If you’re the type who judges a book by its cover, you probably wouldn’t have thought much of lot 116 when it crossed the block at RM Sotheby’s Aston Martin auction in Monterey last summer. A 1957 DB2/4 MkII, it had lost all its exterior paintwork and the bits of its aluminium body that hadn’t been repaired with crudely applied patches were dented and pockmarked. Inside, the tale of neglect continued: bubbling varnish, cracked and missing veneer, the odd absent switch, leather upholstery erupting with the veins of wear and a boot lined by ragged carpet.
For those who cared to delve a little deeper, however, there was more to this 63-year-old warrior than met the eye – because beneath the skin, all the parts that enabled it to go and stop were as good as new.
The car was discovered in the California desert by enthusiast Don Rose. It had been abandoned mid-rebuild by its British expat owner but, rather than go down the conventional restoration route, Rose chose to have all the DB2/4’s mechanicals returned to A1 condition while leaving the heavily patinated body and interior untouched in an automotive take on “shabby chic”. It was an idea that the bidders at RM Sotheby’s seemed to appreciate – the car sold for $302,000.
Such a treatment was more or less unheard of when the classic scene first took off during the mid-1980s, bringing a rash of restorations (especially in the US) that saw cars emerging looking far shinier than they ever did, with inch-thick chrome and interiors almost too perfect to sit in.
But in recent years the appeal of originality has come to the fore and major concours d’élégance shows – events at which owners have traditionally competed to field the most meticulously presented vehicles – now frequently include a “preservation class” for cars that are well maintained and fully drivable but retain their time-worn look inside and out.
As one pundit in the business told me: “People have finally begun to realise an object can only be old once – as soon as you restore anything, be it a car, a piece of furniture, a watch or a house, you take away an inherent character that is often key to its appeal.”
That said, a thriving industry now exists for “adding” patina to a perhaps over-restored classic, with specialists chemically treating metal parts to accelerate ageing, artificially crazing varnish to give the impression of sun damage and even creating fake “rust patches” using clever paint techniques.
But one man has taken the idea of a beaten-up old car being more than the sum of its apparently rotting parts to an entirely new level. Former film and TV actor Jonathan Ward decided to pursue his lifelong passion for cars by setting up a company called TLC in 1996 that specialises in restoring and lightly modifying examples of Toyota’s classic FJ Land Cruiser from the 1960s and ’70s.
Ward launched a second brand, Icon4x4, in 2006, which – in addition to making new production cars based on Toyota Land Cruisers, Ford Broncos and Chevy Thriftmaster Pickups – reimagines classic cars, from 1950s Chevys to Land Rovers and Rolls-Royces. While the distinctive exterior styling of these vehicles is retained, everything beneath the carapace is rebuilt for regular use in the 21st century – from chassis, brakes, suspension and steering to engine, transmission, interior and gadgets.
The journey to icon began in 2004, when he found a rusty and unloved 1951 Chrysler Town and Country station wagon languishing in a backyard in the down-trodden Pacoima suburb of Los Angeles.
“I had a bad habit of restoring my own cars to the point that they were too nice to actually use, so I thought I would buy the Chrysler, leave its beaten-up bodywork and turn it into the perfect family vehicle for carrying the kids and dogs and for taking us surfing and antiquing,” he says.
But then he realised the potential for mechanically upgrading the car using the methods he employed with the Land Cruisers, while leaving the shabby bodywork untouched to create the perfect “rat rod” (that is, something that looks beat-up but goes like the clappers).
Ward later built an all-new, stronger and more rigid chassis to which he fitted competition-grade Wilwood brakes, modern suspension and a 6.1-litre V8 engine and transmission new from Chrysler. He put the patinated body back on top, replacing the Chrysler front end with a more elegant one from a vintage DeSoto. Inside, the apparently original instruments contain modern electronics: air-conditioning, a high-end stereo, Bluetooth phone connectability and a steering wheel mounted to a safety-enhancing collapsible column.
The original textile upholstery, which was too far gone when Ward acquired the car, has been perfectly replicated – but the interior chromework (never especially dazzling because it dates from the Korean war era when materials were in short supply) has been left in its natural state.
“I’m interested in the fact that we have been diverted by the convenience of modern cars, but they generally have no personality – and there didn’t seem to be anyone else who was combining the charm of classic models with the reliability and ease of use of current ones,” he says.
Once on the road, the car soon “started to get a lot of love” – so it wasn’t long before it appeared on the cover of Hot Rod magazine, prompting an 11-minute slot on the cult YouTube show Jay Leno’s Garage, in which the car-mad former talk-show host enthused about the performance and ride of the distressed-looking wagon – even pitting it against a high-performance Mercedes-AMG in a traffic-light drag race (it won).
Ward has since delivered 17 “derelicts”, including a 1948 Buick Super Convertible, a 1953 Dodge military truck, a 1967 VW Bus and a 1966 Ford Bronco that, despite lacking doors or a roof, packs a current-model Mustang engine beneath the skin along with brand-new underpinnings, competition suspension and a race-standard brake set-up.
It’s a process that takes around 18 months – and costs anything from $250,000 to $750,000, plus the price of the project car. One client who thinks it’s money well spent – despite his derelict’s rust holes and faded paint – is 28-year-old Elliot Ross, who works in the film industry. His car collection includes a Ferrari Enzo, an F50 and an F355, a Jaguar XJ220 and a Porsche 911 GT1, but when he spotted what is possibly Ward’s most unlikely derelict build on the Jay Leno show – a 1958 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud – he simply had to have it.
“I’ve had it for around a year and it has more or less become my daily driver,” explains Ross. “It has a modern, 550-horsepower General Motors engine and transmission, state-of-the-art brakes and suspension and a custom-built chassis – so it goes and stops like a modern supercar, but it has the wonderful, graceful look of a 1950s Silver Cloud. I find it gets a lot more positive attention simply because it looks a bit bashed-up and, unlike a conventionally restored classic, I never worry about it being bumped when I park it.”
Ross declines to reveal how much the car cost, but does say that it was “roughly the price of a new Rolls-Royce” – and has proved sufficiently reliable to be used as though it were a modern car, even transporting him and three friends from Aberdeen to Goodwood in high style for last year’s Festival of Speed, a round trip of 1,200 miles. Not bad for a 62-year-old.