In British English, a milk float is a vehicle specifically designed for the delivery of fresh milk. Today, milk floats are usually battery electric vehicles (BEV), but they were formerly horse-drawn. They were once common in many European countries, particularly the United Kingdom, and were operated by local dairies. However, in recent years, as the number of supermarkets, small independent grocers and petrol stations, and convenience stores stocking fresh milk has increased, many people have switched from regular home delivery to obtaining fresh milk from these other sources.
Because of the relatively small power output from its electric motor, a milk float travels fairly slowly, usually around 10 to 16 miles per hour (16 to 26 km/h) although some have been modified to do up to 80 mph (130 km/h). Operators often exit their vehicle before they have completely stopped to speed up deliveries; milk floats generally have sliding doors that can be left open when moving, or may have no doors at all. Electric milk floats come in three wheel and four wheel versions, the latter normally larger. They are very quiet, suiting operations in residential areas during the early hours of the morning or during the night.
Most electric milk floats do not have seat belts, and the law in the United Kingdom only requires wearing seat belts where these are fitted in the vehicle. While there was previously an exemption in the law meaning those making local deliveries were not required to wear a seat belt, which would in theory have included drivers and passengers in milk floats with seat belts fitted, the law was changed in 2005 to deliveries less than 50 metres (160 ft) apart.
In August 1967, the UK Electric Vehicle Association put out a press release stating that Britain had more battery-electric vehicles on its roads than the rest of the world put together It is not clear what research the association had undertaken into the electric vehicle populations of other countries, but closer inspection disclosed that almost all of the battery driven vehicles licensed for UK road use were milk floats.
Glasgow has one of the largest working milk float fleets in the UK. Most of the vehicles operate from the Grandtully Depot in Kelvindale. Some dairies in the UK, including Dairy Crest, have had to modernise and have replaced their electric milk floats with petrol or diesel fuel-powered vehicles to speed up deliveries and thus increase profit.
There were many manufacturers of milk floats in Britain during the 20th century.
Brush Electrical Engineering Company had been established in 1889, and had manufactured electric cars between 1901 and 1905. In 1940, Brush required some small electric tractor units, but as none were commercially available, they asked AE Morrison and Sons to produce a design for one. Morrisons produced a 3-wheeled design, which Brush then used to manufacture a number of units for internal use. They then began selling them to customers, shipping a large order to Russia in 1941. They expanded to producing battery electric road vehicles in 1945, when they bought designs and manufacturing rights from Metrovick. The Metrovick designs were for 4-wheeled vehicles, but they also produced 3-wheeled vehicles, which were marketed as the Brush Pony. In 1948 they added a 2-ton chassis to their range, which could be supplied with a large van, standard van, flat truck or milk float body. In early 1949, they reduced the prices of their electric vehicles by around 25 per cent, in an attempt to make them more competitive with petrol vehicles. The models affected were the 10-14 cwt chassis and the 18-22 cwt chassis, and they were hoping to see a five-fold increase in sales. All of their road vehicles were sold through the motor trade, in order to achieve a good standard of after-sales service. Production of 4-wheeled battery electrics ceased in 1950, although the company continued to manufacture the 3-wheeled Brush Pony, and their range of industrial trucks. They maintained enough spare parts to allow them to service 4-wheeled vehicles for a further 10 years, and sold the remainder to Hindle, Smart and Co, who made Helecs milk floats. When Brush ceased to make road vehicles, they continued making industrial trucks, and manufacture of these passed to Morrisons after the two companies both became part of the Hawker Siddeley group.
Electricars began trading in Birmingham in 1919, and although they initially made heavy duty electric vehicles, suitable for payloads up to 6 tons, they soon diversified into smaller vehicles suitable for doorstep delivery. In 1936, they became part of the business group Associated Electric Vehicle Manufacturers Limited (AEVM), but during the Second World War, few electric vehicles were built, due to a shortage of materials, and they ceased producing them in 1944.
Harbilt electric vehicles were initially produced by the Market Harborough Construction Company, which was formed in 1935 as a manufacturer of aircraft components. After the end of the Second World War, they diversified, and electric vehicles were a part of their new product range. The first vehicle produced was the 551 pedestrian controlled vehicle, which they supplied with a charger made by Partridge Wilson of Leicester, who were making their own range of Wilson battery vehicles. As well as milk delivery, the chassis was popular in Switzerland, with some 2000 vehicles supplied to the Swiss Post Office and to Swiss hotels. From 1956, they introduced ride-on vehicles, beginning with the model 735, and expanded the range considerably over the next few years. The Dairyliner range was showcased at the Royal International Dairy Show held at Olympia in October 1970. At some point in the early 1970s, prior to 1974, Harbilt and Morrison-Electricars reached an agreement for a product exchange and rationalisation. All milk floats would be built by Morrisons at their Tredegar works, while Morrison trucks would be handed over to Harbilt. The electric vehicle facility was taken over by a management buyout in 1975, and registered as Harbilt Electric Trucks. It continued to make trucks for a variety of industries, until it was bought for almost twice its share value by Fred W Davies, a Canadian who owned the Davies Magnet Group and York Trailers, in 1987. Production moved to Corby, but the venture was short-lived, and it was sold again to M&M Electric Vehicles of Atherstone in 1989.
Lewis Electruks were built by TH Lewis Ltd of Watford, a company closely associated with London's Express Dairy Company. Mr Lewis began building milk floats, milk carts and horse-drawn vehicles for Express Dairies in 1873, and the business became a limited company in 1899. It was taken over by Express in 1931, as part of a reorganisation of their business. TH Lewis designed two types of electric vehicle for Express, the first of which entered service in 1934. This was a 3-wheeled pedestrian controlled vehicle with a 3.5 cwt payload, which had a fixed speed of 3 miles per hour (4.8 km/h) on level ground. The battery drove a 0.75-horsepower (0.56 kW) motor which was connected to the rear axle by reduction gearing, and this configuration gave a range of around 10 miles (16 km). They were one of the first companies to provide storage for dry goods on their vehicles, and demonstrated a type AER 4-wheeled float with a grocery box behind the cab at the 1955 Dairy Show. Their exhibits at the 1958 Dairy Show included a standard 25 cwt milk float with a walk-through cab and a vertical steering wheel. The company was acquired by Austin Crompton Parkinson, makers of Morrison Electricar floats, in 1961, and Morrisons continued to make two of their models, the Electruk Rider, which became the model E15, and a pedestrian controlled vehicle, which became the model DPC3. Both Express Dairies and the London Co-operative Society had large fleets of the Electruk Rider, and continued to add to them with purchases of the E15.
Metrovick electric vehicles were made by the Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Company between the 1930s and 1945. In 1939, the Metrovick range consisted of a 7-9 cwt model, a 10-14 cwt model and an 18-22 cwt model. All three models were fitted with a drum controller, mounted on the cab floor, which provided six steps of series-parallel control. A safety interlock was provided, to reduce the likelihood of the motor being damaged by careless driving, and brakes manufactured by Lockhead or Girling were fitted to all four wheels. It was also possible to swap the batteries for another fully-charged set, for situations where the range required exceeded that obtainable from a single battery. By 1943, a 25-30 cwt model had been added to the range. A more modern design of cab was introduced from 1939, and as the Second World War ended, Metrovick ceased to make battery electric road vehicles, and sold its designs and manufacturing rights to Brush. Consequently, early Brush designs are virtually indistinguishable from later Metrovick designs.
Midland Electric milk floats were produced by Midland Vehicles Ltd of Leamington Spa. Their first design was a 10-15 cwt chassis, which was launched in January 1937. It was designed by J Parker Garner, who at the time was a well-known designer, having been involved in the manufacturing of vehicles for a number of years. In early 1938, Midland added a model B20 to their range, which was designed for a 20 cwt payload, but was otherwise very similar to the earlier model. It was showcased at the British Industries Fair, held at Castle Bromwich in February. The vehicle on display consisted of a chassis and a van body which had been cut in half, so that visitors to the show could see both the look of the vehicle and the construction of the chassis. By 1943, Midland Electric were producing five models, which could be fitted with various types of bodywork, including a flat-bed truck for coal deliveries. The B12 catered for a payload of 10-12 cwt, the BA12 for 12-15 cwt, the B20 for 18-22 cwt, the B25 for 25-28 cwt, with the largest model, the B30, suitable for 30-35 cwt. They produced a new 10-cwt lightweight design in 1949, which features an all-welded chassis with an integral body frame. The 10-cwt model was called the Midland Vandot when it was showcased at an exhibition in 1953, organised by the Electric Vehicle Association and the South Eastern Electricity Board. The company was listed in a 1956 directory of electric vehicle manufacturers published in Commercial Motor, but was no longer listed in a similar list published in 1960.
Morrison-Electricars had their origins in the 1890s in Leicester, when AE Morrison began producing bicycles, motorcycles and stationary engines. The company became AE Morrison and Sons in 1929, and produced their first battery electric vehicle in 1933. They moved to larger premises in 1935, and all other products were phased out. They were another major player in AEVM, and Electricars and Morrisons rationalised their product range, with Morrisons concentrating on the smaller vehicles suitable for milk delivery. The vehicles were marketed as Morrison-Electricars from mid-1942, and were so known despite a series of takeovers. The Austin Motor Company bought a 50 percent share in AEVM in 1948, and the company became Austin Crompton Parkinson Electric Vehicles Ltd. Austin merged into the British Motor Corporation in 1952, which in turn merged with Leyland Motors in 1969, to become British Leyland. The electric vehicle business became Crompton Leyland Electricars Ltd. In 1972, British Leyland sold their share of the business to Hawker Siddeley, better known for aircraft manufacture, and the company became Crompton Electricars Ltd. The Board of Trade refused to allow Morrisons to move to new premises in Leicester, because of a lack of skilled labour in the area, and instead offered to build them a new factory in a development area, so the manufacturing base moved to Tredegar, south Wales, in 1968. Morrison-Electricars ceased to be made in 1983, when Hawker Siddeley sold the business to M & M Electric Vehicles of Atherstone, Warwickshire, who subsequently adopted the Electricars name for their own vehicles.
Victor Electrics was formed in 1923 when Outram's Bakery in Southport, Merseyside, wanted to buy some electric vehicles to replace horses and carts on local deliveries, but found that both home-produced and imported vehicles were considerably more expensive than they were prepared to pay. They started manufacturing their own electric bread vans, which looked like conventional vans, with the batteries mounted under a bonnet at the front. They were soon making three models of bonnetted van, but in 1931, produced a forward control vehicle with a walk-through cab for the dairy industry. By 1935, they had a range of forward control vehicles in production, and ceased to make bonnetted vans. In 1967, the company was acquired by Brook Motors, and became part of Brook Victor Electric Vehicles. This company was itself acquired by Hawker Siddeley in 1970, and in 1973 it became Brook Crompton Parkinson Motors.
Wales & Edwards was the name of a garage and car salesroom for Morris and Wolseley cars, based in Shrewsbury. Mervyn Morris designed an electric vehicle, and the first milk float was sold to Roddington Dairy in early 1951. A request from United Dairies saw the production of a 3-wheeled chain driven vehicle, which was an immediate success. An order for 1,500 vehicles followed, and a new manufacturing base was set up in Harlescott, a suburb to the north of Shrewsbury. Larger models followed, although the 3-wheeled design was retained for most of their subsequent output. Four-wheeled vehicles were introduced in 1966 for payloads which exceeded 1.5 long tons, although they made eighteen 5-wheeled articulated milk floats from 1961, which could carry 2 long tons. The company was acquired by Smith Electric Vehicles in 1989.
Wilson Electrics were made by Partridge Wilson, who were manufacturers of charging equipment for accumulators, and were based in Leicester. In 1934 they produced their first electric van, suitable for a payload of 5-6 cwt. Speed control was arranged by switching of the motor fields and the battery cells, so that no starting resistance was needed. They produced several larger models, including a 20-25 cwt version of their MW vehicle, controlled by an accelerator which caused a number of relay contacts to close, at a preselected rate regulated by a fluid dashpot. In 1939 they were offering special deals for fleets of six vehicles, which were charged using a Davenset 3-phase group charger. Wilson Electric vehicles ceased to be produced in 1954, although the company continued to trade in Leicester until 1986.
Other manufacturers included Smith's, Osborne, and Bedford. In 1941, Morrison-Electricar standardised three types of body which would become the basis for thousands of milk floats built after the war to deliver goods to the recovering population. As of 2009, only Bluebird Automotive remained in the industry.
During 2012, Bluebird Automotive will be launching a new generation of milk float. Called the BE-1, it is a city delivery vehicle with a 1.7 metric tonne payload. It incorporates battery swapping so that flat batteries can be replaced with fully charged batteries at a depot in around four minutes.
Before BEVs, dairy supplies were delivered using horse-drawn milk floats. This lasted from the late 19th century until the 1950s. Today, with rounds expanding in coverage to ensure profitability in the face of falling levels of patronage, the limited range and speed of electric milk floats have resulted in many being replaced by diesel-powered converted vans.
A collection of milk floats and other BEVs is kept by The Transport Museum, Wythall at their museum, and in addition several milk floats are still in service today, albeit repurposed after their milk delivery days. Many are used for work in factories, or as pleasure vehicles in rural areas, and some are hired out.
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