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Backmarker: Café Culture

Thursday, September 6, 2012
Although it calls itself Americas Car Museum  the LeMay has incorporated a few motorcycles into its exhibits  and plans to make the August motorcycle concours and vintage ride an annual event.
Although it calls itself ‘America’s Car Museum’, the LeMay has incorporated a few motorcycles into its exhibits, and plans to make the August motorcycle concours and vintage ride an annual event.
Considering the primacy of the automobile in American culture, and the second-class status of motorcycles, it was always a little strange that the best transportation museum in the U.S. was the Barber collection, devoted to motorcycles. But a few months ago, the LeMay/America's Car Museum opened in Tacoma, Washington. At 166,000 square feet (and that’s just a first phase) with a nine-acre show field, it gives the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum a run for its money.

Unlike George Barber, a southern gentleman whose collection of motorcycles was carefully curated from day one, Harold LeMay was an eccentric guy who made a fortune hauling garbage. One of his friends told me that once, at a car show, he asked Harold what his favourite car was and Harold reached out and put his hands on the nearest car and said, "This one." Then, he turned around and put his hands on the adjacent car and said, "Now, it's this one." By the time he died, he owned 3,000 of them including a couple of very valuable Tuckers, but many of them were just old, run-down used cars. As a result, the LeMay displays several hundred of Harold's cars, but it also borrows vehicles from other collectors who were a little more discriminating.

The museum launched its fund-raising program right at the worst possible time  as the economy was cratering. So  theyve settled for building only one of two planned buildings. This one is spectacular enough. There are two levels below this one  connected by ramps. Unlike the Barber  however  the LeMay does little or no restoration on its own  so visitors cant peek in on works-in-progress.
The museum launched its fund-raising program right at the worst possible time, as the economy was cratering. So, they’ve ‘settled’ for building only one of two planned buildings. This one is spectacular enough. There are two levels below this one, connected by ramps. Unlike the Barber, however, the LeMay does little or no restoration on its own, so visitors can’t peek in on works-in-progress.
Despite the 'America's Car Museum' moniker, Harold rode and collected motorcycles, too. One of the businesses he owned was a company called Lucky Towing, and I've heard that quite a few of the bikes he acquired were wrecks that he picked up with his tow truck. Maybe Unlucky Towing would have been a better name.

I was invited to the LeMay in August, for a motorcycle concours and vintage road ride called 'Meet at the Ace'. Asking me to judge a concours is like asking me to judge striptease. Like Harold LeMay, I like whatever is in front of me. And the problem is made more difficult because I can't pick a favorite without riding them all.

I thought the 'Ace Cafe' theme of the bike show made sense because there's a strong café racer scene in the Pacific Northwest. The Cretins MC were there in force. Their club has ties back into the heyday of the Seattle 'grunge' music scene and I thought, this will make for a cool, arty column, ruminating on the way music and motorcycles influence each other. Drawing parallels with the way Elvis, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly influenced Cliff Richard, and then how the Beatles brought rock ‘n’ roll full circle and back to America, presenting it as a new thing we'd never seen before.

Then I noticed a skinny, white-haired guy in a rocker jacket, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, and recognized Mark Wilsmore. He's the one who resurrected the real Ace Cafe, which was a legendary greasy spoon on the London ‘North Circular’ ring road. Its heyday was back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. When the Mods and the Rockers banged heads in a famous riot in Brighton, the Rocker contingent left from the Ace.

Although it was pronounced kaff by Brits in the 60s  even Mark Wilsmore now pronounces it café.
Although it was pronounced ‘kaff’ by Brits in the ‘60s, even Mark Wilsmore now pronounces it ‘café.'
When I asked Wilsmore what he was doing there, he told me that the 'Meet at the Ace' theme wasn't a creative choice by the museum's curator, as I had assumed; the Ace Cafe was actually an event sponsor.

Seattle is a long way from London, so that didn't make much sense until I was introduced to Mark McKee, an entrepreneur from my home town of Kansas City who has licensed the Ace Cafe brand and plans to open a chain of them in here in the U.S.

So, we exported Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Brits adopted it. The rockers and the whole café racer thing happened with the Ace standing as the iconic 'café'. And now the 'new' Ace exports rocker culture back to America.

Wilsmore is a life-long biker; his 'Sunday best' is his 59 Club jacket. One of the things that I find heartening about America's burgeoning café racer scene is that it's a lot more authentic than most of the motorcycle fads that have come and gone here. I've seen too many tech-industry millionaires show up at track days with Ducati superbikes meticulously prepared (by other people.) A lot of the pseudo-bikers at Sturgis fly in to the nearest airport and hop on bikes trucked in by other people. Thankfully, the recession seems to have nearly killed the market for no-expense-spared unrideable choppers (built, again, by other people.) By contrast, the guys building café racers are younger, have grease under their fingernails, and genuinely prefer two wheels to four.

Mark Wilsmore  who resurrected the Ace Café was a biker who had to learn the restaurant business. Mark McKee   pictured  has lots of restaurant experience but if hes to tap into the Ace Cafés essence  hell have to develop a genuine grasp of the Café racer scene.
Mark Wilsmore, who resurrected the Ace Café was a biker who had to learn the restaurant business. Mark McKee, (pictured) has lots of restaurant experience but if he’s to tap into the Ace Café’s essence, he’ll have to develop a genuine grasp of the Café racer scene.
Mark McKee, who’s bringing the Ace Cafe brand to North America, isn’t one of those guys. “I’ve fallen off plenty of bikes,” he told me, “but ended up getting into cars; I worshipped a ’68 Camaro. I’m shopping around for a bike again, probably something like an old BSA, that my wife will let me ride on Sundays.”

McKee’s background, unlike Wilsmore’s, is in food-and-beverage marketing. He started a pizza restaurant in Lawrence, KS, when he was still a KU student. Pyramid Pizza is still around. Later, he started a company called Fuzion Food Group, which is a restaurant consulting business.

“A good friend of mine was at Sturgis when the Ace Cafe was a sponsor of the AMD custom building ‘world championship.’ He called me and said ‘You’ve got to see this brand.’ So I got on the phone and called Mark [Wilsmore] and our first conversation lasted two hours. I hopped on a plane and went over to London. Over the course of a year, we developed a business plan [to bring Ace Cafe to the U.S.]”

I've heard some hard-core motorcyclists criticize McKee because unlike Wilsmore, he's an entrepreneur, not a 'real biker'. I've heard people say, “All he wants to do is turn it into the next Hard Rock Cafe.”

Personally, I’m heartened by the fact that, at least McKee’s not trying to dress the part or fool anyone. He showed me architectural drawings for Ace Cafe's first American location, and the site includes an area for car and bike shows, and bays for garages and repair shops. The local Triumph dealer is going to relocate there. McKee would be the first person to admit that he wants to draw a wider audience than just bikers, but he's definitely trying to build a business model that will prove authentic to real riders.

At the end of the day, the Ace Cafe is already pumping sponsorship money into American vintage motorcycle events. It will have a major presence in the infield at the Barber vintage festival in October, helping to revitalize AHRMA at time when it needs a shot in the arm. The fact that McKee, a non-biker businessman, looked at the Ace Cafe and the café racer scene here in the 'States and thought, ‘I can build a successful national brand in this image,’ suggests that motorcycling’s café culture is poised to break into the mainstream.

Maybe the kids are alright after all. 
Mark Wilsmore: Resurrecting the 'Ace'
Mark Wilsmore.
“I lived around the corner from the place. As a kid, I can remember it functioning, but for most of my life, it was closed. It had all been stripped out and turned into a tire depot.

“I was a keen motorcyclist -- a member of the Norton Owner’s Club, the Triumph Owner’s Club. And the club I went to most frequently was the Triumph Owner’s Club, which met near my house. There was a guy at that club, who was 10 or 15 years older than me, who used to go to the café. It opened in 1938 and closed in ’69 when I was 11.

“Once I’d left school, I was a laborer on building sites. My aim was to join the police and work on horseback. When I was 20, I joined the police, and for most of my adult life, I was a cop on horses. But I was always interested in hot rods, bikes, and rock ‘n’ roll.

“My parents said, ‘You’re not getting a bike, you’ll kill yourself.’ But as soon as I turned 17, which was the legal limit in the UK, I wanted a bike. Within two weeks, I was in the hospital. I was organizing trips to race meets; the Isle of Man, Nurburgring, Le Mans, the Dutch TT. And these trips, through the mid-‘80s, grew until there were about 30 people coming. They were a mix of guys I worked with, in the police, and guys in my social group that shared an interest in bikes.

“One evening, this friend of mine from the Triumph Owners Club, who knew I was fascinated by the Rocker era, and he knew I was good at organizing things, asked me, ‘You love love all this Rocker rubbish, do you know when the café closed?’

“That was at the tail end of ’93, and I started counting on my fingers and realized that the following year, it would be 25 years since it had closed. A light bulb went on, which was, ‘Reunion!’ Everyone was enthusiastic and wanted to help.

“It had to happen, and people were looking at me to deliver it. I had no idea how to do it; I had no real business experience. It came together in stages; the café couldn’t open unless we had the consent of the local authority. I put in for a planning application, and spoke to the owners of the property and the tenant. The upshot of that was robbing my family to acquire the premises.

“In 1996, myself, my brother, and our spouses bought the property. We had the tire company as a tenant, and the rent helped to pay the mortgage. The tire company didn’t operate on Sundays, so we got a food truck to come in and we had ‘bikes only’ gatherings every Sunday and it took off. We did that for a few years, while we figured out how to reopen the café, which was going to cost at least £1,000,000.

“I conceitedly say, I can ride any bike you give me, and ride it reasonably well, but I’m not a mechanic. In terms of the café, I knew why people wanted to come there and what they were looking for, but I had no idea how to deliver it. I had to find other people who could do it. Eventually a team came together and we formed a limited company and raised the money.

“The café reopened in 2001. It’s not an exact replica of the original. What a lot of people don’t remember is that it was a Café and a restaurant, and youngsters -- the bikes-- were only allowed in the café, not the restaurant. The new one is all one space, but otherwise it’s as close to the original as we could get it, in keeping with modern regulations for things like handicapped access and non-smoking areas.”

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Comments
Sumanster   September 11, 2012 12:00 PM
Great article, Mark Gardiner (been looking for your book for a while), and fascinating side-bar on Mark Wilsmore. Eager to see how his and Mark McKee's business venture turns out. So where will the first and future American Ace Cafes be located?
spokes   September 7, 2012 12:06 PM
"Thankfully, the recession seems to have nearly killed the market for no-expense-spared unrideable choppers (built, again, by other people.)"

I sure hope you're right about this but unfortunately the history of motorcycle "cafes" in this country appears to be the "biker bar" culture for harley riders.

"By contrast, the guys building café racers are younger, have grease under their fingernails, and genuinely prefer two wheels to four."

And I would add they prefer riding to sitting around talking about riding.