"The watch industry is a very interesting parallel in that none of us need watches anymore," Jonathon Ward, founder of Icon 4x4, offers as a metaphor for his latest project. "The secret to them succeeding and prospering and furthering their design efforts in the modern market is in the execution – making the execution distinct and purposeful and bespoke. We are trying to take that unnecessary ethic from other industries and evolve it into niche transportation."
In other words, Ward knows that his custom creations are superfluous, but like timepieces, people appreciate them for more than just their practical use. We count ourselves in that group, as we've previously sampled the Icon CJ3B and found it to be more than the sum of its parts.
The company's latest project is the Icon Bronco. After completing the development of the FJ series and the aforementioned CJ3B, Ward has turned his unique perspective to Ford's legendary off-roader from the 1960s and 70s. Icon will officially debut this Bronco at SEMA in Las Vegas later this week, but when Ward called us up earlier this month and asked if we wanted a sneak preview, we jumped at the chance. With the Bronco needing to maintain its like-new condition for the show, however, we would be limited to a short jaunt around the city streets of his facility in Van Nuys, CA. That would have to do, though, as we were eager to see what sort of unique details and materials Ward's team has implemented into the Bronco's design.
Ironically, the Icon Bronco actually began with Ward's connection to Toyota. Jim Farley, Ford's current director of global marketing, originally made his mark at Toyota and Scion where Ward worked with him as a consultant on the FJ Cruiser. After Farley moved to the Blue Oval, he again turned to Ward to see if he would be interested in doing a one-off Bronco project using one of the new reproduction bodies by Dynacorn. Ward liked the idea but had a bigger vision for the project. "I went back and thought about the opportunity and realized that over the years the Bronco is probably the number one request that we get for the next Icon model," he told us. "We thought if we are going to do it, then we didn't want to do a one-off. We wanted to really put some engineering time into it and engineer a fresh platform and make it our next production model."
Even before Farley approached him, Ward had the Bronco in the back of his mind. He had previously purchased an example and driven it around for a few months to see if it was a platform that would make for a viable Icon model.
"I drove one long enough to realize that there were lots of opportunities to evolve the chassis, drivetrain, ergonomics, heating and A/C and all that stuff," he says. "I drove it long enough to realize that I don't have the patience for the charm of the vintage platform, but I always loved the aesthetic. So when this all got put on the table I was already pretty ripe with ideas of what to do."
Although he knew he wanted to go ahead with the Bronco, Ward knew that he would have to go about the project differently than the FJ or the CJ. "Instead of me doubling down and dumping seven digits into R&D, which we realized from the CJ was a trainwreck given our size, this time we tried to reach out to existing clients and fans of the brand." Ward sent out a feeler to his existing clients and fans to see if there were five people who would be willing to pre-purchase the Broncos. A mere four hours later, he had his answer. The first five Broncos were spoken for and Ward had his development money. "That made us feel really good and gave us further inclination that we were onto something," he says.
"I drove [a Bronco] long enough to realize that I don't have the patience for the charm of the vintage platform, but I always loved the aesthetic."
Another difference between the Bronco and past projects is that Ward brought in another designer. He had done all of the design work for both of the FJ and the CJ, but for the Bronco he enlisted the help of Camilo Pardo. The former Ford designer is perhaps best known for penning the Ford GT, but has also dabbled in furniture, fashion and artwork. Ward says it made for a great pairing. "His and my design languages are really a perfect match."
While the initial plan was to produce the Broncos using Dynacorn reproduction bodies, the initial batch is based off of original models from 1966 to 1977. "Potentially, we may shift production to utilize the new Dynacorn body structure, but for now, we prefer to use vintage bodies until they are established in the market and the quality is confirmed," says Ward, although finding the right bodies has been quite a task. "We looked around the country and bought ten of the nicest virgin Broncos that we could find – all original paint, known history and no modifications, so that in essence it's the best blank canvas we can find."
Even with the blessing of Ford and an enthusiastic group of initial buyers, the Icon Bronco may not have happened, at least in its current form, without help from an unlikely source: Nike. So what does a shoe company have in common with a manufacturer of specialty vehicles? According to Ward, who happens to be an acquaintance of the Nike CEO, it was all about combining the past and present. "The CEO of Nike expressed that in his opinion Icon was doing the same thing Nike was, which seemed odd at first until he clarified. He said Nike's success is all based on their heritage – it's heritage plus a more modern approach in the details. The way it's crafted and the materials used is all still based on their designs of the past."
Nike's appreciation for what Icon is all about proved to be essential to the Bronco's development, as it offered its prototyping and manufacturing resources.
Nike's appreciation for what Icon is all about proved to be essential to the Bronco's development, as it offered its prototyping and manufacturing resources to Ward. It started out with Nike's designers wanting to play around with various elements of the Bronco, but that eventually turned into a ten-man team of mathematicians, programmers, machinists and designers. As Ward and Pardo worked up designs for each of the items for the Bronco, the team at Nike would spit out prototypes using their SLS Rapid Prototyping technology. When designs were finalized, Nike then did all of the parts machining for the first five Broncos. "That was a major victory for us because once we had their resources involved, that allowed us to be able to realize all the ideas we were coming up with," says Ward. "Otherwise, with our internal resources we would have had to pare that list down big time due to tooling and cost limitations."
So what aspects of the Bronco needed such extensive design work? Well, if you take the viewpoint of Ward, just about everything. Take, for instance, the grille. The single-piece unit is constructed of B4 stainless steel that is laser cut and hand tig-welded to form, and each of the Icon letters are CNC machined stainless steel finished with enamel paint. Nothing is made from plastic and nothing is an off-the-shelf part, from the door handles to the side mirrors to the side marker and taillight guards. Every item has been painstakingly rendered in CAD and either made via CNC or laser cutting. Nothing looks out of place, though. Ward had initially considered adding turn signals in the side mirrors, for instance, but felt it would have looked too modern.
The attention to detail continues inside the cabin, and Ward's affection for industrial design is also made apparent throughout the interior. The aluminum paneling found on the dash and doors is the same found on the interior of luxury skyscraper elevator doors. The sun visors are the same found in a Learjet. The seats are made from the same material that the L.A. County Museum of Modern Art uses for its outdoor furniture. Each of the knobs and bezels is constructed of machined stainless steel. Perhaps our favorite part of the interior, the gauge cluster, was inspired by Bell & Ross watches and was specially designed by Ward and Pardo using Dakota Digital VHX series gauges. Ward is also proud to say that nearly all of his suppliers are based in the States. The only exception is the leather sourced for the seats, which comes from Mercedes-Benz.
While all of the details are certainly pleasing to the eye, don't make the mistake of thinking that the Icon Bronco is all show and no go. As with the FJ and CJ, Ward turned to Art Morrison to come up with a custom chassis using mandrel-bent steel rails with Eibach springs and Fox Racing shocks that provide 12 inches of travel both front and rear. Power is delivered through a purpose-built Atlas II transfer case as well as custom-built Dana 60 and 44 solid axle assemblies.
Speaking of power, under the hood of the Icon Bronco is Ford's new Coyote 5.0-liter V8, the same found in the F-150 and Mustang GT. It took a few tricks getting the engine to fit, including expanding the rail widths and developing a custom header for the passenger side, but it was well worth it. Ward feels the stock 412 horsepower and 390 lb-ft torque is plenty, although he says he is open to adding more power if a customer wants it. "I think it's kind of silly, but boys will be boys." He's also open to different engine options if a customer is willing to shell out the cash. "They are bespoke and built-to-order, so if a client can tolerate the non-recurring engineering cost then we would be glad to entertain the EcoBoost or other solutions."
Before we got behind the wheel of the Icon Bronco, Ward wanted us to experience the joys of driving an original version so we could make a comparison between the two. Needless to say, after just a few minutes, we agreed with Ward's assessment that tolerating one on a daily basis could be frustrating. Feedback from the steering, throttle and clutch were virtually nil – we found ourselves sawing at the wheel to keep the truck pointed in a straight line and we were never really sure how much throttle we were giving at any moment. A missed shift from the three-on-the-tree left us stalled on the street and the ancient battery refused to turn over again. Vintage charm indeed.
Hopping into the Icon Bronco, it was easy to see the similarities, but it's a completely different experience. Ward has made a huge effort to modernize the components without making it necessarily look that way, installing an all-new climate control system, keyless ignition and an adjustable steering wheel column. Gobs of soundproofing have also been added throughout the cabin for a quieter ride.
The 5.0-liter V8 fires up via the button embedded in the steering wheel. We're thankful to see the floor mounted five-speed shifter, and after locking it into first gear, we dialed in some throttle to get on our way. We'd be lying if we told you the Icon Bronco handles particularly well – it still loafs along with a good amount of body roll – but the improvement over its original brother in terms of feedback and response is astounding. Let's just say it handles as well as is possible for a vintage SUV. Ward tells us that he still has some tweaking to do, particularly with the sway bars.
Plant the throttle and the 5.0 comes alive, providing a surprising kick in the pants and a nice baritone exhaust note through the single rear pipe. Again, Ward notes that an improvement could be made, stating his regret that he went with a 2.5-inch exhaust pipe rather than a 3-inch. With the SEMA show coming up, however, the changes will have to be made when the truck comes back from Las Vegas.
The Icon Bronco will lighten your bank account by a stout $150,000.
As we pulled back into Icon's parking lot, we ask the inevitable question: How much do these go for? We knew what was coming, but our jaws still dropped a little as Ward gave the answer. Excluding the core, the Icon Bronco will lighten your bank account by a stout $150,000. Customers can choose to find their own donor Bronco, or Icon will source them, usually at a cost of $7,500 to $15,000.
Of course, there are also plenty of options as well, which can bring the price to upwards of $200,000. One of Ward's favorite options are the windows on our test Bronco, which are made of architectural glass designed for skyscrapers. Ward says the glass is specially made and tempered to be appropriate for automotive use, and it provides a reflective tint on the outside while exuding a light smoked gray look on the inside. There's also the optional 14-inch brakes from Stoptech, which we'd highly recommend given the effectiveness of the 5.0-liter V8, along with locking differentials and a sport suspension system with remote reservoirs. Icon also offers a soft top, hard top or half cab. Colors? Ward says he'll let the customer choose literally any color on the planet in conventional gloss or their signature matte finishes. Unfortunately, the powdercoat finishes offered on the FJ and CJ aren't possible due to the age of the Bronco bodies.
The world can use more vehicles like the Icon Bronco, even if most of the world can't afford one.
At the end of the day, you either get the Icon Bronco or you don't. The do-it-yourselfers will claim you can build a similar version on your own for far cheaper. Those who simply want a capable off-roader will laugh at the frivolous details. But Icon is more than that. We see their creations as pieces of industrial art work that happen to also be quite capable of carrying you from point A to point B. Ward even takes it a step further. "We like to think that we are on the cusp of a movement, for better or worse, to promote innovative design, engineering and domestic manufacturing solutions that allow us to realize low volume premium products without sacrifices." It's an approach that we can appreciate in a time when most automotive manufacturing decisions are made in accounting department boardrooms. The world can use more vehicles like the Icon Bronco, even if most of the world can't afford one.