Find or Sell any Parts for Your Vehicle in USA

Birth of an Icon

Tue, 01 Apr 2014

The first thing you notice when you step into Icon's sprawling, 120,000-square-foot shop in Chatsworth, Calif. -- past the fenced-in yard of Broncos of every size and Land Cruisers of every generation, past the 1952 Chrysler Town & Country station wagon with the DeSoto front end and a massaged patina of greens, browns, and ochres resembling a Cezanne painting -- is the smell. It smells old in here. Intoxicating and nostalgic, the lingering scent of worn leather and burnished metal mixed with sweat and oil. Old and musty like a church library. Old and unpretentious like your grandpa's cologne.

Icon CEO Jonathan Ward likes it this way. He talks a million miles a minute, so fast that I can barely keep up with my notes. In a single train of thought he will spout technical details, craftsman minutiae, French-bodied cars, and the supplier of his bison upholstery with a certain boredom in his voice; one gets the impression that he's explained this to his wife and business partner Jamie in his sleep. He is one of those no-bulls**t kind of guys who we all thought didn't exist anymore, a 6-foot tall combination of laid back California beach bum and East Coast neurotic -- born in Maryland, and grew up in New York -- which is a trait that manifests whenever he latches onto a new project, or a design element that piques his interest, anything for him to dive into headfirst.

Painting, woodworking, architecture; military and aerospace and marine influences all dance around his head. He has no formal design training, but taught himself CAD -- everything from SolidWorks to CATIA to SketchUp, "which is a joke, but my favorite -- " and now does all the design work himself. Folders on his iMac swell with pictures of magnetos, gauges and machine-turned dashboards, culled from sources as diverse as Pebble Beach and SEMA, the latter of which he has been attending since 1997.

"I once brought 15 vehicles to SEMA," he said. "Only did that 15 clusterf**k once. Never doing that again."

A few times, Ward told me, with an air of secrecy, "I was in the entertainment industry." He never elaborated beyond this. It was a phrase that framed Ward as a business-suited executive or a producer who burned out. But in fact, Ward began acting when he was 12 and retired when he was 28, a career spurred from a chance encounter with Mikhail Baryshnikov. He starred in TV, Broadway, and feature films as a child star who remained remarkably grounded -- someone who presumably resents the phrase "child star" and the burdens and entitlement it connotes.

That's all in the past. A few years ago, Ward and his wife were in South Africa, sitting in a wine bar somewhere overlooking the ocean -- very romantic, you know. Ward had seen his fair share of Land Cruisers when he traveled overseas, and had fallen in love with the ubiquitous, indestructible, go-anywhere machines. All those meticulously restored Mustangs and Camaros everywhere? Nobody was doing that to Land Cruisers. He explained all of this to Jamie, who seemed to understand. And with "no business plan, and no intelligent forethought," the two decided to quit their jobs on the spot.

Blake Z. Rong
Jonathan Ward is the Pied Piper through a forest of Broncos.

Into the shop now, from which emerge custom Broncos and beautiful Land Cruisers that sell to the tune of six figures; the vast square footage is divided by a towering rack of parts. On one side is the TLC operation, where they're currently showing a Land Cruiser some Tender Loving Care by stuffing a small-block Chevy in it. On the other, an early Bronco in original faded olive paint is getting a full Mustang GT drivetrain, its body panels piled in a corner against the wall; across the aisle two Icon FJ44s are being finished, a bald and bespectacled shopworker hand-installing a ragtop frame. He's squinting as he does so, arms above his head, working a screw into the metal roll hoop. Reggae music plays over a boombox, drowned out by the raw whirr of power tools.

In the corner, past another employee grinding a bracket, were the Derelicts.

"Freaky one-offs," said Ward, who considers them the most fun part of the Icon business. At SEMA last year, he brought a 1946 Lincoln Club Coupe with curved fenders that exhibited a burnished brown like a well-rubbed statue. It just so happened to have an Art Morrison chassis, independent suspension, disc brakes, and a 5.0-liter Ford Coyote engine. Two SEMAs earlier, Ward built a 1952 Chevrolet Styline Deluxe Coupe with, uh, an Art Morrison chassis, independent suspension, disc brakes, and a 6.2-liter LS3 V8. Next to it was a 1948 Buick Super Eight with an "Art Morrison chassis, independent suspension, disc brakes, LS9 from a CTS-V," rattles Ward with an air of blas

By Blake Z. Rong