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ESCAPE FROM LA
CAR Magazine August 2011
They look like original Willys Jeeps and indeed they have modern Jeep underpinnings. But they’re made by a man who’s built his name on recreating the coolest off-roaders ever invented.
In Los Angeles the car is king. Live in the City of Angels without one and you won’t ever fall in love with this infamous, true capital of California. It’s equally true, of course, that with it’s legendary traffic, it’s safe to say that you’ll never truly loathe Los Angeles until you’ve endured its day-long jams in the scorching heat. Thousands of miles of sun-bleached concrete arteries clog every day as millions commute across this vast metropolis, the whole city alive with life.
Except tonight. Bar the two dark shapes before us, we haven’t seen another car, person or animal for hours. It’s not quite post-apocalyptic; it’s too clean and spotless for that. When zombies, aliens or Skynet finally take over the world, I’m expecting a trail of destruction to signal The End. Instead, it feels like everyone has simply vanished-the lights are on, but there is no-one home.
The lights really are still on. We’ve holed up in a deserted car park next to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown, but the skyscrapers on nearby Bunker Hill are lit up like stark, industrial Christmas trees, bathing us in a perpetual glow. Last time I was here it was in a Lamborghini Performante, during the bustle of a workday, lunchtime, but despite it now being in the middle of the night it doesn’t feel any darker. Or quieter. There’s no barking, howling V10, but buildings in big cities never sleep: there’s a constant background hum as air-con units and other machines work on unseen until the dawn.
The scene before us is fitting, because our transportation for the night is exactly what you want to be driving when four angry horsemen appear on the horizon. Built by a company called Icon right here in LA, the two small, matt shapes are instantly familiar-you’ll recognize them as Willys Jeeps. Albeit Willys that have been injected with HGH: winches spout from the nose of each, and huge, chunky tires bulge out from the wheelarches, exposing massive suspension kits. They look like they’ll go anywhere.
And they do. Worrisome images of The Fast Show’s two overly-ambitious 4x4 enthusiasts spring to mind when photographer Daniel Byrne asks for one of the Willys to be parked on a steep bank, but with low-range engaged it just drives on up there. ‘Some customers just go to Starbucks in Miami and take the dog to the park and that’s it’, reveals ICON CEO Jonathan Ward. ‘But we have so many other vehicles which are in four-wheel drive and low-range all the time, never leave the property, get their butts worked hard and get put away wet. Most of our clients really use them aggressively’, he says with a big grin.
Ward originally created Icon to meet the demands of his existing customer base, who wanted classic-shape FJ40 Land Cruisers with modern mechanicals, and he and his team then went on to re-create the longer FJ43 and the FJ45 pick-up. A four-door FJ44 was on the cards, but Ward is refreshingly honest about the expense of his hand-built creations: ‘My price point is so loopy the 44 was just going to add more cost, and I really wanted to try and embrace a wider audience. The simplicity of the original Willys design-which is durability, longevity and no frills-is just straight forward and helped us reduce our content cost, so we rolled these cars out instead.
‘These cars” are the two CJ3B’s before us, the first pre-production and production cars out of the factory-ridiculously, Ward owns the trademark to the name, because Jeep never bothered about it. To bring the cost down from the FJs’ $125k-plus price tags to under $80k, the pair use off-the-shelf axles from Jeep Rubicons-albeit shortened to fit the CJ3B’s smaller dimensions-plus 2.4-litre petrol engines from GM.
It doesn’t sound like the most sophisticated recipe, but these things are designed to be beaten up off-road, not to do the weekly school run. They’re tried and tested components, and everything else is marine or aerospace-spec, all dreamed up by Ward’s creative team (which includes a KTM engineer, plus designers from Nike and Toyota). The volumes are low, but that means Icon can easily change something it’s not happy with/ ‘I love the anal retentive value of every last component on our trucks’, says Ward. ‘I can tell you why it’s there and why it’s selected.’
What you won’t find is Jeep’s famous seven-slotted vertical grille. “There have been extensive law suits since the beginning of mankind’, smiles Ward. Instead, Icon went through over 30 different designs until they found one that worked-the sketches still litter Ward’s office. It’s a modern take on an icon, and you can choose how retro you want your CJ3B to look. The black CJ is in Icon’s Old School style, intended to have a vintage feel, with a lower ride height, smaller wheels and tires, and just a single roll bar. And the khaki car showcases New School, with 33in tires on 17-inch rims, a bigger cage, and the option of canvas doors and a canvas roof.
Both are pretty bare inside, but the quality, fit and finish is exquisite. There’s no paint anywhere; the body is powder-coated in a Teflon and polyester hybrid, with mica in it to give it the rough sheen-it’s rough and tough to touch. It’s ten times stronger than conventional paint, says Ward, so you can just hose it down when you’re done desert blasting or mud plugging. There’s not a single conventional bulb either: the dash lights, indicators, and headlamps are all LEDs. Want luxury? Look elsewhere. There’s a basic, MP3-only audio system available as an option, but the rest of the extras are hardcore items such as front and rear locking diffs, winches, and a compressed CO2 tank fro rapidly inflating tires and rafts. Each CJ takes five months to build, and Ward reckons he looses half of his potential customers because today’s culture means people just aren’t prepared to wait that long. But it’s worth it.
Total CJ sales so far in 2011? Nine. And now you’re thinking he’s a nobody, not to be taken seriously? Well, up next is a Ford Bronco recreation (the first-gen, as opposed to OJ-spec)), and both Ford and a ten-man team from Nike helped out on the design. Not convinced? How about the fact that GM approached Icon when it heard Ward was looking into hybrids, and offered up a yet-to-be-announced performance version of the Volt’s range extender powertrain?
And if you’re still not converted, Ward probably doesn't care. “The market needs brands with clarity of intent, and brands that aren’t afraid to not be for everyone’, he passionately explains. “it’s not for everyone, that’s the pint, that is part of the fun. We’ll get some guys who will call and will be like “is it going to ride like my Lexus?” err, no!’
You can’t help but admire his enthusiasm (he’s supposed to be with us for an hour, but in the end stays the whole night), or the fact that Ward’s reveling in the current market conditions and is hilariously self-depreciating about the size of his company. ‘Our industry at large thinks it’s Doomsday, but without any bullsh*t, I really do think at my level it’s an amazing time. It’s like a dot-com era for opportunities. Never in my career has the public been more disenchanted with the offerings from the big players, nor more open to hearing about a passion-based product. More suppliers are willing to work with us too; five years ago Eibach and Fox Racing would have told us to f*** off. My account’s small, but our visibility and reputation is large, and we pay our bills. It works out great.’
We leave downtown, tearing through the Second Street tunnel, barely silenced exhausts blaring off the white-tiled walls. And then having gone the wrong way, decide upon a new strategy that will see us heading in the right direction: east, towards the LA River and the Sixth Street viaduct, where a hair-gelled Travolta raced his hot rod to impress Olivia Newton-John.
And now I should probably reveal that the CJ3B isn’t very nice to drive: you’re constantly sawing at the steering wheel in a straight line, the ride on the knobby tires is terrible, the gear shift is vague and the clutch is sharp. Who cares? Just as a modernized GT40 or DB5 or E-type is night and day next to an original, so ICON’s creation is many times better than a 1950s Willys. And these things are designed to go off-road, so that slack steering won’t snap your thumb when you hit a vicious bump, and the chunky tires will find grip no matter what surface you’re on. I badly, badly want one, perhaps with the new aluminum body and VW TDI engine that Icon is now experimenting with.
While Daniel ploughs on taking pictures, with the help of processed sugar, I end up falling asleep in the Old School CJ3B beneath the Sixth Street viaduct. Soon after it was completed in 1932 the concrete began to disintegrate and, despite expensive repairs, it’s almost a dead-cert to fall down when the next earthquake hits. All the same, here in a $100,000 jeep with the keys in the ignition, all alone in a didgy district of LA, beneath a crumbling bridge, I can't think of a safer (or cooler) place to spend the night. The apocalypse ain’t arrived yet but tonight it feels like, if the end is nigh, then bring it on.
By Ben Pulman