Icon Jeep Wagoneer Reformer Review: Driving a Time-Traveling, Woodgrain Masterpiece

Nostalgia is a tricky beast. It’s all too easy to lose hours swimming in the warm waters of bygone eras, basking in the good times had and magically blocking out the bad. In automotive terms, nostalgia means you remember that old beater of your youth as a car that felt like a rocket ship,  blasting you to a new world of possibilities. You forget that it had about a 50–50 chance of starting, took brake pedal inputs as suggestions instead of commands, and generally drove like garbage.

Jonathan Ward, however, knows the score. And so he’s built a business around treating old cars and trucks not like disposable items of convenience but as the renewable resources they are. Part restoration shop, part Willy Wonka factory, Icon 4×4 is a place where those blessed with fat wallets can pay to turn the hazy, idealized visions of vehicles past into concrete reality. From Toyota Land Cruisers to Ford Broncos to old Chevy pickups, they’re all torn down to the last bolt and painstakingly reimagined in a dusty little corner of California’s San Fernando Valley.

From the ashes., Kyle Cheromcha

The goal is not just to make them like they used to; it’s to make them even better, to infuse the builds with a “spirit and soul” that pays homage to the originals while erasing their imperfections with a hefty dose of modern tech and engineering. And Icon’s dream projects, like this 1965 Kaiser-Jeep Wagoneer designed for beach cruising duty, show the true potential of that promise. It’s the latest from Icon’s Reformer series, one-off builds for lucky clients that begin with just about any worthy vehicle, a blank check, and a simple mandate: Make this thing incredible.

But since there’s no such thing as a “simple” restoration in Ward’s world, the real process is far more complicated.

“There’s no Visceral Man-Machine Relationship Anymore”

“If money don’t matter, and you buy whatever new fancy shindig—after six months, talk to the owner about engagement,” Ward says. “There’s no visceral man-machine relationship anymore, because the vehicle really doesn’t exude much true personality or perspective, because no one has the balls anymore to let one designer mandate what that vehicle’s design language will be and who it should appeal to.”

It’s hard to argue with that. Standing on the Icon shop floor and taking in the eternal lines of the Jeep Wagoneer, which debuted in 1963 and went mostly unchanged for the better part of three decades, I can’t figure out who this build wouldn’t appeal to. From the faultless body to the industrial-art chassis to the fanatically-detailed interior, it exudes a captivating sort of rugged confidence that feels neither forced nor unearned.

This is a truck that you instantly trust, and instantly imagine having had for your whole life. Of course, part of that stems from the knowledge that the team at Icon 4×4 sunk more than three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars—all of which was financed by the owner—into making this Wagoneer forever young.

The Process; Or, How Jonathan Ward Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Build

In the case of the Wagoneer, the project began more than 36 months ago, when a repeat client—40 percent of Icon buyers own more than one—came to Ward looking for the ultimate American beach cruiser to cart his family around their vacation property. (I know that’s one of the least-relatable sentences you’ve ever read, but hey, at least the guy has taste.) He knew he wanted a Wagoneer, and Ward eventually talked him into using this Craigslist-special 1965 model after a newer candidate proved too rusty and less-preferential in interior terms; don’t get Ward started on the amount of plastic in newer cars and trucks, or you’ll be listening for the better part of an hour. Besides, that shovel nose is just the coolest.

The before shot., Jonathan Ward

Looking at the “before” picture, it’s hard to tell it’s even the same truck. That says more about Ward’s stellar design choices than the condition of the original, a mostly-intact survivor that sat in the Southwest for 10 years. Still, the whole thing was pulled apart until all that remained was a bare body shell, which was then sandblasted to make it a true blank canvas.

From there, the rebuilding began. After laser scanning the underbody to ensure a perfect fit, Icon turned to trusted chassis partner Art Morrison to create the custom steel frame on which the reborn Wagoneer would ride. It truly is a beautiful piece of metalwork, and makes the truck far stiffer than stock.

Icon 4×4

To get things rolling, the team worked with Dynatrac to fit a Dana 60 ProRock high-pinion axle in the rear and a Dana 44 stick in the front. The build is missing Ward’s customary ARB locking differentials; he said the client opted to go without, considering the Jeep’s soft-roading raison d’etre. But that’s not to say it can’t clamber over an obstacle or two, thanks to a reasonable lift provided by Eibach coils and Fox Racing shocks.

When we talk about memories not jiving with reality, though, it’s the mechanical bits that make or break the experience. Power for this build is provided by a punchy 6.2-liter E-Rod LS3 engine putting out 440 horsepower and a similar number of pound-feet, which is connected to a venerable 4L85E General Motors 3/4-ton transmission and an Atlas two-speed, shift-on-the-fly four-wheel-drive transfer case. Although with the family on board, it’s the new brakes that might make all the difference: hulking six-piston Brembos up front and four-piston rears can stop the Jeep on a dime. Then there are the all-new steering components, suspension architecture, electronically-actuated parking brake, and countless other systems that all add up to a flawless, faultless driving experience. 

Icon 4×4

Meanwhile, the work leading up to that can be anything but. “In some regards, we’re super-bleeding-edge high-tech. In other regards, we’re using 1800s tools and MacGuyvering our way through it. And it’s really the only way to do what we’re doing” he says, surveying the Jeep’s pristine interior. “This is basically a prototype, but it’s gotta actually work. That’s the lunacy of the brand.”

Old-School Looks, New-School Tech

There’s a fine line between lunacy and genius, but Ward has straddled it nicely with this Wagoneer. To create the design inside and out—hardcore Jeepers will note that glorious wood trim is not period-correct for 1965—he and his team went so far as to create a look board to visualize the client’s life and how best the Jeep could match it.

On the outside, it’s as classic a restoration as they come. The larger-than-stock 18-inch aluminum wheels, necessary to fit the high-performance brakes, are cleverly masked with body-colored paint and those gleaming new-old-stock hubcaps. That smokey-blue color hasn’t been named yet; Ward offered me the chance, but I demurred to the person writing the checks here.

It also retains the original bumpers, grille, roof rack, and badging, with one exception: Since the new engine didn’t match the original 327 displacement number on the fender badges, Ward had new ones machined with a corrected 376 in matching font.

“It’s a fun, subtle geek opportunity. Probably no one is gonna notice, but it was good fun,” he says with a smile. “It’s about the details, or it’s not about anything, in my opinion.”

That philosophy is easier to experience on the inside. It looks to be a concours-worthy restoration at first, but a closer inspection reveals just about everything has been subtly upgraded from stock. Plastics surfaces are not allowed in Ward’s world—every knob, switch or touch point is now either metal or fabric, save for a strip of period-correct vinyl crowning the seat benches. All of those new bits had to be custom machined.

Icon 4×4

A quick word on those seats: That striped fabric is from Knoll, a high-end furniture maker, and it was originally designed for outdoor patio furniture. Ward likes to source things from other industries, and the result can be both eclectic and extremely functional. The poke-prone springs of the original benches have also been ditched in favor of high-density memory foam, another hidden concession to modern ergonomics. And being a beach ride, the entire floor is covered in marine-grade, removable carpet.

The dashboard also hides a few advances. Integrated air conditioning is routed through the former ashtray holders and controlled by three discreet knobs. The Bluetooth-based audio system is controlled by a single volume dial located above the driver’s left knee—no double-DIN monstrosity here. Ward’s interiors are all about continuity; he’ll take a shape he likes and replicate it, so every single knob you see is actually a custom piece based off the grab handle on the manual window cranks. It’s not stock, but it looks like a subtle and little-known factory trim package.

Driving Someone Else’s Priceless Jeep Wagoneer

Restoration projects at this level rarely get driven once they’re finished. Given the Herculean effort poured into these builds, you might think Ward would be fine with owners babying their Icons. But despite acknowledging that some of his projects border on “highly functional sculptures,” that’s absolutely not the case.

“It irks me when they go into a shiny white polished room of a collection and get like a thousand miles a year. It kind of bums me out,” he says, grimacing. “I’d far prefer [to see signs of wear and tear] than to get a call from his ‘car guy’ in five years and hear ‘well, you know, it’s got 1500 miles on it and it’s in flawless condition.’ It’s like dude, you’re missing the entire point. I could have just sent him a roller, you know.”

So drive it we will. And though I felt a little like a feudal lord exercising my jus primae noctis with the owner’s newly-completed masterpiece, I climbed behind the restored steering wheel for a short cruise around town and a spot of light off-roading.

The first thing you notice about driving a vintage SUV is the sheer visibility afforded by the acres of glass around you. Who needs a blind spot monitor when you have no blind spots? The cabin is flooded with late-morning sunlight as I cruise around the valley floor, admiring a level of sound insulation I never thought I’d experience in a 53-year-old truck.

Icon 4×4

But obviously, everything else about the way it drives is far from the real thing—though if we had to guess, it’s probably exactly how the owner remembers it. The Wagoneer handles those 440-odd horses under the hood much like a modern SUV, and while you won’t forget you’re riding on solid axles, there’s a surprising serenity in the cabin while hitting a pothole or going around a sharp turn. The brakes are excellent, and probably make one of the biggest differences in terms of everyday usability. Piloting a restomod is usually an exercise in contradictions, because the old-school surroundings and modern performance don’t line up at all. But there’s a harmony to this Jeep—maybe it’s the matching knobs.

Knowing that anyone who can afford to sink at least several hundred thousand dollars into an old Wagoneer can also afford to have me killed, I didn’t push any limits in my brief off-road run. After all, this guy deserves to receive his new-old truck in one piece. But the Jeep ambled ably up a rutted dirt road; more tellingly, the temperature needle never budged an inch despite idling around the photoshoot location for about an hour. This is as complete, as convenient as a modern Grand Cherokee—minus the airbags, of course.

“A Client-Funded Skunkworks”

If all this has you itching for your own Reformer, you’re in for a long wait. Ward’s team can only take on so many of these projects at a time, and considering the amount of time and labor required, they rarely make any money for the shop. Ward calls it a “fundamentally stupid” business model, but one with a purpose that transcends mere profit.

“If I was a better businessman, those dudes would be building more Broncos, more Thriftmasters, more FJs. But I’m not, and I don’t care,” he says. “The Derelict and Reformers are literally client-funded skunkworks. The intellect, the creativity, the ability to test new processes is endless and so important. So I fight the smarter people in the room to keep it rolling.”

Kyle Cheromcha

There’s another layer here, which has to do with Ward’s environmental concerns—surprising, I know, coming from someone so synonymous with big, expensive trucks. These projects are part of his mission to show the world that cars don’t have to be discarded. Instead, they can be reworked to provide a second—or even third—lifetime of enjoyment, sparing the environmental cost of making a replacement vehicle. Icon 4×4 is a small-scale operation, for sure. But what if this practice was applied en masse?

In the future, we might not have a choice. A cloud darkens Ward’s face as our conversation turns to the slow extinction of interesting, unique vehicles from the new car market. It’s entirely possible that tomorrow’s gearheads will mainly focus their efforts on preserving what we’ve already made, rather than trying to get their kicks from a world of anonymous pods. (Look no further than the Wagoneer Roadtrip concept Jeep brought to its annual Easter Safari bash in Moab this year.) At least it would mean one thing for sure: That you can go home again, provided you’ve got the cash.


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