Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Make Mine A '99: A Brief Design History of the Ice Cream Van

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.

Images via


Kosmograd said...

Great stuff, but I think you are only just scratching the surface here. As well as the aesthetics of the vehicles, there is also the ice cream vans' role as agents of urbanity, their frontline role in bringing frozen dairy treats to the urban youth of 1970s Britain.

Where I grew up in Bedfordshire, the arrival of the ice-cream van was the highlight of the day. As we pretty much lived on the streets, we would get to know their routes intimately. As soon as we heard the chimes we would scramble, and would follow them around on our bikes, using all the short-cuts and backalleys around the estate to intercept them at their next stop.

Competition was fierce amongst traders, Italian's from Bedford if I remember correctly, though it never got as bad as the infamous ice cream van wars in Glasgow.

One could map the ice cream van routes in terms the mobilised territorialisation of the postwar spec housing estate. Nowadays, ice cream vans are seldom to be seen driving round, there's always something slightly defeated about a parked up ice-cream van.

Charles Holland said...

Yes indeed. The transformation of the street with their arrival was quite profound too. One used to park in our school car park at lunchtime. At some point I discovered it was owned by the dad of someone in my class. I wouldn't have been any more astonished if they told me they were related to fuzzy bear.

Also, there is the apocryphal story of the parents who told their child that the ice cream van only plays the music to let people know they've run out of ice cream. Heartbreaking.

But I wanted to write about the design mostly. Post coming up on suburban spaces though.....

Anne said...

I think this is one of my favourite posts in the whole history of blogging, ever. And the KLF too - bonus!

Kosmograd said...

Heres' an amazing image, the Hustler, at the intersection where ice cream van meets Popemobile:

And remember, children are more interested in ice-cream than in traffic:

Charles Holland said...

Anne, thank you.Probably the nicest comment ever left here. Glad you enjoyed it.

Kosmo, yes that is most peculiar and I intend to write about the Hustler at length now! However, all enquiries regarding PopeMobiles are forwarded to my colleague at Strangeharvest......

Murphy said...

Yes, I'm glad Kosmograd mentioned the old Ice Cream Wars.

I have Glasgow anecdotes relating to relatives of mine and the I.C.W. that you'd have to get me seriously, seriously pished to hear anything about whatsoever...

nae danger, see yiz ehftir n that no?

Lope de Aguirre said...

For me the ice-cream van is connected with the suburb (and they had fixed routes). In Belgium you hardly see them in cities (well, these days you see them hardly at all). The suburb at six or seven in the evening in spring or summer, and only on days with good weather. Ice-cream vans seem to arrive together with the swallows. I still have the urge to grab some change and quickly run outside whenever I hear one. Would that be part of the fun, that there's a chance of missing the van if you're too slow?

Kosmograd said...

The Hustler continues the fine British tradition of naming cars after top-shelf magazines, such as the Ford Fiesta, the Mini Mayfair, plus not forgetting the Rover Readers Wives and the Austin Asian Babes.

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Tom Underwood said...


I am a final year student at Coventry University doing transport design.
This Article has been extremely interesting and, most of all, helpful towards my research. The title of my final year project is
"How do you improve the image of mobile ice cream?"
It would be a fantastic help if I could have permission to quote some of this article in my research.
The aim of my project is hopefully to reinvent the ice cream van and bring it back to its original popularity. (Conceptually).
It would also be really interesting to know what you think is future of ice cream vans.
Once again great article

Charles Holland said...


Thanks for your interest and comments. Yes, of course you can quote from the post - that's not a problem.