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We ride in the Icon Thriftmaster

Wed, 02 Apr 2014

If you don't know, a stock 1950 Chevrolet "drives like s--t," says Jonathan Ward, the CEO of Icon, who actually met his wife Jamie while restoring a Chevrolet pickup. "Archaic. I restored a few back in the day, back when I was still calling it a hobby."

That's why Ward doesn't build stock 1950 Chevrolets. This is the Icon Thriftmaster, a $200,000 ode to an era when pickup trucks were small and unassuming and yet could do anything you asked them to -- including, apparently, blowing the doors off nearly anything around.

To that goal, the Icon Thriftmaster features a GM E-Rod 5.3-liter V8 that produces 440 supercharged, intercooled horsepower, connected to a six-speed Tremec TKO manual. The front suspension is fully independent, and a four-link solid axle sits in back. It has 50/50 weight distribution. The chassis is perched atop -- like most Icon vehicles -- a frame by Art Morrison. Premier Street Rods installed the GM-licensed steel body panels. The entire body was laser-scanned "by my mobile guy," said Ward -- a man who comes around in a van with all the equipment he needs. What a concept.

Ward hauled this example out of a junkyard in Pacoima, Calif., about 15 miles east of Icon's Chatsworth shop. A tree was growing out of the bed. Ward evicted the foliage and proceeded to spend 14 months taking the Thriftmaster project from sketch to rolling chassis. At the time, Icon was in danger of falling into a 4WD niche exemplified by the Bronco and Land Cruiser projects from which it first gained notoriety -- that's why he was eager to work on a decidedly 2WD project. Like the Reformers, it's still a truck, and like the Derelicts, it's still fundamentally a proud mid-century American.

The Thriftmaster shows design elements from the entire 1947-53 range of Chevrolet trucks, though you'd be hard-pressed to distinguish the specifics so seamlessly are they blended. The seats are Tempur-Pedic foam, wrapped in bison hide -- Ward knows a guy, who just so happens to work at Parabellum Collection. The carpets are German berber mats. The exhaust is fully custom, stainless steel and TIG-welded. Gauges are tied into the GM CAN bus. Parliament-smoking engineers designed the 1947-55 Chevrolet pickups with a chained tailgate that clangs lifelessly; the Thriftmaster features modern hinges and latching. The window cranks hide power window switches. The screen covers flit downwards gracefully, buoyed by gas-filled Traxxas RC car shocks. One of these aluminum covers hides a Kenwood touchscreen that controls the digital climate control, the navigation system and the three-speaker digital audio, currently playing Jay-Z from Ward's iPod. It even has mobile Wi-fi.

"Alright, car geek, recognize this?" He pointed at the black gas cap, beaming. A slim little nub of mysterious origin, barely sticking out of the wood-paneled bed -- whose wood, in fact, was taken from the same growth crop used for the Louisville Slugger. "It's from an SLS Black Series," he said. Wait. Hold on. Do the Germans know about this?

Evidently they do -- Ward met the AMG team last year, at the same time we were meeting AMG's lineup in the desert.

Blake Z. Rong
Jonathan Ward drives the Thriftmaster across the Valley.

We climb in. The seats feel awkwardly upright, a position perfect for uptight Midwestern farmers. Get on the power, and there's plenty of supercharger whine. The Thriftmaster is civilized when it needs to be, wind noise being the only clue that it came from the Advance Design family. Without warning, Ward slams on the six-piston ceramic brakes from 60mph, and the entire truck screeches to a halt in a visceral, sideways brakestand. By the time the smoke billows over the matte-gray hood, we're perpendicular in the middle of the street.

Ward laughs like a high-schooler who had just successfully pranked the principal. "We cone-danced this f---er at Optima." In 2013, the Thriftmaster participated in the Ultimate Streetcar Invitational, where it looked good despite a lackluster finish. "It's a truck with an identity crisis. It's a sports car with a truck body.

"I caught a lot of s--t for the stance," said Ward. "We set it up that way to get track analysis." In fact, the Thriftmaster's JRE coilovers allow it 6 inches of variable ride height, through adjustable hydraulic mounting collars. Philistines will say it's bagged. Hell no, said Ward. "I hate airbags."

Blake Z. Rong
Hiding behind a 1951 Packard Patrician that will soon become a Carrera Panamerica racer.

If you ask Ward politely, he will build you a Thriftmaster. It won't be cheap. The Thriftmaster represents a shift in the Icon business plan -- it's Ward's first attempt at mass production, if you consider five cars per year on par with the Model T. Ward will need to come up with everything that it entails: build manuals, reproducible fixtures, etc. Finding fresh Chevy truck bodies will be in a challenge in itself. "Engineering, design, and development is one clusterf--k," said Ward. "But building it is another."

Already, two people have asked for their very own Thriftmasters. By the time December rolls around, they will be driving vehicles that transcend classification. It's a thoroughly niche vehicle that demands the customer's vision must almost exactly match that of its obsessive creator.

Fortunately, Ward is an easy man to relate to.

Also be sure to check out part one of our look at Icon and its eclectic leader Jonathan Ward here.

By Blake Z. Rong