The Legendary Ace Café
A cup of tea, a screech of tyres and a slice of British youth culture,
as Nude revs on up to the legendary Ace café.
Of all of the numerous biker haunts around the country, the Ace café is
the one which is surrounded by the strongest aura of lore and legend.
Known by bikers the worlds over, the Ace started life in 1938 as a
nondescript transport café on what was then the new North circular
road. After being damaged by bombs in the second world war, it re-opened
in 1949, with state of the art neon signage, and quickly established
itself as a magnet for a newly emergent British youth cult, known
alternately as Ton-Up boys, Coffee bar cowboys and latterly, Rockers.
The Ton-Up boy emerged alongside the Teddy boy, as a product of a
new post-war affluence, and both groups shared a taste for American
rock and roll and nihilistic rebellion. But, unlike the Teddy boy,
the Ton up boy was a uniquely British variation on the American original.
For a start, Marlon Brando and his gang in the Wild one rode Harleys,
whilst our own coffee bar cowboys rode Nortons and Triumphs, and wore
distinctive stadium Mark 1 racing goggles, amongst other distinguishing
It was as a hub for these new leather-clad folk devils, who lived
for noise and speed, that the Ace often found itself name checked
in various tabloid newspaper stories, documenting the excesses of
this new 'live fast, die young,' generation of young working class
males. This created a predictable moral panic, and it must be said
that death through reckless driving was common, giving rise to such
tales as that of the headless motorcyclist, which told of Ton-Up boys
decapitated by low bridges or road signs, who just kept on riding
before eventually coming to a halt in a ditch or a field. Indeed,
a notorious pastime at the Ace was to time a burn-up by spinning a
record on the jukebox. As soon as the coin was dropped in the slot,
you kick-started your bike and took off under the arches and round
the roundabout with the aim of getting back before the record stopped,
often belting through the red traffic lights in a bid to do so. But
although media attention may have focused on the lurid tales
of death and mayhem, the Ace provided a necessary sense of place
and belonging for many young people alienated by the mundane
concerns of their parent's generation; this was palpably demonstrated
when no less that 12,000 people turned up to the Ace 25 year
reunion in 1994.
The Ace had struggled
in the latter half of the sixties; its decline due in part to
the redevelopment of the national road system and the arrival
of modern motorway service stations. Newly affordable cars such
as the Mini also played a part in its demise, and Rocker culture
was also squeezed by the arrival of Mods, and then the hippies.
The Ace closed its doors in 1969, and things looked set to remain
that way until in 1993, current owner Mark Wilsmore had an idea...
'I used to come down to the site of the old Ace which had become
a tyre depot, just to look at it and reminisce. Then one day,
I thought, 'What about a reunion to mark the 25 years since
its closure?' After which, I had the notion that I could perhaps
re-open it. It was complete bolt from the blue, and from that
moment on, I set out and pursued the dream relentlessly, finally
culminating in what you see now; open seven days a week; a home
for petrol and for rock n roll.
The fact that so many people turned up for the 1994 reunion demonstrated
how sorely the place had been missed, and how much of a legend it
had become in its absence. And though Mark was unsurprised, the success
of the event did help to convince the bank manager that reopening
the Ace was a viable project: it's a touching moment in the video
of the event (entitled an Ace day and available from the venue) to
see Wilsmore half joke that he hoped that somebody like Richard Branson
would take up the cause and re-open the place.
After a long delay to gain planning permission and the appropriate
licenses, the Ace finally reopened fully in 2001. Mark freely admits
that he initially had no idea about how to run a café, and
many of the people who came to work there came out of enthusiasm for
the venue rather than with any catering knowledge. 'People came from
all over the world to work there, and had to be trained up from scratch.
There were a few early disasters on the catering front, but what they
did bring with them was a real sense of passion for the place, as
well as pride in their work.'
Mark is also passionate
about the Ace's place in British youth culture, and currently
the Ace holds a substantial archive of photographs from the
café's 50'/60s heyday. The café regularly receives
requests from all over the world from people looking for
information about the misspent youths of their loved ones.
But of course, the place operates primarily as rock n roll
venue, although Wilsmore is keen to expand and be more inclusive.
'I'd like to have different music nights in the same way that
we have different events for different groups of petrol heads.
But people who come here are mainly into their petrol, be it
in the form of classic cars, Harleys, hot rods, Triumphs or
VWs. The commitment and passion that is wrapped up in each
and every vehicle you just can't measure. Others are into their
football in the same way that we're into our petrol.
I suspect that now it's back, the Ace won't be going away again in
The Ace Café, Ace corner, North circular road, Stonebridge,
London, NW10 7UD. Telephone 020 8961 1000.
© Nude magazine 2004. Originally published in issue 3
of Nude (May/ June 2004).
Pictures kindly sourced by Ace Cafe and itsmany patrons.