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When I dropped out of engineering school and began the circuitous route that led to me reporting on cars for a living, I figured that any dreams I had of designing them were dead and buried. Then I met Jonathan Ward.
While I was trying to decide between registering for Music Theory 101 or Medieval Christian Views on Islam, Ward – who is a month younger than I am – was already a successful TV and film actor, and a certified car nut who spent much of his free time tinkering on classic machines.
In the years since, the star of “FernGully: The Last Rainforest” – the animated feature that “Avatar” was in no way based on - went from shade tree hobbyist to owner of his own professional restoration shop. His work on Toyota FJ40’s became so renowned that when Toyota decided to create a modern version of its iconic off-roader, it asked Ward to fabricate the first design studies for it.
As Ward tells it, the automaker ultimately took the vehicle in a different direction than his more pure reinterpretation of what was a very basic piece of machinery in its day, and the two parted ways on the project. Instead, he started building his own.
With little more study than years of hands-on experience and a few night classes in computer-aided design, Ward – in collaboration with a cadre of various designers and engineers from fields as far flung as the clothing and medical implant industries – conceived a vehicle that uses the body of the original FJ, but rides on an all-new chassis and underpinnings. The idea is to recapture a lost ethos of simple, industrial design while enhancing it with modern mechanicals. A success by custom car standards, his company, Icon, has now set its sights on recreating American metal.
The Icon CJ3B finds its inspiration in a 1953 Willys Jeep of the same model name. Known as "The Dog" or “Dogface” due to its oddly tall grille, the post-war 4x4 was a company staple for a decade and a half, and is still a legend in the world of off-roading.
Ward gets the body panels from a factory in the Phillipines that has been building them under license for the past thirty years. They are the only parts on the vehicle that are even close to original.
The steel chassis is unique, manufactured for Icon by Art Morrison Enterprises, one of the premier hot-rod builders in the country. To it, Ward attaches a suspension of his own design, using Eibach springs over Fox Racing shocks which provide anywhere from 14 to 24-inches of travel for the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon-sourced axles, depending on the buyer’s specifications. A front sway bar can be adjusted with a wrench to tighten or loosen things up for specific conditions.
The 220 horsepower 2.4 liter Ecotec four-cylinder under the hood is from General Motors. Off-road specific ancillary gear includes an extra large power steering fluid reservoir to aid cooling during extreme rock crawling and a high-mounted air filter with a dry sock for dusty outings. Stock CJ3Bs can ford streams as deep as their fenders, and a snorkel air-intake system is available by request. A five-speed Aisin transmission distributes power to the wheels via a two-speed transfer case and electronic locking differentials front and rear.
Although they look like old-fashioned sealed-beams, the headlights are actually clusters of very low-amp LEDs, as is all of the illumination on the vheicle. When I backed up the Icon toward my cameraman he was shocked at how bright the reverse light was, even at Noon. This probably comes in handy when maneuvering out of tough spots…on Mars where Ward claims a similar unit is used on NASA’s rovers. I’m guessing they don’t have foot-operated high beam switch like the CJ3B does.
There’s not much to say about the interior, and that’s how it should be. Bare-bones doesn’t do it justice. Since Icon is such a small company, the CJ3B is exempt from most safety regulations, so you won’t find any airbags or padding on the dashboard, and the steering wheel is from a Caterpillar. Two round gauges encompass all of the instrumentation, a couple of knobs take care of the lights and quaintly slow windshield wipers, and there’s no radio, only a couple of speakers and an input jack for a portable audio system. It should just come with a bugle.
Metal seats with Thinsulate padding for your bottom, but nothing for your back are more comfortable than they appear. As if visibility was an issue, a set of three rear view mirrors are mounted 1970’s-style across the top of the folding windshield while a pair of sideview mirrors tuck in high at the corners of the frame where the bushes can’t get at them.
Unfortunately, there weren’t any of those where I spent the day driving the CJ3B in New York City, so I can’t vouch for its off-roading capabilities, but I doubt it will be found lacking. On the street, the ride is a lot better than you’d expect, and far superior to any of the Army surplus Jeeps you may have had the opportunity to take for a spin over the years.
That said, with a wheelbase shorter than Shaquille O’Neal, and tire patches nearly as wide, at highway speeds the CJ3B keeps you busy. The loose, variable rate steering that’s more suitable for scaling mountains than crossing the Brooklyn Bridge will definitely discourage texting while driving by forcing you to keep your hands on the wheel. A heavy clutch that engages like a trigger takes some getting used to, as well. Your left leg will be feeling it at the end of the day.
Somehow, though, you don’t mind, as it all just adds to the experience of tearing around town in a metallic bikini from the atomic age. With the aerodynamics of a convertible brick, Ward pegs its top speed at 85 miles per hour, but you’ll be happier at 60 mph in fourth gear, listening to the exhaust puttering out the soundtrack to a pre-Humvee era war movie.
Powder-coated surfaces inside and out make detail work easy. You just wash and wear, no waxing required – in fact, it’ll ruin the finish. There’s no hardtop option, but the CJ3B does come with a clip and slip-on fabric roof and doors. If you really need something solid over your head, Ward will probably be happy to engineer a solution for you, anyway. That’s the beauty of buying a custom creation, you can have it any way you like, as long as you’ve got the bucks to back up your desires.
Starting price on the CJ3B is $79,000, and the sky’s the limit from there. Sure, you could by a brand new Jeep Wrangler for a third of that price and spend the rest on modifications, but it’ll still be a Wrangler, and there are hundreds of thousands of those around. Icon’s staff of 19 builds their wares in double digit volumes. Ward has no interest in doing it any differently – though a Chevy Volt-type extended range electric version is on the drawing board. Instead, he’s leaving the door wide open for any engineering-school dropout to open up shop and enter a market he currently has to himself.
I don’t think he needs to worry.
2010 Icon CJ3B
Base Price: $79,000
Type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, two-door, four-passenger SUV
Engine: General Motors 2.4L in-line four cylinder
Power: 220 hp, 195 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.