Change is afoot in the world of ice cream vans. Meaning the sector’s biggest player must juggle corporate newcomers, a growing appetite from abroad and continuous fit-out improvements to stay on top of their game.

In two workshops on a trading estate in Crewe, Whitby Morrison’s 45 staff produce 100 new vans a year and carry out repairs on dozens more.

The company was set up by in the 1960s by Bryan Whitby, in the UK’s automotive heyday. He is credited with inventing the ‘direct drive’, a genius bit of kit that allows Mr Whippy machines to be powered by the engine.

WM is still family-owned, with third-generation Ed Whitby, who has progressed from the shop floor, to the role of operations director. Also involved are his father as part-time MD, and two of his brothers.

Each van takes around five weeks to build, and is made to each customer’s order, from the shape of the fibreglass body to the size of the freezers and the choice of chimes that signify a van’s presence. Customers can even specify handpainted illustrations, done by WM’s in-house artist.

On paper, WM looks like a typical old-school manufacturing business: a long-standing work force with plenty of fathers and sons on the shop floor, hand-crafting a niche item.

But, as Ed Whitby explains, times are changing and WM is changing with them. Those chimes may still be distinctive, but the number of vans operating around the streets is falling. The threat of a sugar tax, diesel falling out of favour and the rise of the cashless society have all contributed.

But while individual operators in the UK are in decline, Whitby has spotted opportunities with big business and international clients. On the factory forecourt stand brand new vans for Wall’s and Ben & Jerry’s – both with retro styling. The firm has also built one for Hotel Chocolat. “The UK is quite saturated except the corporate market,” says Whitby. “There’s a massive opportunity among corporate businesses. More and more of our vans are going to festivals and corporate events.”

Meanwhile, 15% of vans are now exported. In 2016, they sent a 20-strong fleet to Baku in Azerbaijan, and WM is about to send its 13th van in five years to Libya. During Furnace’s visit, a van peppered with Polish text pulls up – it’s been driven over by its smiling, tanned owner for some maintenance work.

“Export is key a part of the business, certainly for growth,” says Whitby. A good place to pick up international leads is SIGEP, the annual international trade fair for ice cream, pastry, chocolate and coffee businesses held in the Italian city of Rimini. WM takes a stand every year, and has sold vans to 70 countries.

The bulk of customers are still self-employed operators, and so 80% of WM’s work is repeat business. “That’s why we have to keep improving the product,” says Whitby, “so that existing van owners can upgrade.” Hence the switch from aluminium window frames to the more modern bonded windows that are flush to the shell.

The next big step is to move to electric vehicles, but while Mercedes are introducing them later this year, the hurdle for WM is the soft ice cream (or Mr Whippy) machine. At the moment, “it works very effectively but the engine has to be on.” Now, Whitby is “looking at how to power the machine with an on-board power pack”, and hopes to have a prototype ready by October.

Sales of ice lollies are falling in favour of soft and scooped ice cream and slush (as in Slush Puppies). This means the standard big freezer can be reduced in size, creating a void underneath which can hold the batteries to power the Mr Whippy machine.

A WM ice cream van – which costs £70,000 plus VAT – starts with a Mercedes Sprinter chassis cab that is built to order. Each van is then constructed from scratch, and no part of the process is automated. A fibreglass body shell is made from a mould, followed by fridges, freezers and water tanks. Then there’s the traditional coach-building, counter work, cupboards, shelving and lighting. Once the bodywork has been hand-prepped and hand-sprayed, the graphics go on. This could be vinyl print wrapping or hand-drawn, hand-painted illustrations. Finally, the chimes and cones are fitted. WM vehicles have a lifespan of 25 years, which means there are currently around 2,500 of their vans on the road.

WM might be making a product that oozes British nostalgia, but as a business it is looking forward and outward in search of future success. 

Take-out: the effective updating of a classic shows that it’s not just tech disruptors who drive change