An old car can make even a commute or grocery store run feel special, its interior imbued with the memories of every adventure it ever had.
THERE IS NOTHING LIKE the view out the windshield of a classic car. Scenery becomes more interesting when framed by the delicate steering wheel and long hood of a square-bodied ’70s truck, or an imposing ’60s sedan. An old car can make even a commute or grocery store run feel special, its interior imbued with the memories of every adventure it ever had. Just sitting in a vintage Bronco can trigger the smell of Baja sage and sea salt. Hopping into a classic Toyota Land Cruiser can feel like a safari about to happen. And when taking out a ’40s Cadillac, you might find a channel to Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood glamour molded into every steel curve.
But nothing busts these fantasies like the realities of a 50-, 60-, or 70-year-old machine in a modern world. “They don’t steer. They don’t stop. They stink and rattle and won’t stay running.” That’s Jonathan Ward, founder and CEO of Icon in Chatsworth, California. Ward says the rose tint of nostalgia dissipates quickly for many would-be collectors when they find themselves missing the convenience of a car that starts and stops every time, or has a ready place to plug in a cell phone.
So what if you could build a car that recalls its former glory and classic soul, but offers the reliability of a modern vehicle? Well, you’d have an Icon.
Icon is a custom car shop, not a restoration space. Ward has no interest in restoring cars back to their original condition or making museum pieces that sit in storage. Instead, he wants to put classics back in action. “I want to take something that people think of as obsolete and make it useful again,” he says as we walk through the Icon fabrication shop, the air heavy with the smell of leather and hot metal.
His machines are alternate realities from a history where the automotive industry was unrestrained by assembly lines, budgets, or brand boundaries.
It all started in 1996 when Ward and his wife Jamie started turning his Toyota Land Cruiser parts business toward bigger things, reenvisioning FJ40s with modern chassis, suspensions, engines, and all the comforts of a new car. The original builds paid tribute to Ward’s love of industrial design — dark mechanical finishes with an aggressive, almost military look. As both his customer base and confidence grew, Ward began offering Icons in models other than Toyotas, and added a more retro, playful palette. “Originally, I felt I had to have a noticeable style to get people to notice what I had done to modify the cars,” he says. “Now they are more subtle, friendlier. I offer more options and, of course, you can go as crazy as you want, make it everything you ever imagined.”
Inspiration is everywhere. “Oh, that pattern came from the tooling on a vintage saddle,” he says, waving at a leather door panel. “Jewelry enamel,” he recalls, in reference to the crisp glossy line inside a trim piece. Smoked glass sun visors in an FJ40 are based on things he saw in the cockpit of a jet fighter. His new favorite upholstery material is a tweed-looking weave he first saw as a placemat at a restaurant. Every time Ward learns of a new material or technology, his first thought is, “How do I incorporate that into a car build?”
Today, Icon is a 90,000-square-foot shop where 38 dedicated fabricators work on everything from the FJ40s that started it all to wild, one-off projects like a patinaed ’49 Mercury with the electric heart of a Tesla. It’s a small-scale output with a big price tag. On average, Ward says they build 36 vehicles each year, mostly the FJs and Ford Broncos, but with a smattering of the custom cars he brands as Derelicts or Reformers. All Icon’s cars are custom builds. While the Toyotas and Fords tend to have a starting template — there’s a fun configurator on Icon’s website — the Derelict and Reformer lines are blank slates. Any car, any year, anything you can imagine can be done to them. For the Derelicts, Ward chooses cars with a worn finish, a patina that speaks to long years of use. That look is maintained even as the interior and mechanical elements are upgraded. The Reformers get a more traditional, glossy paint job. A build at Icon starts at $195,000, with some customers pushing their custom projects past the million-dollar mark. Almost half of Ward’s clients come back for a second build, often with even wilder ideas in mind — perfect for Ward, whose entire philosophy has always been to get the ideas out of his head and onto the road.
Elana Scherr Writer
Elana Scherr has been writing about cars and car culture for 10 years, covering everything from vintage hot rod history to new technology. She is currently senior editor for Car and Driver magazine.
Todd Cole Photographer
Todd Cole is an internationally acclaimed photographer and filmmaker who lives and works in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in many international publications, including i-D, Purple, Self Service, POP, 032c, T Magazine, Vogue, the New York Times Style Magazine, the Fader, Art Review, and the Journal. His book "I'm Yours to Keep" was published by AndPress in 2012.