Q&A: Jonathan Ward, CEO of ICON
Jonathan Ward, CEO and founder of ICON explains to Wallpaper* the principles behind the young company’s classic jeep upgrades and their interpretation of future of utility vehicles:
What is ICON about?
JW: The purpose of ICON is to revisit classic automotive designs from our collective past, in a modern context.
Your first Jeep range, the FJ series, is based on the old Toyota landcruiser and the CJ3B on an old US army Jeep. Can you explain the reasons behind these choices?
JW: When we think of vehicles that are a part of most people’s history, and bring a smile to their faces, then the Toyota Land Cruiser is very high on that list. It was distributed worldwide and trusted in some of the harshest environments on the planet. We scanned the shape of an original FJ40 Toyota Land Cruiser, but other than the main silhouette and proportions, our Solid Works-based design is all new.
The vehicle is comprised of all new parts, engineered to meet contemporary uses and versatility. The originals were wonderful and charming, but a bit archaic by modern standards. We focus on designing the chassis and all systems to provide a more versatile and refined experience, using trusted and well distributed modern mechanical components (such as the GM LS alloy V8’s).
Over time we have evolved the FJ ICON line to three different body styles; the FJ40, FJ43 (long wheelbase variant) and the FJ45 pick-up truck.
We chose the Willys as the foundation for our next new model range because like the FJ, it has a loyal global following, tons of character, and unique utility due to it’s compact size. The brand ethic of Willys Overland is also important to us, and missing from modern high volume automotive brands (in my humble opinion). Willys Overland represented quality, durability and utility. A great match for ICON.
How did the collaboration on the design process for The Dog between yourself, Burke Built and Michael DiTullo come about?
JW: ICON had worked with the team at Burke Built on a few focused design tasks on our FJ’s. We quickly discovered that we worked very well together, and shared many opinions concerning what should drive automotive design.
Once I envisioned The Dog project, I knew instantly that we would want to develop it in concert with these guys. Michael had worked with Burke before, and he quickly fell into place as a key member of the team. So I pulled their different skill sets and expertise together to form a formidable design team.
We had the concept laid out in January 2009, work started in May, and the finished vehicle, built to print, was ready by November 1st. Crazy quick, but we were all quite focused and committed to making it a success. We were also blessed with additional input and help from designer friends in various industries from footwear to large automotive brands. We also involved a young designer who is still in school in Detroit.
What was the design process like and how did it work on a practical level with you all being in different locations?
JW: The software GoToMeeting made it all possible. Granted, I did put on a few miles driving back and forth to the Burke facility in Pala, California, but we managed it mostly with GoTo. I also think it was key that we were a focused team with clarity on what our goals were, without competing ideas or conflict. With mutual respect for our various unique perceptions, we worked together very well.
What makes The Dog particularly special? What are the innovations or key features and who brought them to the design?
JW: I think what makes The Dog so special, is the sense of history and quality, purposeful design in detail. That could have been accomplished with a traditional restoration of an old Willys, but only in static form. Even perfectly restored, ‘as new’, old Willys will leave most of us disappointed after a short drive. Our chassis refinement shines once you sit in it and go for a drive, with a performance and comfort that are almost counterintuitive to the look of the vehicle.
As with all of my designs, I have a rather obsessive focus on the quality of all content, from the bolts used to the surface coatings applied. That does not allow us a "mass market" price point, but does allow for our product to be the exception in our industry. We revive classic industrial design quality in detail to create a vehicle you can think of owning for decades of use.
What kind of people do you expect to buy this vehicle and how will it be used? Is it all about looks or is it a true utility vehicle?
JW: Although The Dog is extremely capable off-road, we are always careful to balance our designs so that we do nothing to improve off-road performance by forsaking on-road safety or comfort.
That versatility is a key element of our designs, across the board. If our current FJ owners are any measure of how the new CJ will be used, we can expect a core audience that will find utility for it on the ranch, the island escape, the mountain cabin, or upon a research vessel for land-going provision runs. At the same time, we have clients who enjoy them with their family, for weekend runs to breakfast, and hardly ever see a serious trail. Most of our clients have some sort of connection to these old designs, yet not the patience for the liabilities or realities of a fifty year old vehicle.
What have you got in the pipeline? Where will ICON go from here?
JW: For now, we are focused on maturing this new CJ3B. Initially, that calls for a low volume run of them built by hand, to help us realize all elements of the design "to print". Such a short batch leads to a price point of $79,000.
The next step, once we understand the potentials of the market more, is to start putting together business plans for more volume at a lower sale price. Concurrently, we are already starting to envision body style variations which may include a pick-up truck and a longer wheelbase as with our FJ line.
Another unique element we have been researching, is a way of reviving and expanding upon the original utility values offered by Willys back in the day. Like the Ford Model T, the early Willys had amazing versatility in their utility potential, due to a wide range of PTO (Power-Take-Off; drive power provided by the engine) driven accessories for light agricultural and industrial uses.
We have amassed a large photo study of an extensive range of attachments for many uses, from snow ploughs to field tillers. Many a farm or small factory was run by a Model T, or later a Willys, and this sort of design consideration is long forgotten in modern automotive design, where a big gulp cup holder has become the most highly touted utility.
With the versatility of originals being a primary focus of The Dog, we are also anxious to develop distribution channels wherein we would sell a pallet of components to be exported then assembled in various global regions, in an effort to gain volume and take advantage of many recent protectionism laws that support local industry, in regional markets.
This concept would allow for us to fine tune the design to meet regional needs. I envision small manufacturing facilities that may offer The Dog as a rental at key tourist destinations, while creating industry in markets where there are not that many options for the locals. The Dog could create a local manufacturing base, while promoting the brand at the same time to potential customers around the world.