We Drive Jonathan Ward’s Ridiculously Cool, All-Electric ’49 Mercury

·7 min read
Photo credit: Jonathan Ward ICON 4X4
Photo credit: Jonathan Ward ICON 4X4
  • Jonathan Ward's all-electric '49 Mercury uses twin AM Racing electric motors to produce 400 hp and 475 lb-ft of torque, with a top speed of 120 mph.

  • Prices vary widely, but something like this is around a half million bucks right now. As processes and powertrains get more streamlined, who knows, that could drop.

  • Ward said five years developing the ’49 Mercury got so expensive he just stopped charging the client.

Jonathan Ward’s projects are all pretty cool, but the electric ’49 Merc might be the coolest yet. At least so far. He and his ICON specialty design house have big plans.

We first wrote about the e-Merc four years ago when it debuted at SEMA. It was the hit of the show: a surface-rusted ’49 lowered just right with just enough patina to make it look lived-in and loved. The big difference between this and a thousand other custom, lowered ’49-’51 Mercuries was that the powertrain underneath all that perfectly curated rust was electric.

The car sports a custom drivetrain that took five years to come together—five years of trial and error, technological advancement, and both rough and fine tuning. Pop the hood and you see what appears to be some sort of billet V8 but is in reality a battery pack and controller that has been configured to look like a billet V8. So clever. Four years ago, everyone at SEMA freaked out. We freaked out. There was a lot of freaking out going on in Las Vegas that year.

Photo credit: Jonathan Ward ICON 4X4
Photo credit: Jonathan Ward ICON 4X4

In total there are 85 kWh of Tesla batteries in the car, spread out wherever there was room and wherever their weight balance made sense. The car has a slight rearward weight bias, just as you might want if you were setting up a sports car.

The space where the transmission would have gone has been filled with two AM Racing permanent magnet motors lined up like those dual-engine dragsters back in the days of the nitro fuel ban in drag racing. They make a total of 400 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque. Longitudinally aligned, they feed their output via a driveshaft straight back to a limited-slip rear differential and thence to both rear wheels. It sounds deliriously fun.

“Let’s go,” Ward says, and backs the big Merc out of his 120,000-square-foot workshop full of projects you would love to take on if you only had the time or the money or the staff or whatever it takes to keep so many plates spinning on so many sticks.

The interior is as comfortable as first class on a Graf Zeppelin, with custom-picked seat material and machined switchgear all of Ward's designs. The Mercury rides low but is not harsh. We wheel out the big lot full of still more potential projects and onto the streets of Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, where the original custom ’49 Mercs first cruised the streets in anger way back in the day, before Ward or even we were born.

“We have four-corner weight distribution, balanced, which is important to me because I didn't want to lose the value of this balls-out chassis,” he said.

Wait, what kind of chassis?

“I call it balls-out but I mean, when Art Morrison and I are given enough budget and we geek out, this is our go-to formula.”

Of course.

“Okay, so four-wheel independent Dana nodular 60 rear, way overbuilt, three degrees—roughly—of rear steer when you really push it, although you never really get there with these bench seats. It’s based on the Camaro Super Sport architecture. So it's within the armatures—it's not vectored or anything.”

Indeed, to add anything like torque vectoring to the outside wheels in a turn would take maybe another three years of trial and error computer programming of the controllers. If there’s a limitation to this compared to, say, a Tesla Model S or a Porsche Taycan or anything built by a major manufacturer, it’s that Ward doesn’t have 4000 engineers working on every little item of minutia that makes up a car. But then Porsche or Tesla would never take a ’49 Mercury and cram a modern electric drivetrain into it.

Life is full of trade-offs.

As a result, there are a few things that jump out that wouldn’t be acceptable on a Maserati or a Ford but are acceptable on this just because this is in the free-for-all no-man’s land between massive auto company mundanity and wild-eyed artistic craziness. We notice them when we get a chance behind the wheel. The software hasn’t figured out how to eliminate the chug-chug-chugging the drivetrain does when slowly starting up a slight uphill at a stoplight, nor the considerable vibration the drivetrain makes at exactly 80 mph. Likewise the car isn’t really made for cornering at impolite speeds.

But you forgive any shortcomings because, first of all, Ward doesn’t have 4000 engineers named Jurgen who got their mechanical engineering degrees at Der Technische Universitat Munchen. He has a lot of strong technical partners, and he has maybe 30 dedicated craftsmen and welders and his own significant imagination. Given the choice, you might want a Ward car instead of a Taycan. Who knows? That’s up to you.

In a way, the ’49 is more of a proof of concept (and what a concept!), the technology of which will be applied to future electric ICONs of all types.

Photo credit: Mark Vaughn
Photo credit: Mark Vaughn

“I stopped billing the client past a point on (the Mercury) because there was so much important non-reoccurring engineering. I think we've talked about this with like, earlier electric cars. Everyone's, in my opinion, a little too DIY. 'Let's keep the barrier down,' they say, but they often do it at the cost of safety, longevity, or reliability. There’s no thermal management on many of those DIY-like project cars out there. Where do the bonus ions go? If you're fully charged, and you go downhill for three hours, does the car turn into a ball of fire? What do you do about AC electric power-steering solutions, brake management, and on and on. So I really am pursuing all those things with this car and with the cars we’ll make in the future. It was a big risk, financially, but the majority of the hemorrhaging we did on this now will be applicable to next year's principal initiative here—so, the electrified Broncos, the FJs, and the Thriftmaster pickups (vehicles ICON has been retrofitting with modern ICE engines for years but will soon start electrifying). We wanted to wait till we could prove this tech.”

Indeed, just getting that much battery pack and that much horsepower to not end up in one of those giant fireballs is quite an accomplishment.

"I’m just that geek. I’m constantly wanting to evolve and move forward and keep watching new tech and new solutions," Ward said in an earlier interview. "When we started, what was there? There was a Prius. I’m not gonna adapt a Prius. They’re so soulless and you’re so disconnected. So that wasn’t even on the radar. But then over the years Tesla proved the model. The consumers adopted, evolved, cherished, and they created this valuable tribe that enabled now all the other OEMs and other people to come into this space and geeks like me and all the retrofit EV communities, so very quickly I was like, 'Hmmm we should start playing with that.'"

And that could be the electric future of cool cars like the ICON ’49 Merc and many, many others.

It’s not cheap, of course—at least not right now. As Ward said, five years developing the ’49 Mercury got so expensive he just stopped charging the client. But as they get the process and the drivetrain fully sorted and fully manufacturable, prices might come down from their current half-a-million or so to the few-hundred-thousand-dollars it takes to requisition a regular internal-combustion build from the shop.

It's just that right now the cool car segment—like the mass market—is experiencing a great upheaval, changing from the gasoline power of the last 120 years to the electric power of the next 120 years. And it’s good to know that coolness does not have to go away with it all.