An Up-Close Look at Some of the Greatest Off-Roaders Ever Built

Behind the scenes at one of the world’s most impressive automotive restoration shops.

When Jonathan Ward opens the door of one of his FJ restorations, the first thing that catches my eye is a dongle hanging from the zipper holding the window closed. They’re little white and black balls, woven from a string of nylon, and they hail from a village in South America, Ward tells me, as part of a micro-loan program meant to create business opportunities in the region. Ward added them because he hates the clinking sound the zipper would otherwise make when the truck is in motion. As for the zippers themselves, Ward tells me “in my world, just trying to get zippers to a specific length and gauge… its fuckin’ impossible!”

Ward is truly a next-level perfectionist.

The rest of the interior is equally over-engineered. Ward expresses deep loathing of plastic, so he goes out of his way to make sure he can replace original plastic parts with metal: the air-conditioning vents, knobs, handles and switches — to name a few — are all CNC’d stainless steel. The console is also custom made my ICON, albeit begrudgingly. “The biggest US console maker is totally asleep at the wheel. I designed this and handed it to them and asked ‘Please can you make this? How about a double-DIN? How about gas shocks for the lid? How about stainless steel? How about, USB power ports and serviceable cup holders?” And they said ‘Well, no one else is complaining’ So that forced me into making our own.”

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If you’re familiar with ICON 4×4 — and if you love off-roaders and overland-ready rigs, you really should be by now — you’ll know that its trucks usually cost six figures and, thus, are popular with celebrities and the just-plain monied. You’ll probably know that his restorations are all powered by brand new crate engines, feature extensive chassis modifications and badass matte paint jobs.

But what most people don’t always realize is the level of detail that goes into making the trucks absolutely perfect inside and out. Many shops will use whatever automotive parts are available but Ward wants his restorations to use the best materials possible, and he often has to go outside the automotive industry. The sun visors, for example, are made by a company that makes OEM parts for Learjet. The interior cargo netting isn’t automotive grade, but sports grade supplied by Nike — it’s more durable, according to Ward, and he uses it so it doesn’t look like “blown-out underwear” after a few years of use. The wooden beds of his Thriftmaster hot rods — some of which have Horween leather interiors — he likes to play around with, but the example he shows me uses carbon-dated, 5,000-year-old Irish bog-wood. “Fuckin’ nuts,” he exclaims. Fuckin’ nuts, indeed.

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Similarly, the interior upholstery in the FJ Ward shows me is made by Chilewich, which specializes in high-traffic runners, outdoor upholstery and placemats for the restaurant industry. According to Ward, the material used in his trucks has a 100,000 “double rub” count — used to test the durability of a material over repeat uses. Apparently, the acceptable count for traditional automotive materials is 10,000. But the FJ I’m seeing is just a mainstream model for ICON. Things get far more bonkers — and more expensive — when you commission a one-off ride.

For example, one of Ward’s latest one-off creations is an artfully resto-modded, 1965 Kaiser Wagoneer. Ward circles the completed truck, exclaiming “this is wrong, these are wrong, these are wrong,” referring to various exterior parts like the wood trim and wheels pulled from different Wagoneer models. But the idea, I’ve gleaned, is to make the ultimate Wagoneer that still looks like it came from the factory, just with better engineering all around. The interior door cards, for example, are the same design as stock, but Ward CNC’d the base (originally just cardboard) to give it more strength and depth. The dash is custom but “you wouldn’t really know it,” Ward says proudly. The interior — a very of-the-era stripe design — is upholstered with patio fabric from Knoll.

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Parked just a few feet away is the shell of a Plymouth Superbird, arguably one of the rarest, most desirable muscle cars America’s ever made. And what’s inside? A 707-horsepower Hellcat engine. Ward climbs inside the shell, fires up the engine, and its thunderous roar fills his workshop. I notice a bright screen light up behind the wheel. Ward’s kept the Hellcat’s original CAN bus system and the final product will have the same modern interface you’d find on a present-day Challenger. That is, once Ward’s figured out how to design a hood that’ll clear the Hellcat’s exceptionally tall block while still looking aesthetically pleasing, a much harder job than it sounds, Ward assures me.

These are just highlights from Ward’s impressive operation that runs out of Icon’s Chatsworth, California shop that, if it weren’t for the dozens of derelict Land Cruiser and Broncos out front, would look just like any other unassuming warehouse in a Northern LA township. But Ward and his 50-some employees are doing some of the most incredible automotive fabrication work I’ve ever laid eyes on, from stuffing batteries into a patina’d Hudson, overbuilding Land Cruisers, and hot-rodding Chevy Thriftmasters. And each and every one will be fully redesigned and reconsidered, made like they should’ve been from the get-go, with each part thoroughly geeked-out on. Right down to the fuckin’ zippers.

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