ICON 4×4 – Designing Deliciously Detailed Rides
By Ashley Majeski Smissen
Photos by Mike Harrington and John Jackson
Jonathan Ward, founder ICON 4×4 isn’t afraid to tackle anything at his Southern California shop. From Land Cruisers to perfectly patina’d lead sleds, Ward can take just about any car and make it iconic.
Ward may not be popular with hot rod purists, but he’s just fine with that. The California car builder has been combining his love of design with his passion for classic cars for decades, but in the last 10 years has produced a stable of ultra-premium and completely unique vehicles thanks to his ICON 4×4 brand.
Ward is not afraid to go [way, way] outside of the box, even if it makes a few hot rod traditionalists gasp. Although he started his first business, TLC, to build Toyota Land Cruisers, off-roaders and Ford Broncos, his second business, ICON 4×4, allows all sorts of cool classic vehicles to get into the act. “I have a great affinity for the four-wheel driver, but as a design-driven nerd, I love classics of various decades too,” Ward said. Ward runs both of the companies out of an 80,000 sq. ft. campus in Chatsworth, California.
Ward’s shop is just as unique as the cars that are coming out of it. ICON customers first choose between building a production model or a one-off custom creation. The shop offers three production models, each of which is built using a specific template and a list of options the customer can choose to add. Customers desiring a production model can choose from the BR (5.0L Coyote V8-powered ’60s Ford Broncos); the FJ (for FJ Land Cruisers); or the TR (LS-powered 1947-1953 Chevy pickups.)
If they decide to go the custom route, ICON 4×4 customers are given several style choices for their one-off car or truck build. Customers who appreciate good patina but want a car with less obvious modern amenities choose the company’s signature Derelict styling , which Ward describes as a “vintage/modern mash-up.” Customers who want their one-off vehicles to look stock but be state-of-the-art inside go with ICON’s Reformer approach.
Giving the customer two distinct customizing options keeps things easy to understand but certainly does not limit the possibilities of what Ward and his 50-person team can create. “The point of the Derelict and the Reformer was to keep me challenged and to try out different platforms and ideas so that we continue to gain skill constantly,” Ward said. “If a customer has a relationship with a particular model of car, we’ll hunt it down for them. The diversity of the types of cars we will work on is huge. But no matter what car we’re working on, they are all incredibly well-thought-out and the design of each one is spot-on.”
Veering Off the Road
Ward’s journey to becoming a custom car builder is just as unique as the cars he designs and builds. Although he was building cars in his teens, he wasn’t planning to spend his adult life under the hood of a car. In fact, he had been working for years in the entertainment industry, acting and producing. Interested in learning more about the world of business, Ward took a course at USC and one day found himself in a heated debate with his professor regarding supply and demand. “I felt that if you control the supply of something, you create the demand,” Ward said. “That argument turned into a bet, and I set out to win the bet, but it kind of got me thinking [about my future] too.”
Soon after, Ward and his wife, Jamie, took a trip to Africa. During the trip, the couple discussed their future and agreed it was time to reinvent themselves. “We decided to quit our jobs, and that’s what we did,” Ward said.
Ward wanted to focus on building the cars he had always loved: four-wheel drives. “I always felt that there was a market that would appreciate these vehicles,” he said. “In the 1990s, most four-wheel drives weren’t getting any proper respect or restoration. That was my business model, and I soon found out that there were a lot of people who appreciated these cars, but didn’t have a lot to choose from. We sold a few right off the bat and in 1996, we built [someone] a truck in exchange for [them doing our] website design.”
Of course, at that time, the Internet was still mysterious to a lot of people, but Ward felt it was important to have an online presence for his new business. He was right. “That really exposed us to a whole new market,” he said. “Part of our success, really, was dumb luck with the birth of the Internet and having the balls to get into a niche specialty and not open a shop that just did everything for everyone.”
Ward’s company, TLC, continued to grow. What started in one 1,200 sq. ft. unit in an industrial complex quickly grew to take up most of the space in the complex. Word of what Ward was doing in his Southern California shop eventually reached one very important person: Mr. Akio Toyoda himself, who asked Ward to build three prototypes that would eventually become the 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser. “That gave us great growth in that niche,” Ward said. “But after that job, I saw the direction they were taking my design and it made me want to revisit the classic my own way.”
Soon after, Ward and his wife decided to expand their business and create the ICON 4×4 brand. “I realize my shortcomings so I partnered with my wife who built a very tight management team to make sure both brands make epic products,” he said. “We wanted to greatly exceed the model for the typical hot rod shop. I looked at traditional mom-and-pop restoration shops and realized that, while many of them are fine artists, they didn’t know how to run a business, or vice versa.”
Ward visited numerous auto plants in hopes of learning techniques and processes. “I learned what I could from them to try to increase the quality of the hot rod shop,” he said. The first model released by ICON was their FJ40, which just so happened to be released at the same time that Toyota was launching the FJ Cruiser. “That helped us get so much exposure,” Ward said. “We were kind of the sidebar story of the Toyota launch.”
Other models followed. By the time ICON 4×4 introduced its BR Bronco model, Ward had assembled a bigger development team, as well as the resources to turn his designs into reality. The car ended up being named GQ’s Car of the Year in 2012.
Ward wasn’t satisfied with just doing ICON’s production models over and over again, however. While building a high-tech daily driver for himself, Ward realized that other people might be interested in a car like that, too. “The first Derelict was a ’51 Chrysler Wagon with a DeSoto front clip,” Ward said. The car maintained its exterior patina, but Ward hid a modern chassis and other creature comforts into the vehicle. “I still own that car it’s really special to me. It started the whole one-off division of my company.”
Even though Ward says he left the car “kind of sloppy,” it still caught the eye of nearly everyone who saw it. “It won a bunch of awards, and it made me realize that people like the idea of a modern/vintage mash-up,” he said. “I had been calling the car the ‘Derelict’ on the work order, so the name kind of stuck for that style of build.”
While customers were intrigued by ICON 4×4’s unique creation, some wanted a car that looked a bit more refined and had modern performance and conveniences. Soon, the more polished Reformer style was born. “With the Reformers, we may change things up a bit more,” he said. “It will have light cosmetic upgrades, looking stock but being state-of-the-art.”
Regardless of which build style a customer wants, all ICON 4×4 builds follow a rigorous set of standards. “Our level of engineering is something you don’t see anywhere,” Ward said. “It’s that level of engineering that really transcends a vehicle. It gives the vehicle greater continuity and we are engineering everything for the car from the ground-up. We partner with companies like Art Morrison Enterprises, Borla and Brembo and there are no mail-order kit parts being used.”
The high level of quality of an ICON 4×4 build stems from Ward’s desire to push the brand to higher levels. “I wanted to be the top rung of the ladder,” he said. “If everyone stops at ‘good enough,’ then this was me looking at the market and saying, ‘We can push that, we can be better. It can be more engineered.’ We are very CAD-heavy in our design. That gives us much more control over engineering. We focus on every little detail.”
The quality level also stems from Ward’s customers’ desires to have a super-high-quality and unique car. “These are people who may want to revisit a vehicle they remember from a certain time in their lives. These are also people who have higher expectations due to the evolving features of their daily drivers, so they come to us to try to merge the two,” he added.
One Hell of a Bird
ICON 4×4 usually has about 15 cars in production at any given time, completing about 36 cars a year. (The shop only does full builds and does not take partial jobs.) Although the shop sees a lot of late-1940s and early-1950s American cars, Ward and his team are open to turning almost anything into a Derelict or a Reformer. “I’m open to conversations on any platform,” he said. “Some [cars] don’t lend themselves well to our process, though, so we can’t do everything. But I’m not afraid to open my mind. We do such a low volume and have such a high demand that I can be careful to do stuff that will reflect the brand’s ethics, and that we are excited and proud to build.
“The one-offs are a constant challenge,” he added. “We have our [production models] that are already engineered and we repeat them with different options and colors. But with the one-offs, every vehicle has different features and issues, and we are doing a lot of things that people haven’t done before.”
One of those things is a Superbird/Hellcat hybrid project that Ward and his team are currently tackling. “We took a new Hellcat and a real Superbird and we’re merging the two,” Ward said of the project, which will be the shop’s first real foray into building a refined Pro-Touring-style car. “It’s extremely high performance but it’s also much more technically evolved from the Pro-Touring approach. The new Hellcat is still in its native platform so it could retain all of its functionality.”
The ICON 4×4 team has been working on the car for about two years and still has about a year to go on it. In addition to its custom Art Morrison chassis and four-wheel independent suspension, the car will feature many parts from the Dodge Hellcat as well, most notably its Hellcat V8 engine. “It’s called the Hellion,” Ward said. “I chose that name because I love that word—disruptive, rambunctious troubled child, and that is exactly what it is.”
Working on the project has allowed Ward to really push himself as a designer. “The design work on this one is so engaging for me,” he said. “From a tech and engineering approach, it’s very complicated but very rewarding.”
While Ward hopes the car can make its debut at a major show or event, he says the quality level will determine when the project is finished, not the calendar. “I’m weird that way; if we finish it at a time that happens to dovetail with a show, great, but if not, oh well,” he said. “Whenever it’s done properly is when it’s done.”
The Hellion is not the only big project we can expect to see coming out his shop, Ward said. “I have a massive project in the works that’s about a year from going public,” he said. “I have 38 engineers working on it. For this next model, the threshold of engineering will be so high, and the platform is something that people wouldn’t expect from us.”
Ward wouldn’t give us any more hints about what he’s creating, but says you can bet it’s going to transcend the crazy things the shop has already done. In the meantime, though, he wants to keep pushing himself and his customers to go bigger and better. “I hope in five years, we are just as busy as we are today but double the scale,” he said. “I think because of the great customers we have, we can do that.
“This brand is not for everyone and I don’t mind that,” he added. “It’s for people who understand it and are like us and yearning for something better or something more. We are lucky to have found people who are willing to pay for this level of work.”