When was the last time you met someone who was truly committed, truly focused, truly brilliant? For our first featured article we’ve decided upon presenting one such individual; someone we hold in high esteem, whom inspires us, and whom we share the connection and steadfast desire of creating the absolute best products in our fields. Allow me to introduce you to Jonathan Ward, the owner and founder of TLC restoration and service center, and creator of the incomparable ICON vehicles.
Every so often comes along a product, or designer, or philosophy that so shakes our preconceptions that we are never the same. I’d suggest Jonathon Ward is one such catalyst in modern industrial design for his ability to recognize and pay homage to past classics while progressing them in new directions that are far beyond their modern counterparts.
If you are as of yet unfamiliar with the ICON vehicles, then they could be simply described as reinvented versions of the classic Toyota Land Cruisers and Willys Jeep with thoroughly modern components and driving performance. However that would be too simple, to truly appreciate an ICON vehicle one must know the absolute attention to detail and high level of engineering and design awareness that borders on near obsession. The only thing vintage about these vehicles may be the lines of their classic silhouette and the design heritage which inspires their construction. Jonathon says “The idea behind ICON is to revisit classic vehicles from our collective past that make us smile, but with a modern design sensitivity and approach.” And I must admit after getting a chance to experience these vehicles first hand, I can honestly say that if the classics make us smile, then the re-envisioned ICON models make us drool…and then grin until our faces hurt.
Details abound on each and every ICON build, and the intricacies of these hand-built vehicles are staggering. The thoughtfulness put forth into everything from the scratch resistant surface coatings low luster finish which further enhances the style and vehicle’s utilitarian spirit, to the LED back up lights which share their lineage with the lights used on the Mars Rover, wheels which previously only adorned Department of Defense vehicles, and the carefully designed woven pattern of the stone washed cotton canvas rear seat would all cause one to think Jonathon’s background would be that of professionally trained transportation designer, mechanical engineer, or some similar esteemed training. However, supremely specialized training is not the case, as he’s never officially studied or taken a single design course. Instead his guide has been his passion and his interest in industrial design, the human interface, and vintage aesthetic; all of which are very evident in the ICON brand as a culmination of those natural inclinations.
Jonathon got his start working with local car design legends, often simply sweeping shop floors and doing whatever he could in return for the experience and opportunity to learn and listen. In addition to the hands on training in local shops he supplemented the knowledge with courses in AutoCAD, computer modeling, and Business. It was while taking a USC business course he got into a debate with a friend over supply and demand. Jonathan’s theory was that if you could control supply, then you can then in turn communicate the value and create the demand. The disagreement led to a bet, and Jonathon had 6 months to drive a trackable regional market up by 30%. So, with the added desire to prove his point and a long standing need to see his creative visions realized, Jonathan and his wife Jamie decided to go into business for themselves.
While on vacation in South Africa they began to notice that the harsher the terrain and the more remote the location, the more they found people were religiously devoted to their Land Cruisers. Jonathon noticed that the Land Rovers were driven in the low lands, but in the mountains, mud, and whenever else the Rovers had trouble, then a Land Cruiser would be radioed for rescue. From this firsthand experience he gained an appreciation for the vintage Toyota Land Cruisers and recognized their great industrial design quality, but knew the 4x4s needed a restoration quality approach back home. There wasn’t the same fit and finish, reliability, and thoughtfulness applied to 4-wheel drives that he was familiar with seeing applied to other vintage platforms. In response, Jonathon and Jaime formed TLC in 1996, leased a small showroom, and began buying all the Toyota Land Cruisers they could find.
What started fairly simply as reselling restored Land Cruisers soon grew into a flourishing brand and TLC become known as the premier restorer of classic Land Cruisers. TLC was a success, and the fit and finish of their Toyota Land Cruisers started attracting new buyers into the market. These buyers loved the exterior aesthetics but desired the up-to-date driving characteristics to match the finish quality. Until then TLC had opted to stick with original stock standards and had resisted conversions. It was popular practice for mechanics to swap the tired Toyota engines to Chevy small blocks, but Jonathon felt there wasn’t much advantage to swapping one archaic system for another. Instead TLC met the desire of improved performance and handling with the modern technology, tunability and efficiency of a refined contemporary system and expanded its scope to incorporate fuel injected V8 engines, five speed transmissions, and four wheel disc brakes.
TLC caught the attention of the Toyota Motor Corporation because of Jonathan’s unique understanding of the Cruiser’s heritage value. A perspective which was missing in the Toyota Corporation due to the long standing Japanese business tradition which focused solely on progression, never referencing past achievements. Toyota realized there was a great value in North America for their brand heritage and consulted with TLC to reach that core audience. TLC’s work included Toyota and Lexus show cars, restoration projects, and even off-road design and testing for the hydrogen based Toyota Highlander. Eventually this relationship led to the personal request by Mr. Toyoda for TLC to design and build what would eventually go on to become the new FJ Cruiser. Jonathon and the TLC crew obliged and created three re-envisioned FJ models for Toyota, of which the motor corporation would choose one to send on to their in-house design group. The TLC design was radically transformed by the in-house designers from Toyota and lost most of the classic aesthetic that tied it to the original brand heritage, transforming it into something very different than the TLC vision.
As a result of the experience and the desire to have his own design vision realized, Jonathon began taking steps to reproduce the FJ vehicle he had envisioned. Although, without the constraints of Toyota’s finishes and design directives he was now free to make it completely his own, and satiate his desire for incorporating only the best components. Advancements in reverse engineering technology and efficient low volume manufacturing along with Solidworks and Catia enabling design made it possible to begin his undertaking, and provided the means by which he could accomplish his goal. Teaming with designer and artist friends also helped in the process; Jonathon implored help from the best of the best including Art Morrison, widely acclaimed for his custom chassis, and the top builders of axles, aluminum body constructors, and other key North American partners.
This process paved the way for the ICON vehicles, and after building the first vehicle Jonathon added up all the costs of producing it. Once faced with the large number looming at the bottom of the page, he had a decision to make; does he dumb down the design or source less than stellar parts to make the vehicle more marketable, or continue to push the boundaries of what modern low volume auto manufacturing can be? In the end he realized he only wanted to build the Icon vehicles if they represent his passion for the absolute best of the best and his desire to build it right. In an age where many manufactures are utilizing every possible cost cutting measure and using overseas mass production in order to sell more units, they do so at the sacrifice of quality and it’s a core decision of those managing the brand to choose their direction. Jonathon thinks there is a trend towards buyers searching out brands that have a history, a story, and a message; stating “The designer needs to have a spirit and a drive that is translated into that product and thus the product will have a purpose for existing and a clear message of what it is here to do.” Or at the very least hopes for resurgence in an educated buyer seeking the best goods to spend their money on. “Hopefully there’s a revival for all of us at hand, certainly for us in automotive. Too long the automotive industry has tried to produce products that appeal to everyone. Well, now all the products are disposable, all the content directives have nothing to do with the quality of the good – it has to do with the turn rate of getting the consumer back in to consume another product and they keep chasing a false dream of an ever growing production increase which our economy is already seeing the tail end of. It’s a false model. We’d rather keep the quality where we want it, build as many as we can to meet the audience that comes to us. The automotive industry needs to stop trying to create a product that goes against the cultural drive, a one size fits all.”
In an age of copycat conformity and cookie cutter products created solely to satisfy the passing trend long enough to create its own replacement, it is rare to find designs that transcend time. ICON is one such product, and because classic lines and supreme functionality never go out of style, the ICON knows no shelf life. Testament to its lasting design and examples of the uniqueness of the product can be found right down to the details as small as the snaps and fasteners used in Jonathan’s unrelenting pursuance of the best of the best.
THE PASSION THAT DRIVES THE CARS
Jonathan Ward was born in Elkridge, Maryland on February 24, 1970. Starting acting while a young man, Jonathan was just twelve years old when he made his on screen debut. With a long career spanning the 80’s and 90’s Jonathan worked in both television and film. While he worked as an actor he would often have a few weeks off between filming and would work with local car design and fabrication legends. His passion for industrial design and car restoration evolved and eventually led to Jonathan and his wife Jamie deciding to make a break from the entertainment industry and go into business for themselves.
An ICON 4 × 4 vehicle represents the utmost in form and function. “The most advanced form of simple”, these hand built trucks are meticulously constructed using only the best of the best components and materials.
Jonathon Ward is taking the “vintage aesthetic married with modern content” idea even farther with the Derelict series. One would never know by looking at the exterior of these heavily patinaed vehicles that there is a thoroughly modern car masked by its weathered skin.