by Victoria Bourne
Beach garage brings classic piece of America back to life
Frozen treats were peddled for decades from a gleaming white vehicle known as the Good Humor ice-cream truck, its jingling bells catching the ears of children blocks away as it slowly paraded through neighborhoods across the country, a capped driver at the wheel. But what rolled into Lawyer Garage in Virginia Beach in March was nothing like what the ice-cream company envisioned 100 years ago.
Poorly coated in matte-black paint, a hole in the roof with rotted insulation underneath, bad metal, bad axles, rust and more rust. What was once a sight for sore eyes had become a sad sight.
“It probably should’ve been crushed at the junkyard,” Aaron Lawyer says of the 1959 Chevrolet Apache 3100. Instead, it became a COVID-19 quarantine project after stay-at-home orders were issued.
Lawyer, president of Atlantic Plumbing and Utilities, wasn’t looking for an ice-cream-truck project, he says. That this is Good Humor’s 100th anniversary is just a happy coincidence. He took on the project because the vehicle’s backstory tugged at his heartstrings – it’d been purchased by a retired teacher who’d dreamed of owning an ice-cream truck but got caught up in a quagmire of other people’s poor workmanship.
He pulled the truck out of a Boston back alley and brought it to Lawyer’s Garage, a private shop he’s owned for about five years on London Bridge Road and one that specializes in custom builds. Most of the vehicles they get are more than halfway done, Lawyer says. His team takes them the last few yards.
The truck, however, was a “frame off,” job, meaning they essentially stripped the vehicle down and put it back together. “It has been a massive undertaking,” Lawyer says of the roughly $100,000 project. “We didn’t know what we were getting in to.” But it’s been worth all the trouble to see the happy faces it inspires. “That’s where the reward is. It’s not about the money – everybody relates to a vehicle.”
Good Humor dates to 1920 when Harry Burt, a candymaker from Youngstown, Ohio, created his original ice cream on a stick. Refrigerated pickup trucks – a step up from the more-familiar pushcarts – were part of the business model and an important part of the brand’s success.
The gleaming white trucks and drivers in matching, hospital-orderly white uniforms and policemen-style caps were meant to convey trust and cleanliness. The drivers – all men until the late 1960s, according to Smithsonian Magazine – were required to tip their hats to ladies and salute gentlemen, protocol that the Good Humor website says they learned over three days of training and orientation.
Burt’s original fleet of 12 grew to some 2,000 operating across the country by the 1950s. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington has a 1938 Chevrolet Good Humor truck in its collection that is believed to have operated in the Boston area, although it’s not on display.
Good Humor sold its fleet in 1976 to focus on selling its ice cream in grocery stores. They went for $1,000 to $3,000 each and some were sold to Good Humor drivers who continued to peddle the treats on their own.
Lawyer says based on his research, the 1959 Apache is one of just three known in existence. The truck was in bad shape when it arrived, and there were moments when the team considered abandoning the project.
“Oh my god, when it came in it was real rusty everywhere,” says Rich Soelberg, Lawyer Garage’s head fabricator.“(But it’s) not every day you get to work on something from 1959.” The project became a search-and-destroy mission to tear the vehicle down and rip out the bad until they found good.
Everything but the refrigeration and the candy-apple red-and-white striped upholstery was done in-house. The cab’s original floorboards were sanded, painted and reinforced in diamond-plated aluminum. Soelberg says the truck’s back panels were bent so badly they had to remake them in stainless steel. The old six-cylinder engine was shot and they put in another one, but at first the fan didn’t fit. And after basically rebuilding the curved roof, they had to weld a new stainless steel top back on without catching freshly added and existing freezer insulation – or the truck – on fire, so they tucked in a welding blanket for good measure.
Lawyer and Soelberg say they tried to retain or return as much of the original vehicle as they could. What isn’t original was ordered or refabricated. The truck came with a Rubbermaid tote box full of parts – hinges, handles and the like. The original Chevy Apache emblems were polished and put back on, Soelberg says, but they decided the original door handles had to be replaced.
The truck was also lacking the classic Good Humor bells. New brass ones arrived ready to ring, but with no way to mount them. Soelberg made a bracket system that hangs from the top of the windshield. To ring the bells, he ran a string through a polished brass circular piece that used to serve as a door’s peephole.
Eschewing tradition, Lawyer had the truck painted a custom blue and white – a nod to a photo from the previous owner. Every other bit of paint, from the Good Humor logos on the sides to the “Buy them HERE!” on the lower back fenders, was hand-painted by Igor Acord in his small shop in Virginia Beach’s Vibe Creative District.
Acord, known for his hand-lettered signs, pinstriping and irreverent humor, says painting vintage vehicles is how he got his start, so working on the truck was a real pleasure. “It was definitely one of my favorite (jobs),” he says. The blue and white paint and Acord’s steady touches are set off by sparkling chrome and white-wall tires.
Lawyer plans to send the refurbished Good Humor truck into the community, as well as to charitable and corporate events – that is, as long as he’s got someone to wear the uniform. “You’ve got to have the Good Humor suit,” he says. “It makes the truck.”
He has an account with Good Humor to supply all the novelty ice-cream flavors, such as chocolate éclair and strawberry shortcake, although Creamsicles are what many seem to remember.
“It’s just crazy how people relate to that truck. They all have a story,” Lawyer says, and kids “still chase after it and wave and tell us to ring the bell.”