As I write this, Europe is in the grip of a significant heat wave. The mercury has been rising and the whole continent has been melting. Here in the UK the beaches and parks have been packed with people, and the familiar sound of summertime has returned to the streets. The distorted jangle of recorded bells playing Greensleeves over the bass drone of an idling diesel engine can only mean one thing. If you need more clues, consider adult males happy to be known as Mr Softy, badly drawn representations of Disney characters, and make sure you Mind That Child! Stop me and buy one, this week we’re dipping our scoop into the world of ice cream vans.
Whether you lean towards Mr. Whippy, Mrs. Whippy or prefer to self-identify as something else, the chances are that at some point in your life you will have been drawn to the delights of the mobile ice cream vendor. If so, you are following in a tradition that dates back to at least the middle of the 19th Century. In the days before mass availability of home refrigeration, ice cream was sold to overheating punters by horse drawn truck or hand pushed cart. Originally served by the scoop and wafer, the invention of the edible ice cream cone made alfresco consumption a great deal easier. Mentioned in fledgling form in French cook books as early as 1825 but variously credited to Mrs. Agnes Marshall in 1888, a pair of Italians in 1902 or a Syrian peddler at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the edible cone was easily reproduceable and could be stacked for efficient transportation. As a freezer to mouth delivery method it was genius. Less satisfactory was the dairy to customer delivery method; because horse.
It should already be self-evident that motorcycles are clearly superior to horses in every way, but now you can add ice cream delivery to that list. No horse ever came with an integral insulated cool box because evolution just doesn’t work that way, but a motorcycle and sidecar combination could. Ice cream manufacturers such as Walls soon saw the potential and their motorised fleet became a familiar sight during the British summer times of the early 20th Century. Ice cream was still a hard scoop product but across the Atlantic new technology was about to shake the world of desserts to its foundations. The 1938 invention of soft serve, achieved by aeration during the freezing process, transformed speed of service and increased customer appeal. Birmingham based chocolate wizards, Cadbury, cleverly offered a short variant of their Flake chocolate bar to create the iconic “99” combination of soft serve, cone and flake. However, this new delight was confined to the distinctly static ice cream parlours. The sidecar combinations and primitive vans of the time were lacking the essential dispensing technology to take soft serve mobile.
It seems to have taken until 1956 for the revolution to be realised when the Conway brothers hit the mean streets of Philadelphia in their Mister Softee branded Chevrolet van. Soft whip ices were available on the road for the first time by virtue of a large electric generator to power the dispenser. This development caught the attention of Lyons ice cream in the UK who partnered with Smiths bodybuilders to develop the first Smith & Lyons ice cream vans. Lyons licenced the name of Mister Softee for use in the UK and rival firm Walls soon followed under the pseudonym of Mr. Whippy. The new soft serve trucks were popular with the public, but the on-board generators meant they needed to be built on expensive heavy-duty chassis, the costs of which ate into those creamy profits. To perfect the proposition, one further initiative was required. Step forward Bryan Whitby, British engineer and founder of Whitby Specialist Vehicles.
In their own way, Whitby Morrison is a coachbuilder as iconic as Mulliner Park Ward, Hooper or Ghia. The latter three are not noted for their ice cream vans and have frankly left it too late to make an impression. Bryan Whitby changed the world in 1965 when he patented the idea of running ice cream serving equipment from a power take-off rather than a heavy separate generator. The significant weight and space savings greatly expanded the range of vehicles suitable for conversion. The lightweight chassis that were previously the preserve of hard scoop could now also be used for soft serve and Whitby drew on his training as a bodywork apprentice, establishing Whitby Specialist Vehicles to serve the sector. The company rapidly become a market leader and acquired arch rivals Morrison Industries in 1989. The company now claims to be the world’s leading manufacturer of ice cream vans, which is a cool niche. Think ice cream vans; think Whitby. Or Morrison. Or Whitby Morrison. In the interests of balance, other convertors are available.
Whichever coachbuilder provided the conversion, classic British ice cream vans invariably used a home-grown chassis as imported commercials were still a rare breed. The many brands of BMC made their contribution with models such as the Morris J-Type, Austin LD and later Leyland Sherpa. Ford offered suitable platforms with the Anglia and Thames 400E prior to the introduction on the Transit. General Motors’ Bedford division made a healthy dent in the market with the CA, but their follow up hit would become synonymous with the trade. If you were handing over loose change for a lolly in the 1970s or 80s, chances were that you’d be reaching through the serving hatch of a Bedford CF. They were converted in such numbers that you may still encounter one in service today and they appear in the background of a billion holiday photos. Fittingly then, this week’s Prime Find is a 1978 Bedford CF Morrison Soft Ice Cream Van.
The seller of this Bedford seems to have a selection of 1970s and 1980s models on offer but it’s this early generation of CF that established itself as the archetypal British ice cream van. Thousands of these friendly looking conversions were sold and this Full Cowl example is a survivor of many summers past. The vendor describes the van as being totally original throughout apart from a respray last year and it comes ready to work with all the essential kit; in this case a Carpigiani dispensing machine, an eight-lid freezer and a large chiller unit. It can be sold without the Carpigiani machine if you only wanted to scoop your product, but that would be missing the point and all claims to be Mr. Whippy would be null and void. The van has one previous owner and was assigned to pitch use rather than roaming the streets so it has a low mileage. However, the vendor does reveal that the engine is very smoky and needs attention, perhaps due to lack of use. It may just want some fettling but the CF chassis will accept a wide range of engines so I’m sure you can think of something more interesting to ensure you get to the beach before all the stock melts. Here are some photos courtesy of the vendor’s advert.
No fixed price is stated and the seller is open to offers, but similar vans in good working order seem to fetch anywhere between £5-10k. As with any market, there are bound to be specific models and features that determine the price so do your own research and don’t low ball based on our advice. Here at ViaRETRO we have more expertise in sampling the product rather than the buying the van, but you should probably avoid the temptation to offer “99”…
Here you have a link to the full advert: 1978 Bedford CF Mr. Whippy
With our Saturday instalment of Prime Find of the Week, we’re offering our services to the classic car community, by passing on our favourite classic car for sale from the week that passed. This top-tip might help a first-time-buyer to own his first classic, or it could even be the perfect motivation for a multiple-classic-car-owner to expand his garage with something different. We’ll let us inspire by anything from a cheap project to a stunning concours exotic, and hope that you will do the same.
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