If you watch enough garage-centric reality TV, you get the idea that building a custom car is a labor-intensive yet ultimately straightforward process: bolt on a stack of new parts, maybe fabricate a custom piece here and there, slap on a coat of paint and you’re overhauled. Jonathan Ward’s Icon facility in Los Angeles would seem ripe for the Gas Monkey Garage treatment, trafficking as it does in beautifully wrought high-dollar 4x4s and vintage American metal.
But then you take a closer look at one of his cars and realize the fundamental incompatibility between this place and made-for-TV wrenching. If television-friendly garages are Bob Ross, dashing out happy trees once a week, then Ward is Rodin, patiently chiseling away the marble until his vision takes shape.
And that can take a while.
He points to the center console in his latest creation, the 48 Derelict. “The owner wanted a console with cupholders inside and a USB port, upholstered to match the interior,” Ward says. “That console took 90 hours to design and build.” Ninety hours. Just the console. And there are details like that all over the car, the latest Icon to redefine the barn-find, patinaed sleeper genre.
Icon is probably best known for its Land Cruisers and early Broncos, both of which fetch six-figure prices and command a lengthy waiting list. With those trucks, Ward’s created a niche that any custom shop would love to cultivate — repeatable, high-end products. But he’s a creative guy, thus the appeal of the Derelict series: each car is unique, presenting its own set of riddles to solve. And Ward enjoys the riddles.
Consider our subject today, the 48 Derelict, a 1948 Buick Super Convertible unlike any other. The exterior has the soft patina that comes from decades spent outdoors, a crazy-quilt of swirls and contrasting hues. That aged paint is central to the aesthetic, so how do you add new parts without ruining the look? You bring a Hollywood special effects guy to match the patina, that’s what you do. The housing for the dashboard compass—which serves to cover a hole someone hacked in the dash back in the day—is new, but its patina is indistinguishable from the real thing.
Ditto the faded, vintage look of the engine cover, which proclaims “Fireball V8” (the original was a straight 8.) The thing is, this is the cover for a General Motors LS9, the supercharged 6.2-liter V8 that served in the latest Corvette ZR1. Here it’s making about 700 hp. Fireball indeed.
Ward took great pains to keep the Derelict looking stock—like a really nice, if well worn, old car. But that vintage body hides a super-rigid Art Morrison chassis, fully modern brakes and suspension and, of course, that 700-hp ringer under the hood. This funky old Buick would waste plenty of modern performance cars out on the street. Which is where we take it.
Ward puts 500 miles on each new machine he builds, in the name of fine-tuning, gremlin-evicting and, yes, fun. “I can’t afford to buy my own stuff anymore, so the break-in miles at least give me a chance to drive things like this,” Ward says as we pull out of his neighborhood onto a wide four-lane LA boulevard.
Very few cars accelerate hard enough to elicit involuntary laughter, but this is one of them. The acceleration isn’t ZR1-caliber so much as it is totally out of context. When Ward nails the throttle, the supercharger screams and we rocket off down the road at a rate that’s fundamentally at odds with the interior I’m looking at: comfy, convertible and so old. The cognitive dissonance makes me giggle.
Soon it’s my turn behind the wheel. The power is still surprising even though I’m now the one summonsing it. Even more impressive, though, is the feeling of solidity: you hit a bump and the car just soaks it up, no quivering tango where the windshield shimmies one way while the dash goes the other. I’ve driven convertibles built in the last 10 years that didn’t have this kind of torsional rigidity. I’m glad someone was crazy enough to commission it.
This 48 Derelict is the only one of its kind and probably always will be. But back in Ward’s lot, there’s a row of desiccated carcasses baking in the California sunshine — ’59 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, ’54 DeSoto wagon, ’48 Triumph dual windshield roadster — each one patiently awaiting its turn to go from junker to Icon.