The American automotive landscape is littered with the broken dreams of aspiring carmakers. As the joke goes, the best way to make a small fortune in the car industry is to start with a large one. Even among those entrepreneurs who survive step one—building a prototype that stimulates consumer interest—few ever make a successful transition into production. “Putting a car into production is like building a house and realizing that you have to cut your own lumber and mix your own cement,” explains Claudio Ballard, founder and CEO of Iconic Motors.
Ballard, who made his large fortune in the computer industry, believes he will defy the odds. His Long Island company plans to begin production of a bespoke American supercar this fall. By targeting the upper echelon of collectors, Ballard hopes to realize his vision of a modern automobile while making a compelling business case for a new car company in the United States.
Born in Italy to an American father and an Italian mother, Ballard had an uncle who worked for Ferrari. This entrée into the automotive world stoked his interest in exotic machinery. In the late 1960s, at age 9, Ballard moved with his family to the United States, where he soon developed a taste for American muscle cars.
The idea behind Iconic Motors germinated when Ballard purchased an officially licensed Shelby Cobra continuation car in 2006. (The continuation cars are essentially newly built Cobras tagged with unused 1960s vehicle identification numbers; Shelby repurposed the VINs to meet homologation rules.) “It looked very primitive to me,” recalls Ballard, who decided to build his own version of a roadster that evoked the Ferrari 166 MM Barchettas, A.C. Aces and Bristols, and Cobras of the 1950s and ’60s. His challenge, he says, was, “How do I make a modern version of this?”
Ballard’s answer was to produce one of the most labor-intensive and expensive automobiles in the world.
In most cases, an automobile’s gauges come from a single supplier. You screw them into the dash, and there you have it. For the instrument gauges in Iconic Motors’ GTR Roadster, however, one firm furnishes the digital stepper motors that drive the needles, while another provides the software that moves them. The gauge faces are custom-designed, solid aluminum stampings with raised, enameled numerals. The needles change colors—or flash—depending on the importance of their information. (For instance, the tachometer needle glows red and begins flashing as the motor approaches the rev limit.) The GTR’s gauge windows also are custom-made. In all, five different suppliers build a single component that could have been sourced complete from one manufacturer. “It’s pretty amazing that there’s a company that makes just the needles for gauges,” Ballard says.
The GTR is rife with similarly novel details. “There’s no plastic, virtually no off-the-shelf parts,” says Ballard as he takes a seat inside the car at his company’s temporary headquarters in Freeport, N.Y. He motions toward the dashboard starter button and hazard-flasher button. “Those are synthetic sapphire made just for this car,” he says. “That’s like the sapphire on a Rolex watch face but even more scratch-resistant. Those cost $500 each.” The gauge windows are also made of synthetic sapphire. “Natural sapphire has flaws in it that you might not be able to see on a watch face, but you would on something the size of a speedometer.”
Ballard’s position on fit and finish is encapsulated by an observation he makes about the Bugatti Veyron: “You look down underneath the rear spoiler of that car when it’s raised,” he says, “and that compartment is unfinished. It doesn’t look good.” Of course, the spoiler on a Bugatti Veyron is intended to be raised only when the car is in motion, and the chances of an observer climbing aboard the rear bodywork at speed to scrutinize the compartment’s details are slim at best. “But you as an owner know it’s there,” Ballard continues. “I want you to be able to cut my car in half and have it look as good on the inside as it does on the outside.”
This fixation on minutiae explains why, once in production, Ballard’s GTR will cost about $600,000.The carbon-fiber bodywork on the prototype (production cars will likely feature aluminum bodywork reinforced with an advanced composite substructure for better paint quality) covers a tubular steel chassis with a carbon-fiber passenger tub. The machine’s aerodynamic shape, which was sculpted in a wind tunnel, achieves downforce naturally, without the use of spoilers. The electronic systems—which include everything from ignition to the automated sliding gas cap—can be accessed and controlled through a WAP-enabled device, such as an iPhone. (WAP is the security protocol used to log on to wireless networks.) If you lose your phone, you could start your car with a laptop or another phone.
Another factor in the GTR’s price is Ballard’s insistence on utilizing the highest possible level of American-made parts—he is striving for 99 percent. “I want to revive the days of first-rate American coachbuilding,” he says. “People are too quick to outsource crap these days. Why? Because you can get something 12 percent cheaper from China versus Connecticut? I find it terrible how manufacturing jobs have moved offshore, and I’d like to see that trend reversed.”
The GTR’s motor—a 420 cu in, Ford-derived, aluminum-alloy racing V-8 that generates a dyno-tested 800 hp and 660 ft lbs of torque—is handbuilt by Ernie Elliot’s NASCAR shop in Georgia. The carbon-fiber work comes from Michigan. A military contractor in Vermont machines the bootless, stainless-steel shift mechanism, which Ballard designed. Still, his eye for exotic components dictates that certain parts come from foreign suppliers. “The alternator is this tiny, high-output Bosch,” says Ballard. He makes a fist. “It’s about this big. Very elegant. And it costs more than $4,000.”
Until his company’s new production facility is completed in nearby Farmingdale, Ballard is running Iconic out of HRE Motorsports, a Shelby specialist in Freeport. Flanking the GTR prototype in the HRE garage are two genuine Cobras, a Shelby Series 1, and a Ford GT40 replica. On a stand in a corner are two fresh Iconic V-8s awaiting their turn in a chassis.
After touring the headquarters and receiving a primer on the concept car’s idiosyncrasies—the starter button is under the dash, and the motor is programmed to run rich until it reaches full operating temperature—I wedge myself behind the wheel. Challenge number one is to back out of the garage and gently ease this multimillion-dollar prototype out of the driveway while remaining mindful that the gas pedal is connected to a package with a better power-to-weight ratio than the Veyron’s.
The first surprise is that I do not stall the GTR. Considering that the car has a transmission built to handle 1,000 hp, I expect a brutal, binary quality to the carbon-fiber clutch. Instead, it is mellow and easily modulated, and the V-8 has so much torque that the car begins to move before I even touch the throttle. “The carbon-fiber clutch is really a sweetheart, isn’t it?” says HRE’s Bill Andrews, who is riding shotgun.
I point the car down the street, heading into an industrial park, and gently prod the gas pedal in first gear. The side pipes immediately let loose a fusillade that drowns out the small-caliber pops emanating from a firing range across the street. I short-shift early, at around 3,000 rpm, and still more ordnance bursts from the pipes with a series of staccato bangs that turn the heads of a few construction workers venturing out for lunch. The shifter moves into second gear cleanly and with what seems like two millimeters of movement, and I press the accelerator a little less gingerly.
The GTR’s motor is tuned for high-rpm horsepower, but even at low revs, the thrust is startling. This car weighs about 2,300 pounds, little more than a Lotus Elise; but with four times that car’s power, the Iconic’s estimated sub-three-second zero-to-60 time is eminently believable—assuming the driver is skilled enough to keep the Ford GT–size, 19-inch rear tires connected to the pavement. On public roads, I cannot accelerate for more than a few seconds—I only make it about halfway to the 8,000-rpm redline—without scaring myself and breaking a number of traffic laws. The lack of seat belts, and a driver’s-side door that will not stay latched, further contribute to my apprehension. Obviously this is an imperfect venue and a car that has yet to receive a full development shakedown. However, the GTR Roadster acquits itself quite well, even if it feels frighteningly fast.
Given the GTR’s prodigious power, one might assume that the motor is supercharged. Ballard, however, spurns superchargers, which he considers imperfect shortcuts. “I don’t like a supercharged motor’s freight-train power delivery,” he explains. “Even when you let your foot off the throttle, those things want to keep going.”
The engine itself is unadorned (air cleaners are built into the bodywork), while the intake is located at the car’s nose and reaches the motor via underhood ducting. Iconic’s engineering team discovered during wind-tunnel testing that a hood scoop would deliver more nostalgia than intake air. “You’d think that a hood scoop would create a sort of ram-air effect on the intake,” Ballard says, “but we learned in the wind tunnel that the engine compartment actually creates positive air pressure at speed.” In other words, air is forced out of the hood, not into it. The GTR intake’s position on the nose allows it to take advantage of high-pressure airflow.
Airflow under the car is equally efficient, with a front splitter, full underbody tray, and inverted rear wings playing an invisible role in aerodynamics. While the top half of the car evokes old-school racers (most obviously the Shelby Cobra—that icon from which Iconic derives its name), the bottom half is straight from a modern racing handbook. Despite its absence of aggressive wings, the GTR generates 500 lbs of downforce at 175 mph. Top speed has not been ascertained, but with 800 hp and no roof or side windows, you would not want to wear a toupee rated for less than 200-mph winds.
The GTR’s suspension settings also have not been finalized, though Iconic would be shrewd to stick with something close to the prototype’s tuning. The transverse coil-over shocks up front and behind easily soak up the jagged potholes and buckled waves of pavement in the industrial park while maintaining a steady, flat stance in corners. This comfortable ride is partly a result of the carbon-fiber passenger tub and a rigid, tubular steel chassis that is expected to offer 20,000 lbs per degree, which is significantly stiffer than the best production cars and approaches the stiffness of modern racecars.
Before heading back to the garage, I allow myself one more deep stab at the throttle. I coast into the bay in neutral, lest my foot slip off the clutch and ram this one-of-a-kind concept into one of the genuine Cobras on the lifts inside. As I exit the car, I give the 5-inch side pipes a wide berth, but they are only warm to the touch. “The pipes are pretty well insulated, even now, but on the production cars there’s going to be aero foam between the pipe and the heat shield,” Ballard says. “Aero foam is used by NASA because it’s the best lightweight heat insulator, and when that’s in place you’ll be able to put your hand on the side pipes when the car is running.”
Aero foam. An iPhone-controlled ignition and systems interface. Inverted carbon-fiber underbody wings. The GTR Roadster is indeed a contrast of vintage appearance and futuristic technology.
Ballard plans to limit GTR production to 100 cars. Twenty-five orders have come in, but he is turning them all down until the company is ready for production, which is expected to be this fall. He is not funding development with down payments, as some fledgling carmakers do. “We want to be unique in the car business because we’re doing things as right as we possibly can,” he says. “We’re self-funded and won’t take anyone’s money until we are ready to go into production. We had one guy walk up to us at the New York Auto Show, hand us a Black American Express card, and say ‘What do you need? Charge it.’ ” Ballard made the executive decision to wait, explaining, “I think people appreciate that approach.”
Ballard is well aware of the logistical challenges inherent in his approach. Because Iconic relies on multiple suppliers, the company had the GTR entirely designed with advanced software to ensure consistent production quality from vehicle to vehicle. “I come from the computer industry, so I understand the importance of source code,” he says. “We can’t get held hostage by a machine company, because we [have] the data to make the parts.”
After completing the 100 GTRs, Ballard has follow-up vehicles in mind, including a race version of the GTR and a ’60s muscle car–style coupe. He also has plans beyond the internal-combustion engine, to electric technology. “Electric is the future. An all-wheel-drive car with electric motors would destroy anything on the street,” he says. “You ain’t seen nothing yet. This is just the beginning.”
Iconic Motors, www.iconicmotors.com