The Making of an ICON

My brother is one of my favorite people on the planet. Ten years ago, just as he and my other brother (also my favorite) were finishing building a lakefront cabin for our extended families to use, he bought a pontoon boat. Truth, what’s a lake house without a party boat?

He spent $1,600 on it and its trailer, then turned around and sold the trailer for $800. Sometimes the boat runs right away, sometimes it needs a little … finessing. It’s died on us mid-lake many times, but Steve always gets it going somehow – we haven’t had to swim ashore yet. He named the boat Good Enough.

“Good enough” is my brother’s philosophy on life, and I admire it.

On the flip side of that is Jonathan Ward and his ICON brand of vehicles. Which I equally admire. Ward’s focus is on perfection – on making something the very best it can be. On taking something old and upcycling it times 100. Taking a design and not just improving it, but bringing its idealized existence to life.

This can be tricky to do in a material world.

In fact, when Ward was first imagining his 4x4 vehicle designs, tallying up the costs to determine the price of such a vehicle, he determined his dream to be unviable.

But the dream persisted, and he went ahead making it a reality. He hoped “If you build it, they will come” would ring true for him.

It has. So much so that customers happily part with hundreds of thousands of dollars to own an ICON, sometimes waiting years to receive it.

Rooted in Car Culture

The dream started with Ward’s desire to meet a growing need in the collector car market for the marriage of modern performance and classic vehicle styling.

Like many innovative ideas, Ward’s idea for the ICON came on quickly but was likely a lifetime in the making. It was built from pieces of his childhood, when his grandfather owned a small garage and dealership. And from pieces of his teenage life, when, living in SoCal, he became immersed in car culture and started building stock cars.

“I quickly bored of that, as I really appreciate many of the perversions of modern conveniences and technology found in current production vehicles, so I started infusing more and more of that, along with CAD development, laser scans, and leveraging technology to further elevate [the] work.”

While working with his wife, Jamie, at TLC – a company they founded and the leading Land Cruiser service center in America today – Ward became a special projects consultant for Toyota and was asked by Toyota President Akio Toyoda himself to design three running and driving prototypes for what ultimately became the 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser.

The released model featured enough departures from Ward’s prototypes that he was left wondering: How would I make this vehicle differently?

“It was not so much a conscious decision, well factored by SWOT analysis and focus groups,” Ward says. “It was just a passionate idea I wanted to see created. Since no one else was doing it, I decided to give it a shot.”

Upping Upcycling

Born was the ICON FJ series. It’s the 4x4 you always dreamed of but could never find: hand-built, unique (no two are exactly the same), enduring, powerful, and downright beautiful.

Ideal for island, mountain, beach, desert … many clients consider the ICON the most used and valued tool on the property (or vessel). With an 87:1 crawl ratio, 115 MPH top speed, get lost confidently, the website states.

Ward and his team start with a well-preserved Toyota Land Cruiser as a “base,” but hardly anything remains of the original vehicle when done. Everything is upgraded, Incredible Hulk style, to the maximum performance level and design standard.

Take the FJ’s body, for just one example: Built like a tank. An all-new 5/32”-thick 5052 H32 aluminum body captures the original Land Cruiser character but with even greater longevity and resistance to the elements. The body is built by hand, and finished by hand. The hood is new OEM Toyota stamped steel, and the grill is a vintage part, reads the website.

The FJ earned Ward king status in the growing restoration-modernization (or resto-mod) movement, where vintage 4x4s are beefed up beyond categorization. Some call them fantasy-utility vehicles, or FUVs – the coolest acronym ever.

After the FJ series came the BR series (based on the Ford Bronco, and with support from Ford and Nike) and the TR series (based on a 1940s GM pick-up truck model, and with support from GM). More than 200 of these three designs have been made – every aspect by hand, and each one celebrated.

Then there are the ICON Derelicts and Reformers, for when you want to make your own classic badass car more badass than you ever dreamed. Imagine a Ford Torino Cobra or a Chevy El Torino that runs like a dream by today’s standards and is practically indestructible. Or whatever you want!

From the website: Eliminate the archaic mechanical elements to allow users to get the best of both worlds: classic styling and modern performance, to create a daily driver with timeless style, modern functionality, and environmental consciousness. … Sometimes we leave the styling dead-stock. Other times we work to improve and evolve the design details. It depends on the vehicle and the client. Epic and distinct.

The main difference between Derelicts and Reformers is that the former retains the outer design/paint of the original car. “[S]ometimes with the Reformers we keep them visually very original. However, the newer the model year, the more we try to elevate the design details, try to get closer to what the original designer envisioned, before the business side of the business pushed them into compromises,” Ward says.

“We are trying to revive classic industrial arts in the USA. Think back to before Wall Street, before focus groups, back to a time when things were simply manufactured to be the best they could be. Trying to capture the essence of the original vintage vehicle, but without all of the archaic experiences.”

When asked about his favorite project, Ward says he’s “always enamored with the next build” and that the one-off Derelicts and Reformers are his favorites. He and his team have had to say no to a couple of projects though.

“Sometimes you have to, to protect the brand,” he says. “If the client’s taste and vision is not aligned with ours, best not to take the job. We must be passionate to create what the client has in mind.”

The team has entertained a few concept builds, like the electric Helios, with a design heavily influenced by Art Deco style and WWII fighter aircraft. But Helios would consume a lot of the team’s resources, Ward says, and he just hasn’t been able to make a good business case for it.

A Dream Fulfilled

Ward has taken inspiration from a wide variety of sources in taking the ICON from dream to reality: yes, there have been influences from automotive, but also architecture, MIL, marine, and aerospace. The self-described geek for details is inspired by any “quality, considered design.”

And he’s found an audience who is equally appreciative. Ward feels a deep gratitude for his customers.

“After taking such a risk, creating a brand based on my own vision … finding a customer base that embraces such, and actually continues to push me forward to do better and better – that means everything,” Ward says. “To have been able to build a company and brand, to be able to support so many families and businesses along the way: priceless.”

For me, there seem to be a few similarities between Ward and the ICON and Steve and Good Enough. It’s a respect for the way something was built, carrying over something from the past, building on something that might otherwise have been tossed out, forgotten. Upcycling that creates lasting memories, even (in Ward’s case) livelihoods.

And just a whole lot of fun!

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