When I think of summer I think of blue skies, sunshine, freshly cut grass, and that all-too-familiar jingle of the ice cream van that invokes a childlike euphoria within us all. It’s not just children who get excited at the prospect of a 99 Flake, it’s a UK summertime must for most!

Whilst ice cream vans have been around for as long as I can remember, there was a time when they were just starting out. Join me as I dive in and discover the scoop behind the ice cream van’s history and what continues to make them so popular.

Ice cream without the van

You may be surprised to hear that the ice cream van was not the first form of transportation used for this sweet treat. Originally, ice cream was transported street to street by a cart with two wheels. Horse-drawn carriages were then used until around the 1920s and 30s when people began attaching the cart to a motorised vehicle. Thus, making the cart the place the ice cream van came from. 

Read our article to discover the history of ice cream in general. 

The first ice cream van

As I just touched upon, we first saw the ice cream starting to take shape in the 20s and 30s’ but it wasn’t until the late 1940s and early 50s that were first real, and the custom-built vans hit the streets. As the ice cream van industry grew, vendors would look to use any old chassis available and convert it into a vehicle that could be used.

However, with any new venture, there were problems faced along the way, specifically around the generator used to power the vans. These were generally very heavy and expensive to run. But it was a man called Bryan Whitby who solved this problem with the ‘Direct Drive System’. This system turned the problems on its head as it used the engine’s power to run the machines and keep stock cool. It’s thanks to this lighter machinery that meant the ice cream van took the iconic van shape we see today.

Once problems like this were solved, their popularity grew, and many assume that it was here in the UK the ice cream van originated. Maybe it’s because of our cherished Mr. Whippy’s reputation but it was in fact, in 1956 in West Philadelphia that the first ice cream van was officially born by two Irish brothers named James and William Conway. They specialised in soft-serve ice cream and started by giving their customers free ice cream on St Patrick's Day. It became an immediate hit and this soft-serve ice cream, AKA Mister Softee, made its way over to the UK in 1959.

You may be thinking, ‘where does our beloved Mr. Whippy come into this?’ Well, fast forward slightly to 1961 and Mister Softee had spread to 33 locations in England and Wales. At the same time, to rival this overseas sensation, the ice cream company Walls had been developing their own soft serve and, Mr. Whippy was born. For more information on our nation’s summer mascot, read the complete history of Mr. Whippy.

The soundtrack of the ice cream van

One of the most recognisable and famous things about an ice cream van is definitely the music. The Pied Piper-Esque tunes are played loudly to draw the children from villages, estates, and small towns out of their houses.

From Mozart to nursery rhymes, we’ve seen a variety of different tunes played but the most popular have been ‘Turkey in the Straw’, ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’, ‘Teddy’s Bear Picnic’, and ‘Greensleeves’. ‘Greensleeves’ is one of the oldest English folk songs and could be the reason why many vans choose to play it.

Whichever you remember from childhood, it was these magical jingles that played a huge part in ice cream vans' success!

International ice cream vans

Ice cream is a worldwide delicacy but not everywhere serves it as traditionally as we do here. For example, places like Peru and Ecuador get creative and use bicycles or tricycles with the ice cream staying cool in a front or back fridge. Whereas, in Cambodia or Thailand they use motorcycles with modified sidecars that work as freezers.

There is no denying that the humble ice cream van has helped influence how we enjoy this simple pleasure all over the world.

A lasting memory

Always heard before they were seen, just remember the level of excitement and anticipation you felt as a child as the tune grew louder the closer it got to your house. Those sweet tunes can still be heard to this day, just not in the numbers they used to be. If we look back to the 1960s and 70s, there were 20,000 ice cream vans spreading joy throughout the streets of the UK. Nowadays, that number has dropped to just 5,000. I hope this number doesn’t drop any further because I do love a Mr. Whippy! What’s your ice cream of choice? Let me know in the comments below.

If you are looking to get your own ice cream van, take a read of our Ice Cream Vans FAQs guide. It’s full of tips, tricks and advice.

You’ll also want to ensure you have the correct insurance - you'll be pleased to know Lexham Insurance can supply Ice Cream Van Insurance to suit you and your business.