ICON’s co-founder talks about his company, his design philosophy and why America, “…must return to being proud of our ability to design and manufacture, to remain relevant in the global economy.”
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your companies?
I am 41 years old, and have been passionate about industrial design since I was a kid. My wife and I had careers in different industries, yet were dispassionate about our work. While on vacation in South Africa, we decided to start TLC once we returned home.
So you started TLC in 1996, what was was the early days like? Did people get what you were going for back then?
At first a few people were confused. They said “you are going to do what, to only what?” One later even said that he gave us a few months before we would close. Fortunately, we actually quickly found our footing, as no one was applying proper restoration to classic utility vehicles, as they would to conventional classics. We quickly discovered that there was a significant market who wished for higher standards.
Then you started ICON 2007? Why start another truck company?
After a while, we felt as if we were hitting our heads on the ceiling of the brand we had created. We saw that the market, more and more, wanted the classic look and feel, but few had the patience for the archaic mechanical experience these early trucks provided. So TLC found we were doing less and less stock restorations, and more and more customizing in our style. Our style seemed to be defined by a classic aesthetic, true to the utilitarian roots of these vehicles, but with modern systems integrated where ever possible. After being asked to design the first three pre-production FJ Cruiser design study vehicles for Toyota, then seeing Toyota go in a less traditional direction, we yearned to realize our prototypes ourselves.
I had been studying and watching as all sorts of new technologies became available that created new efficiencies in reverse engineering, rapid prototyping and low volume manufacturing. It seemed relatively clear to me that a fresh approach was now possible. Given the possibilities at hand, we decided to define a new brand that would have longer legs, to allow us to start designing and engineering a line of vehicles based on classic transportation designs, revisited in a modern context. My wife came up with the name ICON, and it stuck.
Why where the original Toyota Land Cruisers so special? From peace keepers to bad-guys, they have this worldwide reputation for being nearly indestructible.
I have done a great deal of traveling in my life. The harsher the terrain, the more remote the locale, the more people relied and cherished their Land Cruisers. At root, I think it is due to the clarity and focused design intent of the original FJ40. I always respected that clarity in design purpose and intent. That ethic still drives my work today.
Do you remember the first time you saw a Land Cruiser?
One of the cool kids in my high school had one.
What was the first truck you ever owned? I’m assuming you modified it?
A 1946 Chevy pick up. Yes, I messed with it. Then a 65 F250 was my daily driver for a few years. I put a Pantera 351 Cleveland in that one.
How did you get involved with Toyota as a consultant? What was it like meeting Mr. Toyoda for the first time?
We had done several jobs (restorations) for different dealers and Toyota executives at TLC. Their headquarters are near us, in Torrance Ca. One day we got a call from Mr. Toyoda’s office, wishing to schedule a meeting. We had no idea at the time that there was a Mr. Toyoda. It was like god visiting the church….He was gracious and kind, yet did not reveal the purpose of his visit. We showed him (and his entourage) around, and explained our customers.
Later that week, they communicated that they felt we had a better understanding of the classic Land Cruiser buyer than they did, and they invited me to design a design study vehicle of what I thought a modern FJ40 should be. We traveled to the NUMMI plant where the Tacoma was made in NorCal, and to the Brazilian Bandeirante factory. I picked the components we envisioned right for the job, and had at it, with little direction or interference from Toyota. About two months into the job, they requested two more variants. We had a great time, and learned a lot through that experience.
You’ve said, “You have to understand the clarity and the purpose of the design.” Can you elaborate?
Poor design lacks focus on the main uses and utility of a given product. Distractions such as focus groups, marketing department irrational goals of creating a one size fits all product, costs savings etc., all take away from what must drive good design. Good design must know the intended uses of a product, and never loose focus on those core values. Quality over quantity, clarity over fluff.
Where do you locate all of your trucks for ICON? Do you have someone scouring the lower 48 full-time?
Many people search us out and bring them to us. For TLC, we have to be very picky about the conditions of what we start with. With ICON, everything is redesigned, so all we need is a crude legal entity, often beyond salvation through traditional restoration, so it is a bit easier to find them. Soon we hope that will change, as there is a bill recently introduced in the Senate, that would create a new low volume classification for Vehicular Manufacturers, which would allow us to scale our brand and expand our facility and staff.
Not that there’s ever an average customer, but who is the ICON customer?
Mostly men, 35-50. A few female owners as well. Some as daily drivers, most used at a specific property or locale, to allow the owner to fully experience that area of the country. We have certain concentrations of ICON in the Hamptons, Florida, Colorado…we have also exported some to distant and varied areas like Columbia, Spain, Greece, Estonia, Canary Islands, Norway.
Why did you start building the CJ series?
I always loved the original ethics that Willys stood for; simplicity, durability, and longevity. I feel those are three points sorely lacking as priorities in modern vehicular design. We also wanted to try and come up with a design that got my price point down to remotely reasonable. Given the quality of content and components, plus US manufacture of almost every single component we use, and a trained and well kept SoCal labor force, that is an issue with our products.
It frustrates me that our prices must be so high for this to be a proper business, yet I refuse to out source or lose focus on the quality. We have been fortunate that there are enough people that believe in our principals as we do, to support our brand. Still I find it frustrating because our designs seem to appeal to such a wide range of people young and old, yet we only see a small sliver capable of purchase.
Have you ever decided not to sell one of your vehicles to someone? Or turn down a request?
Yep, I will not do the bling builds, with shiny pimp-my-ride stuff. I also once built an ICON for someone I did not feel really got the brand. As a small business owner, I was not in the place to turn down the sale based on that “vibe” — however, I ended up cutting him a check for it in full once it was done, and told him I did not think we were right for him. That was financially difficult for us, but I made it happen and have been very pleased that I did. With a niche brand such as ours, each client is an ambassador for us, and a reflection upon us.
You take inspiration from other brands, Leica, Bell & Ross, Caterpillar, Mercedes and apply their aesthetic to your trucks. Can you tell me about that?
Just a design geek, that’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. I often see design details, materials, processes and qualities in other industrial design segments that I think should be applied to automotive arts. It seems the golden era of applying such details in transportation is long dead. I seek to revive it.
Watches are a perfect example. No one needs a watch anymore. But the industry flourishes and evolves, not by making the cheapest watches they can, but by embracing craftsmanship and creativity. The art is in the execution now. Pretty soon everyone on this planet already has what they need and much more. So why not return to sustainable, quality products? Products that last, are born of passion, with story and purpose? There is too much junk in the world, stuff created with no vision other than a P&L, destined for the landfill. Enough already!
Your attention to detail borders on obsessiveness (sun visors that cost you $400 dollars, you custom build some parts) — where does that come from?
Build something we all can be proud of. Considered details is the mark of quality design. I try to select and design elements for our work that are there because they are the best for each function. Pricing did not matter. Clarity of design and utility trumps!
Another detail, at our house we have Chilewich rugs — they’re indestructible. I know they’re an option for furniture upholstery, but you’ve got to be the first one to use it in the auto industry.
Yep, and Sandy Chilewich thought we were nuts. At first they would not sell direct to me, so I went to Design Within Reach and bought a bunch of runners and deconstructed them to use. Now we are working close together!
Like you, at my high school, the absolute coolest guy had an old FJ. The second coolest guy had a a vintage Bronco. Which leads me to, why the Bronco? What do you have in store for the Bronco?
We often gets votes, or requests, for what people who follow our brand think should be our next model. Most popular requests have always been for the Bronco, International Scout, and the early Rovers. Two factors played into choosing the Bronco. First off, is a business reality. We must find suppliers with business models for creating the new body structures we use. Our volume does not allow for the proper amortization of such an investment over our small production runs, and I have never been interested in selling parts, just turn key creations. So that is a significant limitation. Also, we feel that we are part of a movement, so to speak. A movement of US made products driven by passion to create unique expressions of quality that will last forever.
I often worry that our nations leaders focus on short term solutions to sustain our culture. For example, our leaders tell us to go buy things and everything will be alright. Big businesses lobby to support the P&L or share prices, at the cost of outsourcing skills and manufacture to other nations. I feel that if we continue to do so, we will loose any national values other than consumption. We must return to being proud of our ability to design and manufacture, to remain relevant in the global economy, to support our labor force, to have true values in sync with the founding principals of our country. With that in mind, the Bronco is such a core “americana” product, so embedded in our memories. That made it a great fit. When I received an email from Jim Farley (whom I had worked with at Toyota, now the Ford Marketing chief) asking if we would be interested in doing an ICON Bronco to support a licensing deal they had just made to re-stamp the classic Bronco bodies, I needed little further encouragement,
You trucks seem like they could withstand a direct missile hit. Has the U.S. Military every approached you about building them a truck?
We have had discussions, and have licensed our chassis designs for further development. I think the price point scares most of them, although we have heard stories about how quickly the production units they re-purpose last in the military theatre.
Given the opportunity, what other truck brand would you like to to redo/refurbish?
A long list, not limited to trucks. We hope to continue to evolve our production line to include various 2WD and 4WD vehicles form the past. Thinking about doing a 1950 Chevy Pick up design next, offered in two and four wheel drive variations. Would love to revisit the VW Thing. Citreon 2CV… For now, we do two lines of one-off vehicles by commission. This helps us explore different designs and platforms. We have the Reformers, and The Derelicts.
All of my ICON projects focus on the marriage between classic aesthetics and modern chassis engineering, with the goal of creating unique daily drivers. The Reformers are concours quality restorations, hiding modern chassis, electrical, and power trains. The Derelicts keep their vintage wabi-sabi patina’ed exteriors, with restored unique interiors, also hiding modern chassis, electrical, and power trains. Then add in a bit of art design with the trim and details, making each one a very unique expression. The client can pick almost any vehicle from the 1930-1970′s, then we have at it. Most recent was is a 1952 Chevy Deluxe Business Man’s coupe. Last one was a 1952 Chrysler Town & Country wagon with a DeSoto front clip, on the cover of Hot Rod last fall. It also won the California Design Award from the Pasadena Art Center College of Design. Next is a 1939 Nash, a 63′ Bentley drophead and a 67 Rolls.
Favorite detail on the FJ? And the CJ?
The FJ possesses amazing versatility. We were careful to design it on the knife edge of compromise: no on-road trait was expanded at the sake of an off-road ability, and vise-versus. To me the CJ is the automotive equivalent to a great pair of flip flops!
What brand out there makes you smile at their attention to detail?
Many watch brands, and niche craftsmen. But in the automotive world? Mostly vintage brands like Voisin, Talbot Lago, Bugatti, Facel Vega, Iso, Buccialli. Weirdo’s with maniacal focus and design values.
What do you think of the state of the U.S. automotive industry nowadays?
I think that there is a lot of negativity in our industry right now. I propose a different vantage; we are at the cusp of a new era. If brands can be light on their feet, innovative, and stick to the defining principles of their respective brands, anything is possible. Sort of the dot-com era of our industry. So many opportunities, so much new technology. Soon the old guard will not control the industry. Too many new opportunities to ignore in green tech, manufacturing processes and niche markets.
Biggest thrill about owning your own business?
I get to wear so many different hats every day. Design, copyright, sales, marketing, production, lobbying, promotion, you name it. Love the variety. Dislike the chains of small business with limited capital (financial and personnel) to allow me to execute all of my crazy ideas.
Your favorite tool or machine in your garage is?
My plasma cutting pattern table and my 1940′s aircraft Rotex (turret head punch tool).
How would friends and family describe you on a good day? (On a bad day?)
Focused, intent, even tempered. Impatient at times…monocular in focus to a fault sometimes as well.
What do you drive on a daily basis?
I am the ICON test driver, plus my 52′ Chrsyler Derelict.
What do you do when you’re not building/rebuilding trucks?
Avid reader, mostly biographical. Occasional surfer. Build models and hang with my two sons.
Favorite daily-use gadget you own?
IPhone. Jony Ive is a genius. Changed the world.
Gadget or object that you’d like to own?
About one hundred (more) watches.
Your most overused phrase?
Utility, utility, utility.
What’s next for ICON?
Hopefully a wide enough reach to allow us to continue to stick to our core values and grow our company. I hope to always be able to do the one-off projects while expanding our production run models as well!
Article by Wes Garcia. Find him on Google+.