The Ace Café

Riding the Reunion: Welcome to the original
 social network.

Cafe Racer

Cafe Racer Hiroko from Japan

Every low-bar, stripped-down, lightweight sporty motorcycle from a pre-unit Triumph to the Zach Ness Victory owes something to a little café on the North Circular Route in the northwest London area known as Stonebridge. Yes, the Ace served as ground zero for a café-racer movement that not only survives but flourishes more than a half-century after it served its first cup of tea to a leather-clad rocker. A visit to last year’s Ace Reunion and Brighton Burn Up proved that cool motorcycles and loud rock ’n’ roll are timeless.

But to understand the Ace today, you need to understand what the Ace was. Opened in 1938, it was a 24-hour transport café with fuel pumps and a car wash (“Car Shampoo from 5 shillings”), serving a purpose very similar to an American truck stop. It also became home to a new breed of motorcyclist in the early 1950s, just as post-war rationing had come to an end and young people had jobs, some money and something totally new—credit—to help them buy the great British bikes of the day.

These young bikers weren’t interested in pubs or beer so much as speed and the rock ’n’ roll the BBC didn’t play, which happened to be blasting from the Ace Café jukebox. Not to mention that tea was much cheaper than alcohol and the environment at the Ace was simply more fun than dad’s stodgy ol’ pub.

Few entertained at home back then, and before the days of smartphones and constant electronic contact, this was how people socialized, got the latest news and gossip, and made plans for the days to come.

On top of all this, the Ace offered a virtual race circuit right on its doorstep in the form of the North Circular, which had no speed limit until the mid-1960s. Throw in the chance to make a few bob guiding long-distance truckers to local destinations and you had the perfect biker hangout.

These young riders quickly became labeled “leather boys,” “coffee bar cowboys” or “ton-up boys”—because they loved to do 100 mph on bikes that didn’t really have it in them. Then, in 1964, the press coined the label “Rockers” for these youths who identified with their motorbikes, their love of rock ’n’ roll and their deep disdain for the fashionably dressed scooter-riding youths they labeled “Mods.”

Rockers rolled on everyday bikes—Triumph, BSA, Ariel, Matchless, AJS, Norton (the fabled Vincent was out of reach)—and did what they could to make them look like racers, swapping the stock bars for clip-ons or clubmans, fitting rearset foot controls, Dunstall pipes. If you made these modifications to a BSA Gold Star, you had the bike to beat, at least until the Triton appeared, the Triumph-Twin-powered, Norton-Featherbed-framed special that came to epitomize what a café racer should look like. Speed and style were the clear goals.

Ace Cafe London

Ace Cafe London

Despite the success and popularity of the Ace over its first three decades, by 1969 (in part due to a new system of taxation that removed what profit there had been in the café business), it had become run-down and was losing customers, and original owner Vic Edenborough, closing in on 70, had had enough. His decision to sell the property, thinking it would continue as a café, turned to naught as the changing times also saw a huge increase in car ownership. Motorcycle sales had peaked in England in 1959, the same year the new Mini was introduced, which sold for less than a Triumph Bonneville. The Ace Café became a tire store.

Fast-forward 25 years to a dream come true for diehard café-racer fans. Mark Wilsmore, a horse-mounted London police officer, had a simple idea for a 25th anniversary party for those who remembered the Ace firsthand, or at least had heard the lore. The original location still housed the same tire store, but details were worked out, flyers posted and word got out. Wilsmore thought the event would attract thousands, but it exceeded expectations and pulled 12,000 people. He already had the vision that the reunion would be an annual event held at a reopened Ace Café. How to make that happen?

With several years’ effort and Wilsmore’s life savings on the line, the Ace re-opened in 1997 in part of the tire store as the “Ace Corner.” By August, 2001, the tire company had moved on and the café once again occupied the entire building.

Wilsmore and partners were as true to the original Ace as possible, but times have changed. The North Circular has become a controlled-access motorway with traffic speeding (or crawling, depending on the time of day) a few hundred feet away, while the old road out front became more of a city street (with a speed limit). The café is no longer a 24-hour operation, and neither is it limited to tea and coffee for drinks. Now alongside your traditional English meal, you can order up a tasty pint of Guinness, Boddingtons, Flowers or a number of hard ciders. Or a cappuccino.

The jukebox is varied but the selection is still slanted toward the rock ’n’ roll tunes of Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, the Shadows and the Tornadoes. The Ace’s wonderful character, charm and history still attract Rockers of all ages, ton-ups and leather-boys and Edwardian-inspired Teddy Boys in their drapes, not to mention tourists from around the globe.

In my time there, I met many regulars and heard amazing tales, because that is what you do at the Ace. You stand at the bar or sit at one of the long tables, you meet up with friends and make new ones. They’ve broken down and now offer Wi-Fi, but this ain’t no Starbucks.

So there I was, hanging out at the beloved Ace for 10 days building up to the annual reunion weekend, living on scrumptious porridge laden with heavy cream, full English breakfast with eggs, sausage, beans, “bubble and squeak” and black pudding (don’t ask). I tried it all, from the fish and chips with mushy peas to the bangers and mash to a late-night Manx kippers and grilled tomatoes. It was all delicious and worth every single one of the five pounds I brought home as a souvenir. You might call the Ace a “spare” tire store, in my case.

Cafe Racers

On the road to the Ace

My entire stay at the Ace was building toward Sunday and the main event: the annual Ride with the Rockers to the Brighton Burn-Up, which became part of the Reunion after 1996, when the crowd swelled to nearly 20,000 and it was decided a bigger place was needed. Brighton was the natural choice, with its history of clashes between the Mods and Rockers in the early 1960s. By 1997, the Ace had contracted with the city to restrict the waterfront to bikes only, allowing the Ace to set up a stage, vendor spaces and other attractions.

When I arrived at the Ace on Sunday, the sun was shining bright and the car park was packed with motorcycles, even if the forecast for heavy rain scared some off. Bikes lined up everywhere, ready to blast off. Everyone was talking and looking at each other’s bikes. At 10:30 a.m., a local MP (Member of Parliament) waved the checkered flag and off we roared. Wilsmore took the lead with a select group of café racers, and the 65 miles to Brighton went quickly as we tucked low into dropped bars and vied for position down the motorway. You could imagine it was 1964, and we were headed to a punch-up with the Mods.

Once there, the crowd headed toward the Ace stage’s prime, waterfront location. The several hundred bikes from the Ace were just a small part of a larger crowd some estimated at tens of thousands. Bands on stage, people in period dress, bike shows, a Wall of Death and all the traditional seaside resort attractions including prime people-watching kept me enthralled. Incredible jive dancers moved to the Rockabilly blasting from the stage, and it wasn’t just old-timers reuniting, but bikers of all ages and from all sorts of Rocker and Mod revivals.

The bikes and restored Mod scooters were as diverse as the characters walking about, and other than a brief 10-minute downpour, the forecasters were way off mark. The sun bathed everyone in warmth until around 5 p.m., when the temperature cooled and the crowd started to thin. Bikers bundled up for the ride back to London and countless towns across England.

You can rely on the Ace being there, day after day, night after night, filled with wonderful characters. It offers everything people go to Facebook for: a place to meet friends, chat, share common interests, music, information in the flesh and face to face. Nothing “cyber” about it. For motorcyclists, the Ace Café is the original social network.

For More information: visit www.ace-cafe-london.com and see the book "Ace times by Mick Duckworth."

The Ace Cafe: Welcome to the original social network.

The Cafe's car park is jam-packed with riders assembling for the ride from London to the Brighton Burn-Up.

Mark Wilsmore, the Cafe's owner and the man behind its reopening in 1984, with one of his personal bikes, a Triumph.

Cafe racers on the road to the Ace.

Rockabilly band performs at the Cafe on Friday night.

Bill Crosby, proprietor of the Reg Allen bike shop that specializes in old British motorcycles.

Leather girl Hiroko from Japan on her '52 Triumph Speed Twin.

Tich Rhodes' pin-laden jacket identifies him as a veteran of countless rides.

The scene near the Ace Cafe.

A Teddy Boy jive dances with his partner in front of the Cafe.

Scooters at the Brighton Burn-Up recall the clashes between the Mods and Rockers.

Father Denis McSwinney, who was part of the Rocker scene in the late 1950s, still rides, mostly on his Triumph Rocket III.

The Ace Cafe: Welcome to the original? social network

The Ace Cafe: Welcome to the original? social network

The Ace Cafe: Welcome to the original? social network

The Ace Cafe: Welcome to the original? social network

The Ace Cafe: Welcome to the original? social network

The Ace Cafe: Welcome to the original? social network

The Ace Cafe: Welcome to the original? social network