Subtlety is not readily available on Rodeo Drive. It’s likely the only thing money can’t buy in that glittering, palm-tree-lined tribute to excess that is Beverly Hills, California—which made Rodeo the perfect backdrop for the Icon Derelict–built 1948 Buick Super 8, possibly the most understated custom we’ve ever seen. With its soft green patina, pale, blushing interior and hubcapped steel wheels, at first glance the Super 8 convertible looks like it was just found under a faded quilt in the garage of a former WAC named Ethyl, which as it turns out, isn’t too far from the truth. Where it went from there is decidedly more upscale.
After talking to builder Jonathan Ward, it turns out the Buick can hold its own with the fanciest of Rodeo Drive rides. With an LS9 Corvette engine and a customized Art Morrison tube chassis hidden under handpainted covers and one-off trim pieces, it cost more to build than a Lamborghini and has more handmade details than a Rolls Royce, but none of that is obvious to the casual observer. The construction workers hanging off the Louis Vuitton store only saw that the car looks fun, and that’s exactly what owner Tim Vest wanted.
Tim was already familiar with Ward’s work—his daily driver is one of the Icon vintage Bronco builds—and when he saw the new Derelict line of “barn find” classic cars, he knew this was exactly the machine to satisfy his dreams of coastal cruising. “A new Ferrari, that doesn’t have any soul,” he told us, “but a perfect restoration isn’t much better. I have a 1967 Buick GS that had a full frame-off resto, and I can’t drive it without worrying about something happening to it. I happened to be at Icon when the 1948 Buick project showed up, and it was love at first sight. It wasn’t that I was looking for it, a car just has to speak to you, and it did the second I saw it.”
The Buick may have spoken to Tim, but it was Ward who translated what it said into a reliable machine, capable of repeated laps in morning rush-hour traffic while we tried to get the perfect shot. The build process took 16 months and involved everyone from CAD engineers to a Warner Brothers special-effects artist. “The car was last on the road in 1958,” Ward said. “We had to cut down a tree to get it out of the garage.” Once freed from its leafy prison, the Buick was shipped to Ward’s Chatsworth, California, warehouse, where the Icon team photographed and then disassembled it, taking note of cool original touches to preserve and possible problem areas that would need attention. Icon’s Derelict series sets out to maintain the outward patina of a well-worn classic car, but with all the contemporary elements of a modern car. Unlike many shops making that claim, Ward doesn’t just clearcoat the rust, bolt some tubular control arms and big brakes on a 60-year-old chassis, and call it modernized. Before he even starts the design process, Ward spends time with the customer, figuring out exactly what the vehicle will need to become. “I ask how tall they are, if they have kids, if they have dogs. I like to see what their home decorating is like, what their garage situation is. Some clients have patience for it and want to be involved, like Tim. Others tell me, ‘I love the look, but don’t want to worry about this stuff.’ Those folks I’ll politely bully into building something I want to build.”
With the Buick, client and builder were on the same page, except for one small detail. There was a rust hole on the driver’s quarter-panel. Ward wanted to leave it, but Tim wasn’t stoked about having an unofficial rear brake vent, so Icon found the right gauge metal, welded it up, and had a Hollywood special-effects painter match the patina. That spot, the steering column, and the engine cover are the only faux-finished areas on the car. “Patina is honest,” Ward told us. To protect that honest patina, the entire body is removed and put on a rotisserie, where it’s sprayed with a hydrophobic coating.
While the body was off the chassis, Ward had an engineer come in to 3-D scan the underside of the car. That scan then went to Art Morrison Enterprises and became a digital file with each element of suspension and driveline—from the 638hp, ZR1-sourced LS9 to the JRI springs and shocks, Detroit Speed rack-and-pinion, and Wilwood brakes—all test-fitted in the computer before any wrenching took place. “It sort of transcends the Monte Carlo front-clip thing,” Ward said.
When you’re driving the Super, you don’t think about the high-tech underside, or the acid-etched Buick hubcaps, or the split-bench seat with its trick little console-armrest—100 hours in that alone. All of that fades into the background, you only know that you feel secure in your handling and stopping, that 4,400 pounds of Buick has never accelerated like this, and that every smile on the road is going to be directed at you. “It has all the original soul, but with a heart transplant, new knees, and new hips,” Tim said, as we let Beverly Hills disappear in the pitted chrome rearview mirror. “It’s what the car dreamed it could be.”