“Craftsmanship,” these days, is a term car makers use in press materials more as a metaphor than a physical manifestation of one mans attention to detail in fashioning a particular car part of a bespoke nature. In other words, it’s as elusive as a unicorn in today’s automotive offerings. Even when you go to the upper echelon of highly desirable vehicles from the most sought after marques, what evidence there is of craftsmanship is generic in feel being integrated into a mass produced and heavily digitized form. Legitimate, singularly focused design done by hand not only comes at a price, but with utmost exclusivity. Enter ICON, a company that exists as a modern day coach builder of sorts, or as owner and founder, Jonathan Ward puts it, “Taking classic transportation design and revisiting it in a modern context.” Now it should be stated –and Ward himself admits- that ICON’s work is based off of existing vehicles from yesteryear, but the “reimagined” aspect of the vehicles engineering and design follows a very unique and bespoke formula unmatched by much of not only the aftermarket industry, but the auto industry itself, past and present.
ICON is most famous for their trucks, which comprises of some of the most iconic automotive name plates to inspire exploration on and off the beaten path: Included are the BR (Bronco); FJ (the iconic two-door 4×4 from Toyota)and the TR –a.k.a. Thirftmaster/ Advanced Design, a postwar, two-door Chevy pickup. Prior to the start of ICON, Ward started TLC -short for “Toyota Land Cruiser”- which still operates today, specializing in the servicing, modification and restoration of pretty much any and every Land Cruiser ever made. Ward and his shop also were heavily involved in the recreation of the most recent FJ in partnership with Toyota, from concept to prototyping.
Ward’s vision goes far beyond the trucks he and his shop are most famous for, included in the ICON portfolio are the “Derelict” and “Reformer” lines: Derelict cars are hot rods, completely unassuming on the outside, but full of guts under the hood and glory coming out of the exhaust. These cars -as the “Derelict” name implies- aren’t coated in glossy paint, but left in a chalk-full-of-character patina finish and complete with interiors that complement the old Americana vibe, be it Alligator skin or whatever the particular customer fancies. The “Reformer” line are one-off’s that are complete restorations done as a collaboration between Ward and the vehicle’s owner, encompassing whatever the particular customer’s wishes are, so as long as they don’t stray beyond Ward’s core set of ethics as both a designer and engineer.
The cool thing about Ward’s approach to reinterpreting these vehicle concepts is that he has found a remarkable balance between maintaining the intended purpose of the particular vehicle and its design while integrating modern technology, be it infotainment or an alternative propulsion system. Ward’s creations will continue to have relevance beyond the technology and fuel infrastructure of today. This goes against the grain of mass produced planned obsolescence and Ward is fully aware, “It’s so irresponsible, from cradle to crave. Cradle to cradle is being conscientious.” Those words really resonated with me on a personal note, as a car guy and someone who uses their car with the expectation of running it for a long time. So many cars today feel as if they’re engineered to be recycled more so than they are to be lived with, from sealed engine components to user-unfriendly engineering that speak to wanting to keep the servicing of your car out of your garage and exclusively within the domain of the dealer network.
Upon my recent visit to ICON, I was given a tour of the facility where I also had the chance to speak freely with Ward, who is clearly very passionate about cars and what he does just as much as he is personable. All ICON vehicles are hand assembled in a facility located on the outskirts of L.A. County. ICON only makes a few handfuls of vehicles a year, and each one undergoes an intensive inspection from start to finish, all to ensure that by the time the finished product arrives and is ready for delivery, it’s flawless. The assembly process alone is just one aspect of the craftsmanship experience at ICON, the other half is the way each and every piece of the vehicle comes together to form the finished product.
Take for instance the interior trim: What looks like metal is metal, and each part is commissioned by Ward or the customer depending upon the desires of the latter. Machined metal door trim? No problem. Custom designed metal gear shift for your Thriftmaster? Done. And let’s be clear: Ward doesn’t just pick up a metal shift knob from a pick-a-part and throws it on the inside of one of his creations. No, these pieces are designed and formed by master craftsman that work as part of Ward’s team at ICON, designed specifically to Ward’s standards and the customers wishes.
The painstaking attention-to-detail that happens throughout the creation and assembly process cannot be reinforced enough. One of my favorite and most memorable moments at ICON was looking at the gas caps on the BR, there’s knurling all around the perimeter of the gas cap, which is just as beautiful as it is functional for gripping it before twisting off to gas up. This little detailing speaks strongly to the balance Ward has worked so hard to achieve in all aspects of his designs between beauty and purposefulness. This is also what would fall under what Ward refers to as considered design, “I just don’t have much patience for superfluous design that doesn’t have any utility. The essence of it is to me something has to be dependable, what I call considered design. I’d like to think a well-designed product.”
While I didn’t get to drive any of the ICON vehicles, I spent plenty of time digesting all of what makes them so special and I even got to try out the BR and FJ for size being curious as to whether or not my leg heavy 6’5” frame would be comfortably accommodated in either vehicle –which I’m happy to report for day dreaming purposes, it does. From the 4×4’s to the Derelict lines, all ICON vehicles get upgraded chassis components so that you can enjoy and drive your ICON vehicle as often as you’d like without any of the drawbacks that would typically be associated with driving a vintage car or truck, such as being able to make an emergency stop if need be; Brembo brakes are more than up to accomplishing the task and saving your sweat for your afternoon workout sesh instead of a close-call while you were caning your ’46 Lincoln Derelict down your favorite backroad.
All of this comes at a rather substantial price tag. The price of entry for an ICON FJ, for instance, is north of $100k. When all of what the customer is getting in terms of build quality, craftsmanship, performance and equipment –which is admittedly quite impressive considering how well they stack up against both their modern competition and original counterparts- is a great value. What Jonathan Ward is doing with ICON is much more than reinterpreting classic automotive design, he’s making legitimately good design and engineering a top priority, not mass producing cool ideas down to a cost to make as much money as possible, however limited production his creations may be and he’s ok with that, “I want it to be that I never sold out and held to the ethics that the company was founded upon. I want them to remember what the brand stood for and see it in the vehicles that are on the road and respect that above all else. The brands I find most inspiring, it was those sort of principles that maintained a singular vision of their creator.” It is that singular vision embodied in ICON vehicles that I believe without a doubt will be appreciated and held in the highest regard for years and decades to come. Now, I need to find a rainbow that leads to a pot of gold I can cash-in to go and buy myself a BR or an FJ. Decisions, decisions…