Ice cream van operators are nothing if not resilient, so when the Covid-19 pandemic wiped out the spring and summer outdoor events calendar many of them turned back the clock and took to the streets again in their colourful Mercedes-Benz Sprinters.
So says Crewe-based Whitby Morrison, the world-renowned manufacturer of ice cream vehicles, which relies on East Midlands Dealer Mertrux Truck & Van to help it lick the competition.
Whitby Morrison builds ice cream bodies for various makes of new and pre-owned van chassis. Given the opportunity, though, it will always recommend a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, while its own demonstration units also wear three-pointed stars.
Most of the 85-plus ice cream vans that leave the company’s factory each year are based on 3.5-tonne Sprinter chassis cabs, although it also builds occasionally on 5.0-tonne variants – one particularly impressive example is regularly to be found alongside the London Eye, when lockdown restrictions have not forced the closure of one of the capital’s most popular attractions.
Despite all that has happened, Whitby Morrison’s 2020 order for 55 Sprinter 314 CDI chassis cabs is roughly in line with previous years. Mertrux has now delivered well over half of these long L2 rear-wheel drive vehicles – the 314 CDI is also available with front-wheel drive – with the last due to be handed over by the end of March.
Operations Director Ed Whitby said that in the unprecedented circumstances caused by the pandemic, Whitby Morrison’s order book had held up remarkably well: “Covid has had an huge impact on our industry, given that virtually every outdoor event, from concerts and county shows, to fairs and festivals, has been either postponed or cancelled completely.
“What we saw, though, in the period between March and September when ice cream van operators tend to make their money, was something of a return to the 1970s – so instead of parking up at the same location for several days at a time, many of our customers were back on the streets and selling delicious, freshly pulled ice cream right outside people’s homes.
“Of course, some operators have had a really tough time, which is very sad. For others, though, who’ve gone back to their roots, it’s worked brilliantly. There have been a lot more ice cream vans out and about in residential areas than in recent years, and that’s been really good to see.”
Mr Whitby, whose grandfather Bryan Whitby established the family business in 1962, said the pandemic represented the greatest challenge it had ever faced. The company team had worked extremely hard to maintain relationships, and had put together some highly attractive acquisition packages. “We’ve done all we can to support our customers, and they, in turn, have supported us,” he explained.
Whitby Morrison’s ice cream vans are hand-built and finished to meet each operator’s precise requirements, a process that usually takes six weeks. A new vehicle typically costs anything up to £85,000.
“We design and manufacture a premium quality product,” continued Mr Whitby. “It represents a very substantial investment by our customer, so a really good chassis is essential. As far as we’re concerned, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is the best there is, and by a clear margin.
“The Sprinter leads the field in terms of everything from reliability and durability, to fuel-efficiency and safety. It’s also more comfortable than its competitors, particularly the latest model, and the best-looking van out there – ice cream van operators invariably aspire to a vehicle with the Mercedes-Benz badge on the front.
“The aftersales back-up is second-to-none too,” he added. “This applies not only here in the UK, where Mercedes-Benz Dealers offer night-time servicing and free emergency roadside assistance, but also just about everywhere else in the world.”
Mertrux Truck & Van has been a supplier to Whitby Morrison for more than a decade. “It’s a long relationship, and one that just keeps on getting better,” confirmed Mr Whitby.
“As well as being exceptionally good at what they do, the people at Mertrux are also nice to deal with, and very accommodating. Nothing is too much trouble. Instead, they’re always coming up with ideas and opportunities to help us.”
A British manufacturing success story, Whitby Morrison has exported its ice cream vans, trucks, trailers and tricycles, to more than 60 countries over the years.
They include Australia, Azerbaijan – a 2014 order for a fleet of 20 Sprinters to operate in the capital Baku was particularly noteworthy – islands in the Caribbean, Kurdistan and Malawi. It has also delivered 13 Sprinters to Libya over the last six years.