Talk about pricing what the market will bear. How about $280,000 for an old Dodge pickup? Or $190,000 for a 1950s station wagon-cum-jalopy covered in rust?
These are the kind of prices Jonathan Ward, owner and head designer of Los Angeles-based custom automobile maker Icon charges -- and he still has a year-long backlog of orders.
“My customer is a guy who loves the aesthetic of old vehicles but doesn’t want to put up with a lousy ride, the creaks and rattles and breakdowns,” Ward says.
Icon sources older models such as Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40s, Ford Broncos and Jeep CJs and marries their exteriors to all-modern chassis and powertrains. They look old but drive like new. Ward also adds one-off (and often wacky) details like hidden navigation systems and sun visors taken from private jets.
At first glance the $280,000 pickup truck looks like a well-maintained 1965 Dodge D200. Then you notice that the behemoth has four doors and a reworked grill. The lights are LEDs and the tires ludicrously oversized.
The double set of side windows have an Art Deco shape and the glass itself has an odd, reflective quality (it’s special glass used in skyscrapers). Open a door and a running board slides out from under the vehicle automatically, making it easier to enter.
Ward and his crew spent a year on the Dodge, removing body panels from the original truck and reworking them to fit the chassis of a heavy-duty 2007 Dodge Mega Cab 3500. The suspension was upgraded and a 5.9-liter Cummins turbo-diesel six-cylinder installed. The engine was specially tuned to produce 975 pound-feet of torque and 575 horsepower.
That incredible power sounds like hyperbole, but as I discover on a test drive along California’s Highway 1, it is not. Ward is riding shotgun as I negotiate the precarious curves and find that I rarely need to shift -- the engine pulls like a locomotive even in fifth gear.
The long stick from the six-speed manual transmission pokes up from the footwell and takes a strong hand. As does the oversized, leather-bound steering wheel, which only adds to the impression that you’re driving a tractor-sized vehicle.
The roof is padded with bison hide and the thick carpets underfoot pilfered from a Rolls-Royce. While the radio looks like an old AM unit, it actually operates a bumping stereo system. A digital information screen slides out of a compartment in the dash.
The truck was a special order for a client from Wyoming, but Ward says, “I really don’t want to give this one up.” I sympathize with him. I feel like I’m driving the king of trucks.
Still, good luck reconciling the mind-boggling price, which is partly a result of Ward’s near-maniacal obsession with details. Some of the underpinnings (which you’ll never see) are aeronautical grade, and though the switches and knobs are the same shape as the originals, Ward mills them out of metal.
His business has grown every year, he says, but the level of specificity slows production. Though Icon moved into a larger shop and delivered 30 vehicles in 2012, Ward says it is difficult to keep up with orders. His best-seller is the reworked Land Cruiser, which starts at around $130,000.
Stepping out of the Dodge with relief (you don’t want to mess up a vehicle before the buyer takes delivery), I move over to one of Ward’s personal rides, a literal rust bucket.
Nominally, the car is a 1952 Chrysler Town & Country Wagon with the front end of a DeSoto grafted on. With a teeth-like grill, a rusted patina and rubbed-off paint, it looks like it could have belonged to the Addams Family’s Uncle Fester.
But no. As one of Ward’s “Derelict” series, it goes for $190,000. “It’s super fast. You can hammer the curves with it,” Ward explains handing me the keys. I have my doubts, but turn it toward the winding canyon roads.
The steering wheel and wood flooring are all original, but the guts of the thing certainly aren’t. The sound of the modern 6.1-liter V-8 Hemi reverberates through the cabin and the five-speed automatic transmission clicks through gears promptly.
The suspension ably handles dips and curves. Yet my subconscious is telling me the car is going to fall apart at any moment. Since this is Ward’s daily driver, I turn the wheel over to him.
He promptly sends us hurtling down cliff-side roads, tires shrieking and brakes smoking. I look into the abyss on the passenger side and momentarily lose my breath: For $190,000 you don’t get airbags or modern safety restraints -- only a simple lap belt.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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