Let’s start our look at the 1950s with another glance at the registration figures for Great Britain. In August 1951 there were 900,800 goods vehicles licensed, of which 16,900 were electrics – a 1.87% share. This is better than pre-war, but shows that electrics remained very much a niche type of vehicle. But things were about to get significantly better for the battery-electric. The period from the early 1950s to the late 1960s might be regarded as its twentieth century heyday in the UK, for one reason – the milk float.
As we have seen, battery-electric milk floats had been around since the 1930s but big changes in the dairy industry after World War Two created the conditions for a huge fleet of electrics to grow.
For economic and practical reasons the horse-drawn float was rapidly disappearing, but the dairies needed a vehicle that was quiet enough for early morning delivery rounds. The duty cycle was not too arduous and the vehicle needed only to be available for part of the day. The distance from the distribution centre and around the round was not usually especially long.
Before the war the bigger Co-ops and dairies had proved the practicality of electrics as milk floats and after the war their use spread rapidly. One interesting cost saver unique to dairies running electric vehicles was that they did not have to spend money on the distilled water needed to top up the traction battery. It was already a by-product of the milk production process.
Within the retail milk delivery business there were different views about the best configuration for a milk float. A horse-drawn float had a great deal of manoeuvrability in tight spaces and this could be emulated with a three-wheel electric float. The first examples, like the Brush Pony, were based on industrial stillage trucks which had that ability, but also a rather limited payload.
In 1952 Wales & Edwards, a newcomer to the market, won a huge order for a similar three-wheeler from United Dairies. Over the years their original basic design evolved into the familiar three-wheeler that became most people’s idea of what a float looked like – more payload but slightly less manoeuvrability.
Even though the three wheelers were built in large numbers there were always doubts about their stability. Gradually from the 1960s the more conventional four-wheel arrangement became the norm, not just for larger floats. This of course was a return to the layout of the original floats built in the 1930s.
There was a positive blip in demand for battery-electrics after the Suez crisis in 1956 that led to acute fuel shortages. For example Selfridges, the London store, purchased a 270 cu ft delivery van on a Smiths NCB chassis. The Glover, Webb & Liversidge body closely followed the pattern of its existing Dennis Storks, and was intended to be the forerunner of a fleet. But Suez did not presage a widespread switch to electrics.
The traditional method for building cabs and bodywork for electric vehicles since the early 1930s had been composite construction. This involved making a wooden frame to which were attached sheet metal panels to create the outside surfaces. In vans the inside of the frame might be panelled with plywood.
This was labour intensive, not particular light in weight and discouraged more exotic lines. Pressing complex body panel shapes out of steel sheet was not an economic option for electric vehicle makers, and traditional panel beating was highly skilled and expensive.
This enforced conservatism ended with the arrival of glass fibre in the 1950s. It meant more attractive styling could be applied to electric vehicles in a cost-effective way. As with low-volume car producers, electric vehicle manufacturers could either set up a glass fibre section in a corner of their factory, or buy in panels relatively cheaply.
Some operators even retrofitted their electrics with glass fibre. United Dairies replaced the metal front hoods on hundreds of their Wales & Edwards floats with colour-impregnated glass fibre cowls.
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