Is there is a more absurdly wonderful piece of vehicle design than the ice cream van? Part restaurant, part piece of street theatre and only a little bit van, they have few precedents. Milk floats, whilst amusingly slow and anachronistic, aren't really in the same league. Burger vans and hot dog stalls are closer but they tend to come linked to an event or side attraction and they have a depressing air of the prosaic in comparison to the exotic flamboyance of the ice cream van.
They are fabulous creations based on prosaic utility vehicles that have grown wings, grilles, lights and special effects. They are covered in stickers of impossibly exciting looking things to eat in the shape of rockets and cones and clam shells. They have lurid paint work and ludicrous names on backlit signs. Sometimes they have giant plastic ice cream cornets mounted like bull's horns in case there's any doubt what they're selling.
The origin of the ice cream van lies in the nature of the product. Ice cream's tendency to melt means that you have to eat it at the place of purchase, or keep it frozen. Before home freezers that meant that the ice cream had to come to you. This simple fact is enough to create an entirely unique genre of vehicle. Ice cream vans are mobile shops, nomadic buildings that can pop up anywhere. They follow us around, suddenly appearing by a deserted beach, at the top of a mountain or lurching merrily around a suburban cul de sac. Their arrival transforms the spaces around them, shifting residential streets into spontaneous events and pavements into instant cafes.
Because they move around they make noises - jingly, sing song noises - to let us know they've arrived. These tinny mating calls match the exotic plumage of the vehicles. On the Flickr site Ice Cream Vans - from which most of these photos are taken - there is an exciting sounding link to The Technical History of Ice Cream Van Music Systems. It doesn't quite live up to its title but it does quote a Professor Alan Earnshaw who has apparently "researched the topic widely". The speakers are pointed down at the road in order to disperse the sound apparently.
According to the Music Thing blog there are very few companies still making ice cream chimes. One is Micro Miniatures in Staffordshire who make the Harmony 64 chime player which can play 3 note harmonies. Standard tunes include Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head (oddly), the Neapolitan Wedding Song and Ride Of The Valkyries. Music Thing also links to here where you can download MP3's of traditional Mr Softee chimes.
In the evolution of the ice cream van the '50's and '60's now seem a particularly fertile period. The designs from this era are by far the most baroque. Bedford Vans, Ford Anglia's and even Mini Clubmen were stretched, cut up and spliced together to make weird hybrid objects. These were vehicles with bits of architecture as well as refrigerators, serving counters and cartoon appendages attached. They are like mobile examples of Googie architecture, or the result of a bizarre design collaboration between Tex Avery and Alec Issigonis. Most endearingly their DIY qualities are always clearly visible. These are prosaic vehicles straining to be something else, home made pieces of wishful thinking trying to summon up some magic at the side of the road.