Driven: the awesome Icon Bronco | Top Gear
BBC TopGear
BBC TopGear
  • Today, the world is packed full of wonder. The Californian coast is gently drowning in thick, lazy sunshine, and I've just driven through a small town called Oceano, on the hunt for a place called Pismo Dunes. This slice of the Cali coast is exactly how you imagine it. Once you've slithered down from the identikit clapboard and breeze-block 'burbs, past the RV parks and outlet stores and into the main parts of town, you could be in a million TV shows that teleport clean dreams into damp suburban UK like wormholes into perma-sunny fairyland. It's a sea-bleach colour palette, there are surfboards propped in unlikely places, and the traffic lights are strung above the four-way intersections exactly as the movies promise.

    There are low-rise buildings clad in salt-warped boards, selling the American equivalent of the seaside tat international law dictates must be sold in such shops: taffy, pails and spades, ice cream and fudge. Tourists are an aimless throng, coated in sweaty polyester and clutching gallons of iced-
    brown something. The sun beats down, and it's warm, simple and slow.

    Words: Tom Ford
    Pics: Justin Leighton

    This feature first appeared in the October issue of Top Gear magazine

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  • I'm at the wheel of a 1972 Ford Bronco, darling of middle America, workhorse of the masses, an off-road vehicle before the SUV tag was even a glimmer in a marketeer's eye. The driver's window is open, my elbow is propped on the sill and I feel at home, years of driving early-series Land Rovers providing a notional allegory to this Yankee cousin. There's a meaty V8 glub-glubbing up front, a heavy, mechanical five-speed manual 'box to wrestle, and a view out over a bonnet that hasn't changed in 40 years.

    I swear that somewhere I can hear the gentle picking of banjos. And it feels deliciously, unquestionably right. But all is not what it seems. Because it never is. Around one corner, there's a stupendously fat man in a wheelchair paddling himself along the sidewalk with his feet, straining flesh bursting through the gaps in the seat. He's carrying a cardboard sign that reads ‘Hungry like a WLOF' printed in childish capitals, and he appears to be singing softly to himself - something bluesy about fried food and chicken feet. This, it seems, is what a naked, derelict Dalek might look like.

  • Another intersection, and a fleet of intellectually unchallenging mid-sized saloons surround a couple on a pair of matching Harley-Davidsons, making the bikers look small and surrounded, bracketing the thudding V-twins with mediocrity. Until, that is, you catch the slight hitch in the posture of the riders in their new-tight leathers and the rental tags on the bikes: just another codified and threat-lite adventure, riding free within the confines of the Disney dangerous. Cracks in the facade, middle-class slumming. Rebels without a clue.

    For some reason, this makes me angry. So, at the next set of lights, I shift into first and give the Bronco some real throttle. At this point, any faint illusion of normality is shattered. Because the Bronco, this middle-aged - if not grandaddy SUV - squats the rear, lifts its lantern jaw to the sky, and bucks right off, making a noise like an enraged elephant seal attached to a car battery. For a moment, all I can see in the triple-framed rear-view mirror are rows of slack jaws. Before they can quick-draw their camphones, we've already gone. Off to the dunes, and salvation.

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  • This, as you may have guessed, is no ordinary Ford Bronco. This is an Icon Bronco, remade under the watchful eye of a man called Jonathan Ward, whose idea of ‘restoration' sits somewhere past what most consider acceptable. Possibly in a galaxy far, far away from what most people consider acceptable. Ward's LA-based sister company TLC (Toyota Land Cruisers) reinvigorates the older models of Toyota 4x4, and was responsible for the rolling design studies that eventually became the Toyota FJ Cruiser, so he's got some top-level recognition for the quality of his vision. And, as a natural extension of his love for vintage workhorses, he turned his eye to some classic Americana in the shape of the CJ Jeep and this, the Ford Bronco.

    Which means that what you see is most definitely not what you get. It may wear a VIN plate from 1972 inside its glovebox, but underneath the stock, yet eerily perfect, matt-painted bodywork, is an entirely new chassis. Bolted to that is a crate-fresh Ford 5.0-litre V8 from a contemporary Mustang GT punting out over 400bhp and just under 400lb ft of torque, and giving the old girl the kind of giddy-up that will put the frighteners on anything short of a fairly serious sports car for the noise if not the outright off-the-line pace.

  • The body is slightly smaller than later Broncos, the original 1966-77 first generation upon which this car is based not having swollen - that came later in '78 - but even so, the original optional 4.9-litre Windsor V8 only had 255bhp. It wouldn't have mustered quite so spectacularly.

    It permanently drives all four wheels through a purpose-built Atlas II transfer case and custom Dynatrac Dana solid-axle assemblies, suspended on independent coilover suspension by Eibach and Fox Racing - the same people who make the shocks for the insane Ford Raptor. And included in
    the roll call of top-line suppliers is the kind of execution and integration that makes mass production seem exactly that.

  • Underneath, it is pure industrial pornography. I spend 20 minutes lying on my back below the thing just... ogling. It might not be the exotic execution of a modern supercar - something like a Pagani Huayra, say - but the themic extension is plain. It's just that where the Huayra is a rapier, the Icon Bronco is a cleaver. Neither leaves much to the imagination as to its purpose.

    Pismo Dunes offers a chance to see whether the checklist promise lives up to the working reality. And it's a strange place for the notoriously litigious US. Pay $6, and you can camp on the beach in your RV, 4x4 in the dunes and generally have some family fun. The rules are remarkably reasonable: be safe, have fun, try not to die. They'll even pump out your chemical toilet and supply fresh water to your RV for $30, and tow you out with what appears to be some sort of sand-biased diesel monster truck should you find yourself in difficulty. The Icon, unsurprisingly, doesn't require that sort of nannying.

  • Mario, an Icon/TLC engineer/fabricator who drove the Bronco to meet us, simply lets some air out of the 285/17 BF Goodrich All Terrain tyres, and off we go. Mario, by the way, turns out to be a very TopGear sort of chap, if for no other reason than he has flames tattooed up both forearms. Which obviously means very little in reality, but being some sort of human hot rod sits well with us.

    Tyres laid low, we amble off into the dunes, and, yet again, I'm struck by the way the Icon is put together. Ward has a rare eye for detail and his obsession with fitness for purpose borders on brilliant neurosis. Inside, the Icon is a deluge of simplicity that makes modern cars seem overwrought and hopelessly baroque; every single bit of this car is designed for use and abuse. It's not a showpiece. The dash is a simple slab, punctuated by an aircrafty dial set by your left knee inspired by Bell & Ross timepieces.

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  • The simple seats and door cards are fabricated from Chilewich woven vinyl for supreme longevity, and other panels are ribbed stainless steel inserts. There's a decent Alpine stereo with marine-spec speakers (a little water won't phase them) and a hidden satellite-navigation system.

  • The sun visors are adopted from a Learjet, on the simple basis that they are the best sun visors available; the lighting (headlights, reversing lights, etc) is all low-draw LED mounted in original-ish housing shapes; and the handles, mirrors, grille and lightguards are designed by Icon and fabricated in stainless steel. Even the glass in the windows of this car is tempered architectural glazing with a slight grey tint. It is - to use a heavily overused phrase - awesome.

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  • Some of the jewellery, by the way, is produced in conjunction with a little company called Nike, whose design team found a kindred soul in Ward and decided to offer a little help. Its only nod is a plaque in the engine bay that bears a tiny red swoosh as iconic as the car that bears the actual badge. Next to that are design credits for our man Jonathan Ward and a chap called Camilo Pardo - someone you may recognise as the chief designer of the Ford GT. Even the roll call of influential partners has hidden, joyous and exciting provenance.

  • Five minutes later, and there are dunes to the east and sea to the west, and nobody about save for a small flock of brightly coloured quads patrolling the lower slopes. The Bronco stretches and yawns, and unsheathes its claws. Out on the road, it produces far more shove than the centre of gravity and tall tyres can reasonably handle - which makes it a genuinely, ah, exciting thing to muscle down a curving highway - but it remains remarkably flat through corners and doesn't suffer the inherent age-related bagginess you expect from a car of this purported vintage. It doesn't wander or squeak or sag. The steering is relatively high-geared - presumably to stop you from inadvertently flipping the car. The manual five-speed has a reasonably heavy clutch pedal, but fifth gear is long and easy - more like an overdrive - and the Bronco will happily sit at reasonable speeds all day long.

    The dunes, however, are more fun. The car we're driving has a full set of ARB pneumatic differential locks (you can lock the axles at the flick of a console-mounted switch for maximum traction), as well as that Atlas transfer case and a Warn 9.0Rc 9000lb winch stuffed in the front bumper, but we never even thought to use any of it. Line up towards a dune, choose second gear and simply feed in throttle.

  • The result is a flat roar, unsubtle and glorious, accompanied by levelled arcs of sand spewing horizontally backwards from all four wheels. The rear squats hard, the back wheels tuck right up into the arches until the tops of the tyres disappear, and the Bronco launches forwards and up the dune like a peculiar type of noisy desert goat. Back off near the top (or on the road, for that matter), and the Icon mutes slightly, gobbles like a two-tonne turkey and then backfires through the ceramic-coated exhaust like a close-quarters gunshot. The first time it happens, you'll jump. After that, you'll just laugh.

  • Nothing stops it, or even gets close. And it also becomes apparent that the faster and harder the Bronco is pushed on the rutted and wavy sand, the more coherent it feels, a previously slightly crunchy low-speed ride quality resolving into something much more velvety once you really get going.

  • It's where the Icon really makes the most sense - out in the world, being used. Unlike most bespoke bits of kit, this is absolutely not a vehicle that should be secreted away in a temperature-controlled collection. It begs to be let loose, exercised in the way it was patently designed to be - something that Ward is eminently keen on: "An Icon should be used hard and put away wet," he says, with a charming appreciation for the possibile vagaries of his likely high-end customer base.

  • Unfortunately, this kind of lavish attention to detail and materials science doesn't come cheap, so that customer base will probably be privileged. A basic Icon Bronco starts at about $180,000 (£114k), and when you start - inevitably - loading the options, it can stretch way further than that. But that's pretty much by the by for a car like this.

  • Anyone can purchase a supercar, but it says precisely nothing about you, other than that you have a robust credit rating. The Icon is more demonstrative, more emotionally subtle. Already there's a two-year waiting list, and Ward says that he needs to restrict supply to keep up the quality - Icon produces only seven cars a year, each to the precise specifications of the customer. Which is appropriate somehow, because this car would never stand mass production.

  • It's fun, brutally elegant, less outlandish than a supercar but no less special. In fact, I reckon more so. Because this car is a singular vision. Like that Pagani Huayra, there's one man at the end of it all working to a plan.

  • And that plan works best when framed through a single pair of eyes. In fact, there's a faintly Buddhist vibe to the Icon ethos. The spirit not so much remodelled as reincarnated, an old soul stuffed into a new set of corporeal clothes, and pushed out into the world dewy and blinking, but carrying the spiritual weight of experience.

  • As you may have gathered by now, I like this car quite a bit. Not to put too fine a point on it, it's an almost religious manifestation for us car people...

  • ...Which seems entirely apposite, given the name.

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