Jonathan Ward Of ICON 4×4 Design On Cornering The 4×4 Restomod Market
When someone builds a restomod, the industry collectively yawns and moves on. When Jon Ward builds an ICON 4×4, the whole world notices. His trucks have appeared in virtually every mainstream and niche publication in the world. Guy sites like GQ and Uncrate can’t get enough of them. They’re currently backordered out the wazoo. Everything about them is dialed in, polished, and perfected.
Don’t care for a modded FJ40? Don’t worry, he built the ICON empire on the back of TLC, a Toyota-blessed restoration shop that is single handedly responsible for the resurgence of the vintage trucks, and the absolutely nutty prices they’re able to fetch. He was generous enough to sit down with me the other day to talk about where he’s going, where he’s been and what’s next for his brands.
Ted Gushue: What is the first car that you remember driving?
Jonathan Ward: Oh boy. First car I ever drove: ’80s Dodge Aries. A magnificent pile of ill engineering and bad focus group decisions. Belonged to a friend of mine at the time. First car I lost control of, too, with that ever so delicious rear suspension; you either were in the zone, or you were out of the zone, and there was no warning in between. I tossed that thing across Sunset [Blvd.] in traffic. Gave me a bit of a wake up call.
TG: You grew up out in LA?
JW: Yeah, as a driver. I moved out here when I was 15. Other than that, I remember as a kid lap driving, in our ’70 Ford Country Squire station wagon. I remember that one. ’67 Caddy Fleetwood as a kid, and an old Mercedes 450 SEL.
TG: So you were part of a car family…
JW: Yeah, definitely. My dad’s always been a car guy, although he didn’t entertain it beyond the occasional hobby car. My granddad on my mom’s side owned a small town car dealership and repair garage and stuff, so guess it’s always been in my blood.
TG: So much of the aesthetic of what you do here is based in nostalgia. Unpack that a bit.
JW: I think if you get back to the ’50s and arguably, in a lot of industrial design segments, in architecture and furniture, maybe as late as ’70, design was for design’s sake. Versus in modern times, I think design gets outranked by the perversions of mass production and publicly traded firms, but the decisions that go into it are not purely from the perspective of the best user experience, the best longevity, the best design. It’s more about the economics of the business model, and that’s probably what draws me to vintage design almost exclusively.
Growing up in New York City and appreciating all of the design elements in the city from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, be it the buildings you walk by or the antique stores, or whatever. I just received so much visual input, I think that had a big part of polluting my brain with the old stuff.
TG: You leave New York at 15, what happened in the next few stages of your life?
JW: I was moved out here by CBS to do a show. I was an actor as a kid. Our intention to come to California was just for that one show and then to go back to New York, and I kind of fell in love with the culture and the people and the weather, and the work kept coming, so I just stayed here. Also, when I found out that you could get a driver’s license at 15 and a half, that kind of cemented the deal because in New York, the idea of me having a car never seemed to be a reality. Once I realized that was an option, then definitely I wasn’t leaving town anymore.
TG: When did you start working on things with your hands?
JW: I’ve been screwing with stuff with my hands since I was probably 5 or 6. I was that bad kid who’d take the alarm clock apart and put it together differently, and occasionally it would still work. Always into sculpting and painting and woodwork. I had a full-blown wood shop when I was 16 in my house. Designed and built furniture, studied pre-Raphaelite style painting, and stone sculpting. Did leatherwork, leather painting. It was always just something I had to do.
My wife still jokes that when I met her, my kitchen in the house, all the cabinets were full of art supplies. I can’t, to this day, cook for shit, so it was more of where all the art supplies were kept. Really, transportation for me was just kind of a perfect storm in that it combined so many different arts that I have a love for into one very extroverted platform, so leatherwork, textiles, fonts, color, and so many things in one combined form that’s easy to share. It was, in essence, a logical connecting of the dots between all the different art and design interests and skills I had to varying extents with, “Oh shit, I can have a car at 15? Cool”. Then, my first classic was an old ’55 Ford Ex-G-Man car. It was bulletproof, none of the windows went down, a total ball of poo. That was kind of my gateway drug.
TG: How did you find that car?
JW: I bought it at some crappy classic car auction in Woodland Hills in like ’85. It was cheaper than a non-bulletproof car. It was like a couple grand.
TG: Did it have air conditioning?
JW: Oh, God no. Nothing.
TG: So…You were driving around Los Angeles…
JW: …just in a fucking fish tank.
TG: …in the Valley, with a bulletproof car that you couldn’t open the windows on?
JW: Yeah, that was good fun, and then eventually I realized how asinine that was, and wanted to step it up, so started buying and selling and playing with classics. Then, just as my nature, I started taking them apart and restoring and modifying and putting back together. Didn’t have enough money to keep just building them and keeping them, so I’d finish it, drive it for a little while, sell it. I’d be on location on a job and I’d dig deep and find the cool local car hiding in the garage down there.
If it was a longer job, I would end up hiring people in the town, like the guy who had the local body shop that closed down, or was quiet. I’d buy a car and in my spare time, when I wasn’t called into work, I’d be wrenching and restoring the car during the time we’re on location, and then drive it home when I’m done. Just a hobby gone wrong.
TG: When did you first start working on a car that you would conceivable sell to somebody?
JW: I would sell those, but I didn’t build them to sell. I just built them for the experience to build them and the love of that, and then I’d sell them to fund being able to build the next one. The first time I really looked at it for more of a—still respecting the art of it, but for more of a capitalist position—was when I was starting to transition out of my prior career, but already had a mortgage to keep up with. I took a business class, an extension class at USC, and got into this big debate with my professor and another student over supply and demand. Debate turned into an argument, the argument turned into a bet, and the idea was I had to disprove traditional supply and demand, which I upheld, if you could control the supply and reposition it, you could create the demand. I was given, I forget, either a quarter or two quarters, to drive a trackable market up 30 points to win the bet.
Already as an avid traveler, I had grown to love and respect the old FJ40 Toyota Land Cruisers. In places where it’s life or death, the affinity people had with their Land Cruisers was remarkable, but at that time in the States, they were sort of a, “Ain’t that a Jap Jeep” sort of thing, and no one was doing any proper restoration to them at all, even hobbyists. People’d throw a cheap paint job on them, and some rims, and whatever motor they had laying around, and drive it around. I thought there was an opportunity. Not intelligent enough to be planning it as a business, but a good excuse for road trips and fun and make a little bit of cash on the side, so I started buying up every FJ40 worth a rat’s ass that I could find.
TG: What were they worth back then? A couple grand each?
JW: Yeah, I’d be picking them up for probably three to seven thousand bucks apiece, sort of, again, as a side industry invested in a local body shop in the Valley, another mechanic shop, where they were friends because I sent them business and then over time, they needed a bit of help running the business side of it. They were great craftsmen, but really shitty businessmen. I invested nominal money in them, was kind of helping them. Then I kind of took advantage of them and when I had too many Cruisers to park on my cul-de-sac street, started putting them at their shops, and their friends’ shops, and the backyard, and the side yard.
We just slowly would go through them and not do major restos at all. I tried to just buy nice, really exceptional ones, detail the piss out of them, comb through them mechanically, use all factory parts, and just get them right and happy again, and then trickle them back into the market. I was pretty much immediately overwhelmed with the demand. People were like, “Oh, I’ve always loved these, but I’ve never seen one I really loved the condition of, and I didn’t want to go there”.
I went back to collect on that bet, and they disappeared and wouldn’t pay me.
My wife and I had a planned vacation. We were in South Africa, and then, with no intelligent forethought, but just over dinner and a bottle of wine, she and I sort of had a wake up moment where we realized we both wanted to transition out of our career paths. We were both successful, but not really passionate or loving what we did, and we decided we’d get home, screw it. We’d quit our jobs, we were still young and dumb, and try and reinvent ourselves. I had maybe 10 Cruisers and maybe 20 grand and a couple credit cards. I knew a friend of mine was wanting to move out of his automotive shop in the valley and move to Santa Monica. I called him up. He was tickled pink, the landlord was fine with it, so he re-assigned the lease. It was 1,200 square feet.
Literally, again, not very smartly thought through, I just thought, “I know what I’m going to do. Do these trucks the way no one’s been doing them. I think people will dig them.”
I filled up the place with the trucks I already had, stuck a piece of paper on the door. “If interested, call,” and carried my little brick Motorola cell phone around. Almost immediately, people dug them. People started showing up and wanting them.
TG: How many have you built and sold?
JW: Shit, in 20 years, now with that brand, and another 30 or 40 trucks before it was really a business. Got to be 2,500, 3,000, or so by now.
JW: Yeah. Then we started…We got into the newer models, the FJ60, and 62s, 65s…
TG: How many FJs are still on the road today?
JW: Toyota hasn’t been able to give us that number. We’ve tried, and they didn’t keep very detailed records back in the day. At most, we had the production numbers for global. I wish I knew the answer. I’ve been wanting to answer that question for many, many years. I know that the retention versus attrition that you see of modern cars, the number of old FJ40s still on the road in comparison to how many were delivered is remarkably high, other than rust being the number one killer. Other than that, they just go and go and go and go and go.
So yeah, it just kind of organically grew. First, that 1,200 square feet, then I got tired of subletting the mechanical, and wanted that purer to the way I wanted it done, so then instead of subletting that to the old partner shop, we staffed up and got the right people and started doing it the right way.
It just kind of kept going and growing organically for TLC. Literally, the fifth or sixth truck we sold was, a guy said, “Would you consider trading it for a website? Have you heard of the Internet?” I’m like, “Yeah, we heard something about that Internet”. Literally, it was just popping up, and we traded the truck for a website, and I got 10 years out of that site. The second we hit the Internet, we, again, without any forethought, realized, “Oh shit, there is that much of a demand,” and it allowed us to be very sniper specific about who we were and what we weren’t, and what we did and how we did it. Then, that really helped the TLC brand get traction and go and grow.
Then Toyota found out about us. We started doing restorations for Toyota dealers, and then different Toyota museums globally. Then that eventually turned into Mr. Toyota visiting the shop and asking us to do the pre-production prototypes for the FJ Cruiser. One, at first. We ended up building three. That, in turn, gave me sort of a peek behind the curtain of their perspective and how they design and manufacture, and sort of the high volume approach, which I had really had no intimate awareness of. I was also seeing a trend in that the TLC customers more and more had no affinity with the vintage archaic mechanical experience whatsoever. They had a deep love and respect and attachment to the aesthetic and the utilitarian roots, but not to the one barrel carburetor, or the three on the tree, or the drum brakes.
I’d started looking into the way people had been doing conversions and upgrades, and the way it was done in the ’60s was the way people were still doing it. Carbureted long block iron piece, just trading evils really. So, as is sort of my curse, I thought through that and thought, well if we’re going to put a V8 in it, why not put a modern Vortec or LS with full emissions and all that? We were originally purists. People would ask us to put a V8 in and we would tell them to go away. But then that all changed.
That was the idea behind Icon. I went to Toyota, made sure they were comfortable with the idea, and they saw value in our ability to promote heritage and history without being in conflict with them. Got Toyota’s blessing, then by that time the shop was probably 10,000 square feet. It was like a hamster habitat of different 1,200 square foot units in a multi-tenant building. There were tunnels, and you’d have to go outside to go back inside. It was a wreck.
One of those units was isolated, so I took one lead employee and myself, and kind of locked us in that 1,200-ft square. I already had been thinking about it for so long that I almost had a rotatable model in my head of what an Icon FJ40 would be. We just built it. We just did it. It wasn’t until we added it up that, “Oh no, crap, no one’s going to buy this. It’s way too much money”. That kind of stopped my process, because I had to do a bit of soul searching to decide, do I make compromises and sacrifices? Do I dumb it down? Do I use less expensive systems to meet some theoretical tolerated price point? Or do I stick to my gut and do what I’m proud of …
TG: Quickly, just for comparison, what were you selling the first TLC cars for? At what price point?
JW: When they were originals that were serviced, 10 to 20 grand, probably.
TG: What does a TLC go for now?
JW: First, I would just buy really nice original ones, clean them and service them, and not do any massive restos. Then, being the geek that I am, I started selling the restos at defined stages of restoration, because I don’t think that industry’s very clear about what you’re actually getting, so we defined these very clear cut stages, Stage 3 being our best. I probably lost 10 or 20 grand a truck for a couple years, until I really sat down and did the proper math and invoicing to realize what the true cost is, but the TLC full as-new restos for 10 years or more have been 90 to $120,000, all in.
Around that time, an optimum restored one was maybe $100,000. That, we’d do four or five of them a year, maybe. To even make Icon make sense, at the lowest we hoped to sell five a year when we started, so looking at that, looking at the build costs, it didn’t look good. Consulted some brand genius friends that are way smarter than me who unanimously said what I knew in my gut and hoped they’d say, which was: stick to your vision and make it something you’re proud of, and no compromise, and if you build it, they will come. Thank goodness they did, because the ones that came pushed me further to keep evolving, keep adding features and improving aspects of the design, versus pushing me down-market.
TG: They basically proved your initial bet.
JW: Yeah. Then, ever since then, that’s kind of what I preach to anyone and everyone who hates what they’re doing and is looking for something passionate that they wake up excited to do. Building product and brand, to just stick to your vision is the only reason you should be doing it anyway. That’s the only reason the market’s going to give a damn. Really excited, though, to see that when we did that, it was pretty maverick, but nowadays I’m definitely feeling there’s a renaissance or revolution of products with passion and niche brands that are sticking tight to what they believe in.
TG: It’s incredible to see what was initially a 10 to 20 thousand dollar product evolve into half million dollar builds.
TG: That’s insane.
JW: It’s fucking nuts.
TG: Over just a 20 year span.
JW: Completely nuts.
TG: How many cars a year are you putting out now in total, with TLC and Icon?
JW: TLC’s hard because we do everything from an oil change to body off restos or modern powertrains, so it’s hard to give you a fair number where I’m not accounting for things that are trivial. Icon’s easier to account for. Icon’s putting out about three dozen vehicles, about 28 to 32 units a year right now. 12 to 14 FJs, 12 to 14 Ford Broncos (BRs), and the rest being the one offs, the Derelicts and Reformers (DNR).
TG: What’s the average price point, would you say?
JW: Across the board average, probably about 220-ish. The FJs are about 175 to 220, the BRs are slightly higher, the TRs are slightly higher, and then all the DNRs are way higher. In the last year, we’ve delivered DNR projects anywhere from 175 to 375. Then currently have DNR projects anywhere from 275 to just under a million. They’re a pretty wild range. The thing with the DNRs is, we’re realizing an individual dream, so all of the non-recurring engineering and modeling and design time have to be amortized over that single project. Versus, albeit the high price, but the only reason the TRs and the BRs and the FJs are viable even at their wacky price point, is that we’re able to amortize that engineering effort over multiple years of production.
TG: That’s a considerable amount of metal you’re moving.
JW: Now the stress here is, we’re constantly trying to expel a lot of energy on engineering and management teams to refine the process of how we do what we do. It’s pretty much all CAD standardized now, except for the one offs. Now, process engineering…I didn’t think about that. I worried about designing the product. Now the process to make the product is the big imperative.
TG: At the same time, almost like a fine jeweler, you can’t become too efficient at it, because you have to maintain some level of desirability or scarcity in the market.
JW: Yeah, but we’re so far away from that transition. I think, realistically, conservatively, we could triple our output and not impact the handcrafted nature of what we’re doing. Just need a bigger facility and to train up more staff, which is what we’re on the road to doing, both, because the lead times have just gotten too obtuse. It’s very frustrating to work so hard to build a market, build a brand, and now get to the point that I have a painful number of conversations with people who call.
They’re like, “I get it, I see the value, I’m not worried about the price, I understand the brand, I want one. How long?” Then the second I bark out the how long, I lose them, and that kills me.
TG: Are there some clients who offer to pay you extra money to beat the line?
JW: All the time, yeah. We don’t do it. Only thing we do on that, which has worked really well, and we’re going to expand it next year, is we’ve been reserving phantom build spaces, thus far just with the BR team, with the Broncos. My wife and I are on the board of a great children’s charity, and we finally realized, okay, I’ll pony up the deposit and treat myself like a client and reserve the build space on the build list, and then if a client is impatient, he wants to cut the lines, okay, great. There’s this wonderful charity that we work with, 95% full pass through to the actual project, boots on the ground, minimum donation of $10,000 to this children’s charity, which is a proper nonprofit and all that—and then you can cut the line. It’s worked really good. Everyone likes that, and we’ve raised considerable funds for the charity doing that.
(Editor’s Note: Jonathan & Co. will be hosting an incredibly special evening at the ICON HQ that most of the Los Angeles based car world will be in attendance for, in support of his charity GO Campaign. Tickets available here: https://gocampaign.org/carscasino/)
TG: Love it.
JW: Once we get through the back order on the existing order, basically we’re going to start creating those spaces on the tail end of commitments we’ve made to clients with all of the other divisions of product.
TG: What is the current backlog?
JW: FJ is not too bad. It’s about a 12 month fill rate from order to complete. TR’s about 18 months. BR is fucking fourth quarter 2018 estimates. The Derelict and Reformers, we’re looking at almost four years.
JW: Yeah, it’s fucked up. Not good.
TG: It’s not bad.
JW: There’s worse problems to have, but it’s a problem. We’re trying to buy a building and move to a larger facility, but we need to stay in the valley.
TG: To keep your team.
JW: Yeah, and where all my resources, sublets, and employees are based. We’re trying to find a good 100,000 square building in the valley, which apparently is quite the tall order. We can’t find one. All good problems. All exciting things to focus on. Just the one thing, I started the Derelict and Reformer lines in essence to allow me creatively to keep doing new designs and new materials, new powertrains, and new this and new that. That’s great, because it’s become a customer-funded sort of skunkwork, but I’m dying to develop our next production model. I’m just chomping at the bit, but I can’t responsibly do that. I’m a restaurant with too small of a kitchen. It’s stupid to add anything else on the menu when I can’t get the orders in.
TG: What does it feel like to you in your head?
JW: It’s frustrating, because I’m that guy who sleeps it, dreams it, breathes it, so I’m modeling in my sleep, chomping to do this thing.
TG: That’s what I mean. Tell me what it looks like.
JW: I’m very anxious to get into EV technology platforms. I’m very excited about Faraday Future. Like many people in the industry, I wasn’t sure if they should be taken seriously, because their press releases have been quite vague.
TG: What makes you excited about Faraday Future in comparison with Tesla?
JW: Because Tesla has made it clear to us that we’re an unworthy distraction, and they have no interest in allowing us access to their tech and their platforms. In fact, they’ll block you from warranty-ability or access to parts, access to technicians, even if we just buy one on our own and build our own custom platform. Versus, we were invited down to Faraday’s headquarters, and we got the full dog and pony show, and after I picked my jaw off the floor, they’re at least topically interested in possibly working with us and allowing us access to those platforms. If we had access to a modular chassis…you know anything about Faraday?
JW: Track width and wheel base is all fuckwithable, and one to four motors, up to 1200 lb-ft of torque…The idea of being able to do production and one off Derelicts, to me that’s just the perfect out of the park yin and yang. We’re doing two EV project derelicts right now. We’re in discussions in a company partnered with Bosch on a feasibility study of doing an FJ EV.
I think within 5 years, that should represent half of our orders. Not taking away from the internal combustion engine orders, but a whole other audience that I think would be super into it.
The way I saw the initial Icons as the best of both worlds, with the modern drivability and serviceability and emissions and all that, with the vintage aesthetic. To be able to do that with a high performing EV, oh man. That’s a big part of it. I also want to get into passenger cars. I think it’s kind of odd. People pidgeonhole us into four-wheel-drive. For us in marketing, it’s probably been a much bigger challenge than it would have been if we had been a two wheel drive focused company because the end user is thinking, “Oh yeah, well, I’ll use it. It’s just going to be at the weekend house,” or “It’s going to be at the ranch”. They’re not thinking daily driver, so they put a different value tolerance on what they’re willing to spend.
The second you get into two wheel drive, it’s so much easier to build. Lighter duty, less components, less complexity and development and engineering, so it just kind of makes sense. Definitely the next one will be two wheel drive. The TR is two wheel drive, and that was sort of a soft entrée into that, but I want to get into full on passenger car models. I’m floundering around, but the two that are on top of my list, number one is the BMW 2002. The other is the old 1800 Volvos. I’d love to be able to do a modern tweak on those.
The BMW is in the lead position because there’s something about the 2002. You can skin that cat so many different ways. You can go rally, old school, Cibiés and flares, roll cage and nutty, or you can go deadstock aesthetic, or you can do that new school kind of tweak that we like to do on all the materials. It’s just endless.
TG: Yeah, they’re great.
JW: I’d like to do the shark nose too, the 3.0s, but they’re too difficult to find parts for them. Even something like the BMW, in a perfect world I’d like to do that with all new body construction, aluminum or carbon.
TG: Very cool.
JW: That has been impossible, I think is the right term. Not quite difficult. For us to be able to take control over that engineering and amortize it over our volume. That would only work with some sort of OEM support or something creative like that. That road’s being paved now with the new federal law for ultra low volume vehicular manufacturers. Now it’s viable for us potentially to work with an OEM, and do sort of celebratory heritage, super short run editions with their support. That’s one of my dreams in the future, to connect those dots for the brand.
JW: Other than that, I just want to keep tweaking the whole idea of industrial design from a vintage perspective for a modern user. Watches, furniture…
TG: The last time we spoke, you were talking about watches.
JW: Yeah, so I’m burning major hours and brain cells for the last 8 months putting together different plans and designs to hopefully build a startup watch brand. Then, same with furniture, although I’m focusing on the watches, but I’m chomping at the big to do furniture. That’d be good fun.
TG: I like the way you describe it. It’s all sort of many sides of the same coin.
JW: Yeah. The second I sort of got my head around that religion, that ethos, that distilled formula, it’s endlessly exciting to apply it to just a ton of different products. If we’re lucky and the brand reputation stays strong and continues to grow, and we’re able to get into those other segments, that would be killer.
Photography by Ted Gushue