
In addition to its production models, Icon also creates one-off vehicles as part of its Derelicts and Reformers series. With the Derelicts, the car’s vintage body—dings, scratches, and all—is preserved in tact, while the Reformers have a more polished finish. Both feature just about any modern amenity or luxury that a would-be owner can think of, all integrated in a way that reflects taste and not just a sheer dollar amount.
Ward, you could say, is an Icon-oclast (pardon the pun). He drives points home with a flurry of curse words. But he is more than just brash. There is a purity of vision when he talks about making cars that is tough not to get wrapped up in. It helps that the cars he creates are nothing short of breathtaking and quickly make you forget about the other more well-known automakers in Icon’s price range. We spoke with Ward to find out how he came up with the idea for Icon, how he resists the urge to sell out, and the other crazy ideas he has cooking.
What were you doing before you started Icon?
I was in the entertainment industry and so was my wife. Neither one of us were very passionate about our jobs. Cars had always been a hobby and, without much intelligent forethought, my wife and I decided to reinvent and do something we love. That’s when we started the first brand TLC [a Toyota Land Cruiser parts and repair shop] 20 years ago. Then over the years, I kinda got bored. With my own design and engineering interest and seeing a trend that I thought the market might go in, we started Icon to try and define a brand with a much bigger scope. How do we infuse the conveniences, efficiency, and performance from modern cars with the aesthetic of classic cars? Because the quality of execution that everyone is so in love with with classics can often feel like a shortcoming when you drive one deadstock. You’re like, this sucks. It takes two arms to steer and it has no power and it’s not necessarily reliable.
That idea of merging modern amenities with classic styling seems like such a no-brainer in hindsight. Why do you think no one had done it before you?
Like a lot of things in modern culture people get stuck in ruts. Like if I’m going to build a classic car and I want it to drive good, is it going to be a street rod is or is it going to be pro touring? People repeat what has been done before and don’t take a fresh perspective to find the better solution.
TLC was a Land Cruiser shop and Icon has its own version of the vehicle. What is it about those vintage Land Cruisers that holds such an appeal?
I’ve always been an avid traveler. I discovered in my journeys all over the world that the more remote the locale, the harsher the terrain, the more people had such a great respect for the early Land Cruisers. When I came home and wanted to get something for surfing and skiing and fun on the weekend, kind of a beater, I said I’m going to get one of those. I bought the best one I could find which was pretty shitty. Being the geek that I am, I took it apart and restored it and everyone loved it. For people that haven’t had experience with them on safari or excursions, there’s just a certain purity to their design continuity. Everything on an old FJ40 is clearly defined and immediately communicated when you look at it. The Land Cruiser, above and beyond the Land Rovers or the Jeeps or other vehicles in that segment, has such a purity of engineering intent. I think that’s a big part of the appeal for people.
When did you build the first Icon? What was that experience like?
It was right around the time the FJ Cruiser [which Ward helped design] came out. We built the first Icon prototype in 2005. I start jonesing to create something that it gets to be like a 3D rotatable model that I can picture in my head. I took a sequestered area of the TLC shop in our old building and one technician and we just built to that vision. When I finished it, I went back and did the math and added up what it cost to build. I thought, “Shit! No one is going to pay this much money. This is insane. What have I done?” I called a good friend of mine, who’s just a genius at brand and design. I said, “What do I do? Do I dumb it down? Do I use a fiberglass body, cheaper axles, a simpler v8? Which corner should I cut to make this more marketable?” He shot me down and said you’re an idiot, don’t change anything. It’ll be distinct in the market and you’ll carve out your own space. So I rolled the dice and just launched it. Fortunately he was right. What’s been interesting and unanticipated over the years is that it’s been the customer base that has pushed the price further north because they’re constantly pushing me to innovate and integrate more and more stuff. I was nervous that there wouldn’t be a market and then the market that did embrace it never ordered a base model.
What is the process like for buying an Icon?
The vast majority of what we do is built to order. The only time we’ll have something on the floor to sell is if it’s second-hand which is random. Most of the time it starts with someone calling and for whatever reason there’s already one of our models near and dear to them. It’s a Bronco guy or an FJ guy. Sometimes they’ll appreciate our approach and not be drawn to something specific so we go through a series of questions and get to know them—their family, their hobbies, their locale. If it’s a production model, then we start helping them choose between an FJ or a BR or a TR. Or it’s a much longer conversation with the Derelicts and Reformers. If they don’t come to us with a specific vehicle then we have to determine decade or styling principles and then continent of manufacture. Is it a coupe? A sedan? A limo? A convertible? A pickup? We’ll go through kind of a lookbook of ideas to help them fine tune what they dig.
If someone called today, how long would it take for that person to get their car or truck?
It’s horrible. If they wanted an FJ right now it’s about a 12-month wait. A TR is about a two-and-a-half year wait. If they want a Bronco, they’re sold out through the fourth quarter of 2018. If they want a Derelict or Reformer, they’re also a running 30-40 month back order. We’re trying to move into a larger facility so we can scale operations and reduce that wait time, but every move I’ve made thus far has been outstripped by the increase in demand. I’m not bitching, but it sucks. It’s very frustrating to work so hard to build the market and have someone call who’s got their head wrapped around the crazy cost to do what we do and is all-in and then it takes so much time.
How many cars are you working on at a time?
We have a 44,000 square-foot shop with 46 employees. On the list there’s probably over 100 cars in the queue. We build four Broncos at a time in a batch, 2 TRs at a time, 3 FJs at a time. Then the Derelicts and Reformers are always entirely one-off. Everything is done by teams that focus on only that product. There’s a lot of pride and consistency within the crew.
The word “patina” comes up in a lot of your interviews. Why do you think that lived-in feel of the Derelicts connects with people?
There’s a couple of factors. First off, ease of use. You take an absolute perfect concours quality car and the second you start actually using it, you start with that first ding, that first scratch and it’s disheartening and disenchanting. A lot of times people don’t enjoy what they’ve created and it sits as a garage queen and doesn’t really get utilized. The other thing is there’s a certain romance and it evokes those questions of what has this vehicle seen? There’s a charm and a sense of history that those vehicles add for people. Last but not least I think it’s a situation where people are less inclined to get that blinged out Bentley or Lamborghini because of all the social stigma that’s attached. Everything we do offers people a way to express their personal style without it being about the money. Even the shiny pretty perfect stuff is generally invisible to people. It’s not like, “Here’s an asshole in a twin turbo Porsche. Fuck him.” It avoids all of that crap.
How are some of the original models holding up? Do you see them still?
By not having any dealers we maintain a very direct relationship with our owners. We have some clients that every four or five years they send it back to us to update and service it. We’ve got them all over the world and a lot of them are really getting their asses kicked and I’m really pleased with the durability. I kind of cheated in defining the brand because a key thing with Icon was to return to classic industrial design and quality and execution. Take the old FJ40s, they were made to be the best they could be and last as long as possible. Somewhere along the line, car companies realized that’s not good business. It’s actually better business to have something last through a lease cycle and then head off to the landfill because you want that repeat consumer. I always thought that was horrendously irresponsible to the planet. That’s why we run a Dana 60 axle. Yeah, it’s overkill, but guess what? The fucker’s going to last forever. We’re designing with the concept of hopefully this vehicle is around for decades. And since some technology may be completely worthless in the future, we design so that it can be extracted out of the vehicle and then you can adapt to whatever, hydrogen, electrical. You can keep your core investment.
Is it tough to resist the temptation to cut corners?
It’s just not my nature to do that. A good example is a couple years back, dealing with all this growth, we were like shit we need more money. We had always been independent, but with Icon I needed more capital to find the efficiencies, scale the operations and get rolling. We had several discussions with private wealth managers, VCs, some of them clients who really understood what we were about. Every single time, they all wanted to do exactly what you’re thinking, the conventional business, which is scale it, whore it, sell it. I got so frustrated that I wrote a manifesto of brand guiding points of what we will do and what we won’t do. I finally said fuck it I’ll grow it however I can but I’m going to stay independent because I really believe in those ethics and refuse to corrupt them. Granted, I’m a capitalist pig as well. I would like to make more money but I’m resigned to doing that elsewhere. I’m starting some other ventures, but I’m so happy with where we are [with Icon] that if that means this business can’t grow beyond double or triple what it is today, then fine. It’s a good living. I’m proud and sleep well and am happy to come to work and take great pride in respecting those ethics.
No one does that in transportation anymore. I’m a big history buff and a big reader especially of early industrialists and automotive brands. When debating a choice, it sounds cheesy, but I’ll ask myself what would Ettore Bugatti do. That brand is only worth what it is today because the man behind it back in the day held to the ethics of what a Bugatti was. It meant something and it still means something today.
Have you ever had a request from a customer that you couldn’t meet?
Oh, sure. Fortunately we’re busy enough that we are not afraid to say no if they want to build a Pimp My Ride, fish tanks-and-neon kind of thing and we don’t feel it really speaks to what we’re about.
Where did the idea for the Derelicts and Reformers series come from?
The very first Derelict, I built for myself because kids, dogs, life, commute. I had been there, done that with a perfect restoration and was always getting bent about things that shouldn’t matter as the condition deteriorated. I found a car that had a killer patina that I fell in love with. It was just a ride I built for myself on nights and weekends. It wasn’t until it was done and being driven that my dumbass thought that this is still a match to the Icon brand premise and wouldn’t it be nice if we could start doing these. The Reformers grew out of not everyone appreciating a beat-up wabi sabi exterior. A lot of people want the modern drivability, the vintage aesthetic, but want the concours quality fit and finish done. In the scope of what we do they’re probably the worst business decision because the amount of time it takes for each build is a massive multiple above and beyond the standard models. But it’s a great way to have a skunkworks program that was customer funded. This was a way to keep the creative juices flowing and build some of those cars I’ve been yearning to build and allow our team to expand their skill set and play with new technologies and different platforms.
What’s your daily driver right now?
I’m kind of schizophrenic. I’m either test driving whatever Icons are entering their final test drive phase, because everything we build, we put 500-1,000 miles on each and every one, or then I have a ‘52 DeSoto station wagon Derelict. I’ve got an old Bentley Continental Mulliner Coupe. I’ve got a 34 DeSoto coupe that’s not running and I’ve got a Porsche 993 twin turbo. I’ll slip in and out of things. I’ve had all sorts of weird contemporary and vintage cars to get to know the platform and come up with ideas. There’s nothing better than some ass-ometer time in a stock version of something to come up with a list of opportunities you might pursue. I’d love to fuck with a Porsche 928. I’m waiting for that phone call. It’d be really fun to tweak out one of those and piss off the purists.
What other projects are you working on?
There’s tons of projects in the queue that are getting built. We’re doing a 1950 Mercury Coupe, the old James Dean lead slead. I’m excited because we’re starting to do some EV builds. That Mercury’s going to be a very high performance twin motor, oil-cooled Derelict, kind of a Tesla killer with about 700 foot pounds of torque. We’re doing a car that’s going to piss off all the purists. We’re taking an original 1970s Superbird and a brand new Hellcat and building a Reformer version of a Superbird that we’re calling the Hellion. I did a major research and design book on industrial design of that time, late mid-century, everything but transportation: McIntosh, Marantz, Braun, and Mies van Der Rohe is what we landed on. I said I’m going to try and put myself in his shoes and say if he had been on the design team at Mopar what would his approach and execution have been on all the details—interior materials, dash design, gauges, fonts, indices, lighting, trim. Another fun one is we’re doing a 275 GTE Ferrari Reformer. We stumbled into a unique opportunity to buy a complete body, trim, interior shell of a really nice one missing the chassis and mechanical. It liberated us to go after such a high end platform and again probably piss off a lot of people. We’re doing a one-off chassis and will integrate modern Ferrari mechanical. This is the first Icon Ferrari.