Icon's Tesla-powered 1949 Mercury and V8-powered 1949 Hudson are two sides of the same coin

These no-expense-spared custom cars from California's Icon 4x4 show us the best of the present and the future in classic cars.

Underneath this faded, sun-baked exterior is the heart of a Tesla and the future of customized cars.
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There's more than one way to describe a thing of great cultural significance or beauty. Consider the Biltmore Estate -- it's technically a house, but calling it that would kind of undersell the whole thing. That same methodology can be used for a vehicle built by Icon, a company best known for its highly modified Toyota FJ40 Land Cruisers and Ford Broncos. Yes, owner Jonathan Ward designs and builds modified cars, but that doesn't really tell the whole story.

In addition to the Land Cruisers and Broncos, Icon offers a series of cars called Derelicts. Again, the name is technically accurate, at least to start, but it quickly becomes too narrow to describe what's actually going on.

These Derelicts start out as their name implies. They're old, heavily patinated and often found neglected in the dry, dusty places of the country, the kind of places where the biggest threats to a car's continued existence are time, sun and spiderwebs. But what makes a Derelict a Derelict is the deliberate decision to maintain as much of the vehicle's honest patina as possible, while updating all of its mechanicals and electronics to be totally modern, functional and high-performance. The trick is in hiding all of the changes, and the process is as complicated as you might imagine.

Previous Icon Derelicts have followed a fairly standard formula. The vehicles are generally from the 1940s or '50s. Icon then commissions a custom chassis from legendary firm Art Morrison Design, as well as modern suspension components, brakes and drivetrain -- the latter usually comprised of a General Motors LS-series V8 -- usually an LS9 -- and an automatic transmission.

That formula could be changing, however, and to investigate that, Icon has been working with a customer on a 1949 Mercury Coupe with a fully electric drivetrain. It's a labor of love that's been in the works for well over a year, so we had to see what an EV built by one of the most meticulous guys in the business is like. We also had to see how it keeps the same rhythms as another Derelict, so Icon pulled out a LS9-powered 1949 Hudson to drive. You know, for science.

It may look like a V8, but underneath the finned metal covers, you'll find state-of-the-art electric vehicle hardware.

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The Mercury

Unlike in a typical EV conversion for a classic car, Icon didn't just slap the motor from a Nissan Leaf and the battery modules from a Chevy Bolt in this '49 Mercury and call it good. This car has been highly engineered and uses the best modern electric vehicle components available.

The car is powered by the 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack from a Tesla Model S and a pair of electric motors that are mounted where the Mercury's transmission would have originally lived. Together they produce 400 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque. The motors are controlled by dual Rinehart controllers, both mounted under the hood with custom-milled aluminum heat sinks, so it actually looks like a V8 engine.

Because the car has a Tesla battery at its heart, it makes use of Tesla's charger design. This charge socket lives -- predictably -- under the car's gas flap, with a custom-milled and knurled Icon cap. Icon also fits a CHAdeMO charger socket in the front, behind the license plate, since Tesla is so prickly about non-standard vehicles using its superchargers. This allows fast charging at basically any charging station in the US.

The car's body is affixed to a specially designed Art Morrison chassis with four-wheel independent suspension and big, unassisted Brembo brakes. Yes, you read that correctly: This big, heavy, lead sled lacks power brakes, though regenerative braking through the electric drivetrain is present and that helps. Because the car was designed from the start to have manual brakes, a properly sized master cylinder was chosen. This means stopping the Mercury isn't as much of a chore as you'd think.

Steering is handled by, of all things, the electro-hydraulic setup from a second-gen Toyota MR2. Jonathan Ward says his team tried several all-electric racks from production EVs, but none of them provided the right feel. The MR2 rack proved to be a Goldilocks solution. 

Icon built the Mercury in cooperation with Stealth EV from Oceanside, California. Together, they worked out their own software to control the car, because off-the-shelf versions wouldn't have worked, and OEM solutions are too tightly restricted. The result has taken a long time to get right and there are still a few minor bugs, but it's impressive nonetheless.

Probably the most notable bug with the software stems from the decision to maintain a column shifter for the car. This means you have to shift slowly from Park to Reverse to Neutral to Drive, taking several seconds between each gear. It's a bug that Icon is working on, and it's a little annoying, but I'd much rather use the Mercury's original column shifter than an incongruous pushbutton solution. These sorts of bugs are why the Mercury is technically still in development.

Getting behind the wheel of the Merc EV is easier said than done, as it turns out. This is primarily due to the decision to retain the bench seat and the massive bus-style steering wheel (the thin rim of which is now wrapped in finest leather). Still, once situated, the seat is comfortable, and the driving position is familiar, at least to someone like myself who has lots of experience with old cars.

The Mercury's original instrument cluster was replaced by an LCD screen in a stock-looking bezel, since Ward wanted to convey more vehicle data to the driver. This screen has been programmed to look like old-timey gauges but provides modern information like battery charge level and temperature, the vehicle's speed and more. It's an elegant solution to a difficult problem. 

Under the Mercury's body is a brand-new, specially-engineered chassis by Art Morrison, complete with fully-independent suspension and massive Brembo brakes.

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Overall, the car's interior feels like an exceptionally well-preserved classic. There are no "modern" materials that stand out and break the spell. Everything that looks like metal is metal, and was likely machined from a single billet of aluminum. All of the controls have weight to then and feels like they'll last a lifetime. It's with these kinds of details that Icon built its considerable reputation for quality.

However, just because everything looks old doesn't mean that there aren't some tricks at work. The windows, for example, are electric. But as it's a car from the late 1940s, rocker switches wouldn't look right. To solve that problem, the electric window switch was incorporated into the original manual-style window winder. It's brilliantly elegant and straightforward, and works perfectly.

Putting your foot down in the Icon '49 Merc Derelict isn't anywhere near as aggressive or violent as you'd expect, given the wild powertrains of some of the company's other cars. It's even reasonably tame by modern EV standards -- especially compared with a Tesla -- but that's a good thing. It's not that the car feels unstable or anything, it's got lovely steering and a decent ride. It's just that a more relaxed driving dynamic really suits it.

Still, this is not a slow car. The Merc has no problem getting up and out of its own way. The acceleration is smooth and linear, as you'd expect from an EV, but the lack of noise is disconcerting in a way that it's not in other electric cars. That likely stems from the fact that you're wrapped up in a cocoon of nostalgia, though this weirdness eventually passes. What doesn't pass is the surprise at just how differently the car drives than it looks. It's smooth and comfortable, and even the manual brakes are a pleasure to use. It's not clunky or coarse at all, like you'd expect from something originally built more than half a century ago.

When we asked Jonathan about the implications of building this car, as well as the customer's decision to go electric, he seemed to be optimistic about it all, but still concerned. He specifically called out the way that electric vehicle technology changes. 

These Rinehart motor controllers have already been upgraded once, and that illustrates the challenge with EV tech -- the fast pace at which it's being developed.

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"It changes so quickly," he said. "We built this car with the best of the best, but halfway through, Rinehart calls us and says that they have a new version of their motor controller. It does X and Y better, etc. So now, we're upgrading to that, and the car isn't even done."

He also expressed some apprehension when it comes to the kind of life that the cars would have after they were done. "With this car, we've had to tell the customer that either we commit to keep upgrading it as the technology changes and accept the costs that come with that, or we say that this is it and treat it as a snapshot," he said. "Both have their problems."

Problems or not, I hope that more of Ward's customers are brave enough to take on a project like this: One that pushes the idea of a classic car and what it can be to the edge of the envelope. Still, that doesn't mean Ward should shift away from the traditional Icon Derelicts. Enter the 1949 Hudson.

The Icon Hudson is long, sleek and impossibly low. It's also staggeringly well-built and has power for days.

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The Hudson

Just because Icon's 1949 Hudson hews closer to its traditional formula doesn't mean it's especially traditional. A large part of this stems from the way that the Hudson was built. See, unlike basically every other car on the road at the time, which was built using a body-on-frame construction method, the Hudson used a unibody construction, similar to modern cars, which it called "Monobuilt" at the time. This construction method allowed the Hudson to be significantly lower to the ground than other cars, a feature which the brand championed and caused this generation of Hudsons to be known as "step-downs."

This unibody design means the usual Icon trick of commissioning a custom Art Morrison chassis and putting the body on top wouldn't really work. Instead, Icon had Art Morrison construct unique, strengthened front and rear subframes, and also braced the underside of the chassis significantly. This allows the Hudson to stay nice and low, preserving the sleek silhouette the brand was known for.

With the subframes figured out, things got a lot simpler, at least mechanically. The GM-sourced LS9 V8 -- the one from a C7 Corvette ZR-1 -- was mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. The suspension is an Art Morrison-designed independent setup, and the braking is handled by an Icon-spec Brembo GT system with a Wilwood hydroboost master cylinder.

The interior of the Hudson is where things start to get genuinely wild. This car's customer owns several other Icon vehicles and commissioned this car to live at his house in Nashville. He asked that the vehicle have a certain "rockabilly" vibe, and this meant the car's weather-checked black paint and patinated chrome were there to stay.

 Inside, Ward decided to toss out the Hudson's dull interior materials and replaced them with hand-dyed blue alligator leather, as well as Moore & Giles cow leather. The dying process was extremely complicated, requiring at least three different treatments. Weirdly, the interior leather choices don't seem over-the-top. They feel luxurious and -- I mean this -- borderline subtle. 

Apart from the leather, Ward chose to maintain the patina on the gorgeous wood-painted metal dash surfaces, but opted to totally re-cast the steering wheel hoop in a smaller-than-stock size out of translucent blue resin. Again, it's more low-key than you'd think.

The interior also has German wool carpets, a wool headliner, and wool sun visors trimmed in Alligator leather. All of the interior lighting on the car has been changed to LED, but because a bright, white LED would look wildly out of place in a car like this, Ward used a technique from the film industry to dim them and warm them up: gels.

Other mod-cons in the Hudson include modern air conditioning by Vintage Air, a hidden but powerful stereo that uses Focal speakers and modern electronic gauges that retain the old faces with Hudson's unique (and gorgeous) blocky font. One thing that the Hudson lacks, surprisingly, is power windows. This bad boy has old-school roll-'em-ups. 

Only in Jonathan Ward's world could a blue Alligator leather interior with a bright blue cast-resin steering wheel be called "subtle" with a straight face -- but it is.

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Much like the Mercury, climbing behind the wheel of the Icon Hudson feels pretty familiar. The slightly weird old car ergonomics are there, though the 16-inch steering wheel makes ingress and egress a lot easier. Also familiar is the sound of the big, angry, 6.2-liter V8 roaring to life with the turn of a key.

Driving the Hudson is a more conventional experience in every way, from the way the transmission shifts to the fact that it has power brakes. It's smooth and easy to drive, despite being blessed with 638 hp and 604 lb-ft of torque. The steering is quick but not darty, and the ride is excellent, if a bit low for my tastes.

This feels like a car you could comfortably live with on a day to day basis, despite its obviously niche pedigree and price tag that lives somewhere deep in the six-digit range. It's comfortable and the A/C blows cold. It's even relatively easy to have serviced, since the engine is mostly just a stock GM LS9.

That brings me to the point of this whole exercise: What exactly do you lose in the transition from V8 powerhouse to electric motors in this kind of classic car scenario? Apart from noise and cost -- though this will likely change in the future -- not a lot. Driving the electric Mercury and the LS9-powered Hudson back to back doesn't feel wildly different, and that's super exciting.

I love classic cars. I love the way they look and I love the way they feel and I love the way other people react to them. But I do always feel a pang of guilt driving something like this because it comes from an era before emissions controls, and is pretty inefficient to boot. If the Icon Mercury can serve as an example to others -- and a way to keep classics running with an eye toward the future -- then I look forward to more conversions like this. Of course, I won't be upset about more V8-powered machines, either.

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