The Ace Cafe

The resurrection of London's classic biker hangout

Photography by Oli Tennent

It's a sunny Sunday afternoon, and the bikes parked outside the recently reopened Ace Cafe in north London could almost have been selected to highlight the diversity of modern motorcycling. From new Japanese sport machines, British classics, various Harley-Davidsons, fast and slow Italian bikes, and a KTM off-roader to a 1970s-style Triumph chopper and even a couple of scooters, there's something for everyone here.

Their owners are nearly as varied: Old guys with gray hair and patches on their black leather jackets mix happily with younger sportbike riders in colorful leathers. The atmosphere is relaxed, friendly and, for some of the riders at least, distinctly nostalgic. For many of the older guys here remember the original Ace Cafe back in the '60s, when it was arguably the most famous motorcyclists' meeting place in the world.

Some evenings in those days as many as 1000 bikes would be parked outside the Ace, which was open 24 hours a day. Most were young men and their girlfriends, and the atmosphere was often competitive if not actually violent. Not for nothing were the cafe's tables and chairs bolted to the floor. And not for nothing did the Ace have a reputation as the center of Britain's cafe-racing culture.

Most of the bikes parked outside the Ace back then were British singles and twins that had been modified to boost performance. And it was the jukebox just inside the old cafe's front door that inspired the sport of the "record" run when a rider put a coin in the jukebox, rushed out to his bike, and raced off in an attempt to complete a preset course in time to hear the end of the song. The course was 3.5 miles long, down the North Circular Road (the main highway around the city in those days), via the infamous Iron Bridge with its tight bend, around a roundabout and back. It was mostly two-lane but included several bends plus a set of traffic lights (often taken flat-out even when red), and required an average speed of more than 70 mph to beat a typical three-minute hit by the likes of Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran or Buddy Holly.

*hinery of the day that was by no means an easy feat, and few riders ever managed it. Many were injured (and some died) in the attempt. No fewer than seven riders were killed at the Iron Bridge alone during one tragic fortnight in the early '60s.

Some Ace riders moved on to more organized racing, with Ray Pickrell and Dave Croxford among those who became famous roadracers. The cafe itself was immortalized in the movie The Leather Boys, which was filmed there using many Ace regulars as extras.

The Ace opened in '38 as a transport cafe serving truck drivers and motorists, and it was at its peak as a motorcycling mecca in the late '50s and '60s. But toward the end of that decade the "ton-up" biking scene faded, and in addition many cafes went into decline when Britain's growing motorway system took away much of their business. When the Ace's owner retired in '69 the cafe closed and was converted to a tire depot.

That's how the building remained until '93, when Mark Wilsmore had the idea of restoring the Ace Cafe to its former glory. At the time, Wilsmore, now 44 years old, was a policeman. He was also a long-time motorcyclist, having owned a string of bikes including three Yamaha RD250s, a Harley Electra Glide and numerous British twins.

Wilsmore had been too young to visit the Ace in its heyday, but he was captivated by its story. Equally important, he was a born organizer, the sort of guy who always ended up running the trips with his biking mates to track days and race meetings. "One day in '93," he says, "a friend said to me, 'Did you know the Ace shut in '69?,' and I suddenly realized that the following year would be the 25th anniversary. That was the key to getting the place opened again."

The next year Wilsmore organized an Ace Cafe Reunion Day, which attracted more than 5000 enthusiasts plus media attention from Britain and abroad. Encouraged, Wilsmore promoted similar Reunion Days in the following two years. Then, in '97, he bought the Ace site, obtained planning approval to restore it as a cafe, and began selling food from a van in the parking lot.

Wilsmore has since found financial backing and spent roughly $1.5 million turning the tire depot back into a cafe reminiscent of the '60s original, including restoring the trademark big front windows. "It couldn't be a museum, a replica of the way it was in '62," he says. "It had to be a modern cafe that meets current health and safety requirements, so we've moved a few things around. But anyone who knew the old place will recognize it straight away."

That was certainly true of many of the thousands of people who attended the Ace's reopening last September, and also of the Ace veterans who turned up on a sunny Sunday lunchtime a few months later. Roger Glover had ridden from the Southend on a modern Suzuki but wore the same black leather jacket he had when riding an Ariel twin in the '60s.

"It's great that the place is open again, the atmosphere here is terrific," he says. "It was very different back then; we were all much more reckless. Your mate would wave goodbye and sometimes you'd get a phone call to say that he hadn't made it home. I lost a couple like that. But it's all so much more friendly now. They even let scooters in, which we certainly wouldn't have done before."

Some old-timers, like Triton rider Dave Johnson, came on bikes just like the ones they rode--or wished they could afford--in the old days. Others, like Martin Ellingham, had more modern wheels, in his case a Honda CX500 Silver Wing-based three-wheeler that also carried his seven-year-old son Michael. "I was just old enough to come here before it closed," Ellingham says. "It's funny that a lot of the people here are pretty much the same as before, just a lot older."

Many other visitors were younger and had never visited the old Ace, though some, such as Guzzi Florida 650 rider Eddie Wilsher had heard all about it firsthand. "My dad used to come up here on a BSA Gold Star and was always talking about the old days. He said it was a fantastic place and great for picking up girls--though he never mentioned that in front of my mum."

This year's Ace Cafe Reunion Run to Brighton is on the weekend of September 14-15, and many thousands are expected. But you only have to see the bikes on display on any normal Sunday to know the Ace Cafe, legendary motorcyclists' meeting place, is well and truly back.

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