This story first appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Hollywood's yen for distinctive personal transportation has crowned some unlikely status symbols. When in 2002 Mercedes-Benz first imported the G-500, the carmaker's luxury-spec'd version of the boxy Gelandewagen military truck sold nearly double its allocation thanks to Hollywood's buzz-enhancing embrace: Diane Keaton bought one; Brad Pitt bought two.
Along with the Range Rover and the BMW X5, today the retro G-500 is the dominant status SUV among entertainment names -- Miley Cyrus and Arnold Schwarzenegger drive them -- with a $113,000 sticker and a one-year waiting list. "This is probably the most sought-after Mercedes-Benz right now," says Mark Barsoomian, general sales manager at Mercedes of Beverly Hills.
Now the G-500 is getting competition from U.S.-built luxury SUVs remade from vintage trucks dating to the 1940s. They're turning up at second-home haunts like Ojai and Park City, where their rugged construction offers the reassurance you won't get stuck in the mud or snow. Original mechanical components are swapped with state-of-the-art replacements, leaving the bodacious retro bodies intact.
"A guy in Hollywood will buy them as a complement to a second home," says Winslow Bent, founder of Legacy Classic Trucks in Jackson Hole, Wyo. (legacypowerwagon.com), which, starting at $119,950, converts Dodge Power Wagons manufactured from 1946 to 1968. L.A.-based Icon (icon4x4.com) custom rebuilds SUVs based on the Ford Bronco, Jeep CJ and Toyota Land Cruiser starting at $100,000 -- clients include David Letterman, Aaron Eckhart and Apple design guru Jonathan Ive, for whom a six-figure repurposed truck is all about nonconspicuous consumption. "We offer the chance to get the fit, finish and bespoke craftsmanship of a Bentley without the preconceived notions that come with driving one," says Icon founder Jonathan Ward.
Eckhart owns a rebuilt 1988 Land Cruiser, which upon closer inspection reveals a heavy-duty winch and bespoke interior including soundproofing and secret compartments. "What's good about the car is, it looks innocuous -- it's not going to get ripped off," says the actor, a photographer and surfer in his off-hours. He drives it to his retreats in Santa Barbara and Montana and loves that he can go off the grid at a moment's notice. "I just went up to Sonoma over Christmas break to do some photography and slept in it," he says. "I named it Horse because it carries me where I want to go."
The trend has not gone unnoticed in Detroit. Jeep has brought to market limited-edition legacy versions of its iconic four-wheeler and commissioned a concept car of the Forward Control, a cab-forward open-bed truck last made in 1965. "Jeep still has the classic shape it started out with in 1941," says Jeep's Scott Brown. "We're always looking for ways to leverage that heritage."
But the ultimate appeal -- notwithstanding typical SUV mileage of about 15 mpg -- is the status of scarcity. Icon has 20 trucks in production, all of them presold. Each Legacy Classic truck takes more than 1,000 hours to assemble, and no two are alike. "These are always going to be unique pieces," says Bent. "It distinguishes you from everybody out there."