These unique vehicles are home-made pieces of wishful thinking trying to summon up a little magic at the side of the road
Photo: David Howlett
Words by Charles Holland
Is there is a more absurdly wonderful piece of vehicle design than the ice cream van? Last week one appeared in the street outside my daughter’s school – the first van of summer – and I’m not sure which one of us was more delighted.
Part restaurant, part piece of street theatre and only a little bit van, ice cream vans have few precedents. Milk floats, while amusingly slow and anachronistic, aren’t in the same league. Burger vans and hot dog stalls are closer but they have a defeated air about them and lack the exotic flamboyance of the ice cream van.
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 situation has created a 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. They are also agents of urbanism, transforming the area around them into a spontaneous civic space complete with instant pavement cafe.
These transformative powers have not been without their own urban problems, though, namely the infamous Glasgow Ice Cream Van wars, where rival families of ice cream sellers fought a violent and deadly serious battle for control of different territories in the city.
The viciousness of this commercial turf war is difficult to equate with the jolly absurdity of the vans themselves. They are fabulous creations based on utilitarian vehicle chassis 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 like ‘Mr Softee’ displayed on backlit signs. Sometimes they even have giant plastic ice cream cornets mounted on them in case there’s any doubt what they’re selling.
Best of all, because they move around they make music – jingly, sing-song music – to let us know they’re coming. These tinny mating calls match the exotic plumage of the vehicles themselves.
There are inevitably a number of websites and blogs devoted to the ice cream van, including one called The Technical History of Ice Cream Van Music Systems. It doesn’t quite live up to its title but it does rather wonderfully refer to a Professor Alan Earnshaw who has apparently ‘researched the topic widely’. Professor Earnshaw reveals that the speakers on the van are typically pointed down at the road in order to disperse the sound.
In the evolution of ice cream van design, the 1950s and 60s now seem a particularly fertile period. The examples from this era are by far the most baroque. Bedford vans, Transits, Ford Anglias and even the Mini Clubman were stretched, cut up and spliced together to make strange hybrid objects. These are vehicles with bits of architecture attached, as well as refrigerators, serving counters and cartoon appendages. They are like mobile examples of commercial roadside 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 a little magic at the side of the road.