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The Flat Cap on ... Ice Cream Vans

During an atypically warm October day mowing his lawn The Flat Cap was pleasantly interrupted by the sound of the local ice cream van. Ordinarily he wouldn’t bother with an ice lolly or a cornet so late in the year but on this occasion, and with a trickle of sweat dripping from his brow, The Flat Cap decided he had earned himself a treat. Ice cream sold from vans may be more expensive than supermarket bought tubs but there’s something about purchasing from an ice cream van that makes it taste that little bit better. Armed with his “99” in hand The Flat Cap began thinking about ice cream vans in general and resolved to find out more.

Ice cream can trace its origins way back to Roman times when it is said the Emperor Nero used to send runners into the mountains to collect fresh snow. The snow would then be flavoured with fruit juice. Technically that’s more of an ice lolly or a Slush Puppy type of item than ice cream itself, but then again all good ideas have to start somewhere. The Flat Cap can’t imagine today’s top sprinters being sent off up mountains to collect snow but in Roman times things were a lot harsher and there weren’t things like Working Time Directives, or laws on how much snow a worker, or even a top athlete, was allowed to carry. For example the bloke who ran the first marathon didn’t phone in sick the next morning complaining of blisters or athlete’s foot. People in ancient times just got on with it. And for those rich Romans who couldn’t be bothered navigating their way through employment regulations there were always slaves to do the more basic tasks. Snow gathering was possibly one of those jobs; so long as the slave wasn’t too malnourished and could run at a decent pace.

Fast forward to the modern era and the ice cream van evolved as the best way to transport this refrigerated foodstuff. Initially transported by horse and cart scholars are divided who first invented ice cream. Either it was the Romans (see above), or it was the Chinese, or neither. What we do know is that ice cream was popularised by Catherine de Medici after her marriage to the future French king Henry ll and they loved nothing more than watching a good film with a tub of vanilla or raspberry ripple. That was in the mid sixteenth century and it took another hundred years before poor people got round to eating it. Nowadays ice cream vans ensure that anyone can access this gastronomic delight.

Ice cream vans had their heyday in the 1960s when they numbered as many as 30,000. That was when homes didn’t have freezers and supermarkets had no need to stock big plastic tubs of the stuff. Furthermore things like Magnums and Cornettos had yet to be invented. Today any self respecting middle class household has the odd Vienetta put away in case important visitors arrive unannounced.

With the advent of consumerism, and cheap home freezers, ice cream van numbers in the U.K. have declined to around just 5,000. The market for used ice cream vans thus isn’t what it was and you can expect to pay about £12,000 for a second hand van in reasonable condition. Buy new and you’re looking at about five times that figure. £60,000 would buy you a decent 4x4, but you wouldn’t have the space, or facility to sell frozen desserts from it.

The Flat Cap enjoyed his ice cream van “99” and the next day he bought himself another one (drizzled with raspberry sauce) and got chatting to Terry his local ice cream van driver. Terry proved very knowledgeable and provided the following ice cream facts and figures:

  • Ice cream was originally called “cream ice”, whereas “99” ice creams (like the ones Terry sells) are so named because in the 1950s the majority of ice cream men were Italian. In Italy the king used to have an elite guard of 99 men so anything elite consequently bore the number 99. A “99” is the elite ice cream. Terry also joked that 99 written in Roman numerals is IC – pronounced “icy” and maybe that was how it got its name. Terry sells his “99”s for £1.50

  • In October 2018 ice cream vans converged on Crewe, Cheshire to set a new world record. A grand total of eighty four vans travelled in convoy around Wychwood Park. As well as setting a new world record the gathering also raised money for charity

  • At Glastonbury and other main outdoor events the queues at ice cream vans are invariably longer than for any other amenity or foodstuff

  • Ice cream cones, like the ones terry sells from his van, originated around the beginning of the twentieth century

  • The first ice cream van was owned by New Yorker Thomas Carvellos. When his truck hit a bump that flattened one of its tyres the entrepreneur sold off the rapidly melting ice cream he was transporting to people passing by. Carvellos noticed that they seemed to like the softer product

  • In 1980s Glasgow ice cream vans were used by rival criminal gangs to sell illicit drugs and stolen goods. The turf war between the gangs was dubbed “Ice cream wars” and Strathclyde police set up a serious chimes task force to tackle it

  • With a knowing wink Terry said he once gave a man, who complained about his van’s noisy chimes, a frosty reception. The Flat Cap took that to mean Terry punched the complainant

  • The Mr Whippy ice cream vans were the brainchild of Dominic Facchino who had been impressed with the Mr Softee ice cream vans that he saw on a visit to the U.S.. That was in 1958. Facchino was fascinated by English king Henry VIII and that’s why he chose "Greensleeves" as the jingle for his ice cream vans

  • By law UK ice cream vans can play their jingles for up to 12 seconds, and no more than once every two minutes

  • Ice cream vans are not allowed to play their jingles within fifty metres of a hospital

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