Icon Founder and CEO Jonathan Ward Is Curious to a Fault

Understanding Icon through the experiences and aspirations of its CEO.

Chris NelsonwriterWilliam Walkerphotographer

Jonathan Ward, founder and CEO of Icon, is curious to a fault. The 49-year-old incessantly asks questions to better understand his grossly disparate fascinations, and his offbeat, witty personality influences the design and funk of every Icon built. For the past 12 years, Icon has thoughtfully and artfully modernized classic cars and trucks. Each is meticulously finished with unconventional materials like LEDs from fighter jets because Ward enjoys researching new restoration techniques and sourcing products such as textiles and fabrics from atypical suppliers.

"I'm either dumb enough or audacious enough that I just figure it out," Ward says of his approach to customization. He appreciates tradition but doesn't follow it blindly, salvaging what's worth saving and improving what's not. "I'm constantly inquisitive and wanting to keep myself entertained, therefore authentic, therefore engaged and wholeheartedly invested in what I'm doing," he says. Ward is—and always has been—a wide-eyed child in awe of his world.

In 1977, the Ward family moved from the boonies of Elkridge, Maryland, to New York City's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood so seven-year-old Jonathan could pursue a career in acting; before long the talented little kid had rent covered. Ward met his first muses in Manhattan: noise, clutter, streetlights, Checker cabs, window displays, architecture, and antique theaters he worked in. He'd sneak up to the Vivian Beaumont Theater's attic to study the forgotten gears, cables, and pulleys that once peeled back its articulating roof. During off weeks, Ward roller-skated between arcades or picked through his apartment building's trash chute in search of boomboxes, fans, or other electronics he could disassemble, study, repair, and sell. He hustled New Yorkers until 1985, when CBS relocated him to Los Angeles to play the middle sibling in the TV show Charles in Charge.

After regularly taking rides in Tony Danza's black, split-window Corvette and the modified Porsche 911 Turbo of Charles in Charge co-star Willie Aames and with a California driver's license in sight, Ward decided he was over New York. He characteristically turned fanatic and started buying, fixing, and flipping cars out of his home garage. He enrolled in auto shop classes and started hanging around hot-rod legend Tony Nancy's upholstery shop in Sherman Oaks. "He'd take something and elevate and evolve it," Ward says, but when Nancy re-created factory-perfect wisps of primer overspray, young Ward wondered, "Why is it 'right' to repeat imperfections?"

The teen traveled at least two months a year, and when he went overseas—Africa, Asia, Australia, the Middle East—he saw flocks of Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40s, handsome and resilient rigs with aesthetics that imply functionality. Ward succumbed to his new siren and started hunting down FJs in his '65 Ford F-250 powered by a 351 Cleveland engine lifted from a De Tomaso Pantera. He'd prowl small towns in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, thumb through Penny Savers and local newspapers, and tow home any FJ worth restoring. "All of this hobby started to go out of control, but it seemed to me there'd be a lot of people like myself who traveled and dug Land Cruisers, who would come into the market if you elevated the quality of what you were presenting," he recalls.

As he approached his 20s, embittered by Hollywood, Ward decided to quit acting. The woman he was dating, Jamie, also wanted to leave her job, so during a romantic dinner in South Africa, he said to her, "I know my hobby is more fulfilling and makes me a happier person, and I think we can live off of it. We can make it work." When the couple returned to America, Ward fired his agent, Jamie quit her job in music management, and together they started flipping FJs full time. They rented glass frontage and 1,200 square feet of shop space in Van Nuys and opened TLC 4x4.

"We took all the trucks I already had, packed that place like a sardine can, and put a Post-it note on the door, 'Call if interested,' and I carried around my brick Motorola and waited for it to ring," Ward says. The neighboring shop had a betting pool for when the pair would fail, but TLC 4x4 became an unanticipated sensation after Ward traded an FJ for something called a website. Suddenly TLC 4x4 had clients around the world, including car museums, Toyota dealerships, and even Mr. Toyoda himself, who asked Ward to build three classic FJs to accompany the FJ Cruiser concept that made its debut at the 2003 Detroit auto show.

"You build it to perfection as it was done back in the day, but those vehicles don't really get used or driven. "

While TLC 4x4 proved its worth, Ward soon wanted to do more than routine, purist restorations. "You build it to perfection as it was done back in the day, but oftentimes those vehicles don't really get used or driven," he says. "The client quickly becomes disenchanted because their rosy ideas don't really translate to the archaic reality of driving it. They don't understand the martyrdom. When I started Icon, it was a very simple premise of revisiting classic transportation in a modern context, and that meant in essence two things: taking significant engineering control over the mechanical improvements to truly evolve the whole user experience and acknowledging the fact that we are all corrupted by the perversions and functionalities found in modern production vehicles. I worried the market wouldn't understand the Icon approach as something new unless I defined an aesthetic that visually differentiated it from the original."

His worrying is absurd in retrospect: Icon has now built more than 100 bespoke FJs, each sold for $200,000 or more. At first Ward held to a tough, clean, monochromatic aesthetic, but he slowly let his personality peek through and seep into builds. Now most of his repeat clients, who account for 40 percent of Icon's business, allow him to freely envisage their finished vehicles. Ward's treatments can be inspired by anything: the original designer's intent, a souvenir from travels abroad, or the people and places he emulates. Ward admires Nike and its secret skunkworks "innovation kitchen," and he can talk for hours about Charles and Ray Eames and how they sparked a generation of furniture design using simple materials in novel ways. Even Argentine Marxist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara speaks to Ward: "He saw the world in the right structure, in his own way, and had the balls to pursue it. I'm not here to say in the right ways or the wrong ways, but in his ways. Respect your perspective."

Eight years ago, TLC 4x4 and Icon moved into a spacious 44,000-square-foot garage in Chatsworth, where 3-D printers, plasma cutting tables, and a five-axis CNC mill look hilariously sophisticated next to a lathe from 1890. As Icon's in-house prototyping and engineering abilities matured, Ward added two new model lines: one for the Ford Bronco, and the other for '47 to '53 Chevy pickups called "Thriftmasters." He then started pushing one-off builds called "Derelicts" and "Reformers," which use the carcasses of whatever oddities he finds in the classifieds; the most intensive builds cost more than a million bucks. Most recently Icon released an all-electric '49 Mercury coupe with twin motors and an 85-kWh Tesla battery pack, and a soon-to-debut project is the "Hellion," a '70 Plymouth Superbird with Hellcat running gear and four-wheel independent suspension.

The Helios concept is the aluminum streamliner that Howard Hughes would've created had he not built the DC-1 aircraft.

Ward aims to add a fourth Icon vehicle line: perhaps a rear-wheel-drive European coupe from the '60s, subtly restyled and mated with its contemporaries' mechanicals. He also wants to start a "napkin sketch" division that develops yet-to-exist vehicles based on hypothetical revisionist history questions he asks himself after too many fingers of whiskey; the curvaceous Helios concept, drawn by a drunken Ward, is the riveted aluminum streamliner that billionaire Howard Hughes would've created had he not built the DC-1 experimental aircraft. Ward daydreams of Icon micro-factories in different cities across America, each focused on a single vehicle line, but worries build quality would suffer in his absence. Additionally, he aspires to collaborate with automotive manufacturers as an "independent, brand-agnostic development partner" that produces continuation, special-edition, or limited-edition vehicles, and he also wants to produce Icon-branded watches—that is, if Jamie allows it. His wife of 25 years demands he must first sell any remaining Dueseys, an $11,500 watch he unveiled two years ago.

"I've made the mistake of some false starts," Ward admits. "I want to 'do this next,' I want to 'try this out,' I want to 'come out with this' to a fault, and I own that fault. Businesswise, it's stupid. I should keep selling FJs, make them better and better, more efficiently and quicker, and keep doing these things that there's an unfilled demand for. Perhaps a more prudent business owner would focus on solely scaling the current products, but this brand is progressive and based on my dreams, so I feel a responsibility also to keep researching, developing, and progressing."

As a CEO, he also has to consider the wellbeing of his 50 employees, who are all well versed in his eccentricities and shortcomings but nonetheless believe in Ward and his lurid imagination. Jay Myers, service manager since '98, knows Ward can get ahead of himself, but he respects him for never cutting corners. Icon's COO, Sherif Yassa, says Ward is "an exceptionally talented individual with an innate ability to make everything seem simple. His mind just processes things that way. He understands that execution is of paramount importance in business development and has worked diligently to improve his discipline."

Ward wants to stay focused on what he has while realizing the next generation of production Icons, and also geek on furniture making, leather crafting, and anything else he can do to further his aspirations. He can sometimes be too curious, but that untamed curiosity has led him wayfaring along the path to success—a double-edged wonderment that defines what Icon is and will become.

Jonathan Ward portrait courtesy of Icon.

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