While testing Triumph’s Speed Triple abroad in London MotoUSA couldn’t pass the opportunity to visit one of motorcycling’s most iconic locations – The Ace Café.
“It went on, didn’t it,” grins Gordon Allum. The title of café racer is no stylized affectation for 81-year-old, whose eyes light up recalling his youthful exploits at the Ace Café. He was an original, one of the old breed who flogged hand-tuned British Twins up and down London’s North Circular Road looking to hit the ton (100 mph) while zipping past the Ace.
The term café racer serves now as a much-used marketing tool, a two-wheeled lifestyle choice that can be just as rigid as the ‘biker’ shtick. But hearing Allum speak, there’s a flesh and blood face to the black and white photographs. Men equipped with goggles, half helmets and scarves swaddled across their faces – extolling an aesthetic closer to WWI fighter pilots than today’s modern motorcyclists – that all really happened. And this was the place.
“I used to come here just after World War II – used to come here on my BSA,” says Allum. A former member of the Royal Signal Motorcycle Display Team, he got hooked on riding after watching speedway races at Wembley Stadium. It didn’t take long before he’d discovered the nearby service café that had been rebuilt after the war, a little joint on the North Circular Road.
Gordon Allum, a former member of the Royal Signal Motorcycle Display Team, was an original who helped shape the café’s history in its early days.
The Ace Café still resides in the Stonebridge district of northwest London, about two miles from Wembley. Excepting the large queue of bikes parked in front of the garage-style bay windows, there’s nothing particularly notable about the white and black facade. In fact, the Ace is a piece of history that can easily go unappreciated.
Our visit to the Ace comes on Triumph Bike Night, the British marque lending us a Speed Triple for the occasion. Upon arrival we meet the man responsible for reviving the cherished motorcycle shrine, Mark Wilsmore.
Still spry looking in middle age, Wilsmore is too young to have been an active participant in the Ace’s heyday of the ‘50s and ‘60s, but his rolled up denim and slicked back hair bely his Rocker sympathies. Sporting a steady grin and gentle English accent (London born raised in Bedfordshire), Wilsmore is quick to relate the café’s colorful history.
It’s a small miracle the Ace exits at all, as the Germans did their best to obliterate it during the Blitz. Nearby railroad bridges, a couple stones’ throw to the northwest, explain the Luftwaffe’s undue attention to the site. Rebuilt after the war, the Ace came into its own as a destination for the motorcycling youth.
Wilsmore takes us outside, pointing out long gone landmarks. Rubble heaps from the war made up a roadside embankment, grandstands from which spectators would watch the riders sprint race up and down the Circular. The
Despite German bombardment during WWII, the Ace Café survived and became a major locale for motorcycle enthusiasts.
short dashes ran under the tunnel and through roundabouts, before returning back to the café. And it was high-speed runs, there being no speed limit in those early post-war days.
Some of the Ace lore, like riders racing songs on the juke box, have been told and retold so many times they’re inseparable from truth and half-truth. Calling out friends and foe to a heads up challenge on the other hand seems more likely, at least if Allum’s grins are to be believed.
The small riding groups of the Ace’s early years morphed into more formal associations. Clubs like the 59s and Ton-Up boys ruled the glory days of the 50s. Broader social groups tied to motorcycles made the scene later, the foremost being the Rockers and their eternal adversaries – the scooter-propelled Mods.
Those essential myths behind the Ace have enshrined it in the international riding consciousness. Wilsmore is happy to reaffirm most of the tales, with his own flourishes of discourse on the Mods and Rockers saga.
The Ace would eventually shut its doors in 1969, though a tire shop and service station would continue to operate on the site. The Café as motorcycle hangout would have ended in ‘69, if not for Wilsmore, who 25 years later organized a Rocker reunion rally. After some wheeling and dealing, and getting the local authorities on board, the Ace opened for good in 2001. It’s been going strong ever since, as Wilsmore runs the show with business partner George Tsuchnikas.
There’s obvious potential to market the Ace brand internationally. An Ace Café in Tacoma, Washington, was in the works and satellite branches are planned in other nations. Overseeing the business side of things, Tsuchnikas has
hooked up collaborations with other with British builders on projects like the limited edition Ace 904S Triumph Thruxton.
As for Ace’s London locale, much has changed since 1969. The roadside embankment is gone, wiped away to make room for the modern North Circular – a main ring road shooting off the M1 and rounding the London metropolis. The old road remains, though a modest surface street now. And going ton-up on the old Circular would be incredibly ill-advised, as the unrestricted speed limits are long gone – the introduction of and enforcement speed limits one reason for the waning popularity of the Ace in the late 60s.
While those rough and tumble days of the Rockers may be gone, the Ace keeps humming along with a steady trade. Gearhead tourists make pilgrimages, but the café has a steady clientele of regulars and really butters its bread as a thriving bike night haven.
Past and present collided during our visit to The Ace as its legacy was everywhere.
Open every day save Christmas, the Ace is booked almost nightly by various rider clubs and associations. Friday Bike Nights in particular are the main draw, and Wilsmore assures it’s not unheard of for the old road to fill up completely with 5000 or more spectators and riders.
“On the whole, the authorities love what we’re doing,” says Wilmore, “but the numbers I’ve just described can cause problems.”
He adds the qualifying statement with a rascally grin, proceeding to relate some of the most egregious horseplay that can be fueled by testosterone and horsepower. Burnouts, wheelies, drifting through the nearby roundabout… raucous sound and acrid smoke permeate the surrounds on Fridays. Oddly enough, as a former mounted policeman in London, Wilsmore’s overseen many a rough crowd in his time.
Despite threatening skies, more than a score of early arrivals show up for Triumph Bike Night. Riders of all makes are welcomed as well, though they park on the periphery during special engagements. We spot touring rigs, large trailies, the odd cruiser or two and a handful of Superbikes. It’s only 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday, and more filter in as the night progresses.
Folks mill about admiring bikes. This being Britain, most of the riders come decked out in full leathers and equipment befitting a visit to the track. The mood inside is genial. While the Ace serves up pints, no one seems to be drinking, as the temper is more suited for a “cuppa tea” and chat with new friends.
Black and white photos and old newspaper clippings adorn the walls, delivering a nostalgic ambiance without being schlocky or over the top (god help us if TGI Fridays or Applebees ever get wind of the place…). The best display is a trio of restored bikes, including one Triton – one of the hybrid racers of the era, a Triumph Twin mated to a Norton featherbed frame.
The Ace’s historical legacy is a fine enough draw, but the people here and now make the visit memorable. We quaff coffee and chew a bacon sandwich in front of the Ace bar, shooting the breeze with Wilsmore and Tsuchnikas, talking
about what the future holds for the cafe. Even Allum is looking forward, not in the past. While he politely indulges our requests for stories of the good old days, he’s far more keen to talk about getting his bum hip back in shape so he can toss a leg back over his Honda Deauville.
Thought of the old and new collide, as up front a pack of young men, early twenties or late teens, dismount in the parking lot. Most ride kitted out 125cc sportbikes, but one clearly enjoys exalted status via his “Zed-X-Six” supersport. Whiskerless faces jab and jaw at each other, laughing and slagging their mates with youthful cheer. The faces are interchangeable with the expressions on the black and white photos inside.
The hours pass, and it’s time to leave. The Speed Triple fires up, its exhaust tone crisp and inviting. Turning left out of the parking lot, I skirt through the roundabout on the old North Circular. Crossing under the shadow of the rail bridge, history sweeps past. A couple more turns and it’s gone.