London, England

Text: Andrew Westlake • Photography: Andrew Westlake

In 1959, with post-WWII austerity long past and his nation's economy booming, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told the British people "You've never had it so good."

He was probably right.

Heady days they were most certainly. Rock 'n' roll was beginning to come of age, and jukebox diners, winkle-picker boots and fast, raucous motorbikes were all the rage. If you were a biker in swinging London, the North Circular Road became the place to be. Every night swarms of riders on all sorts of Triumph, BSA, Norton and Matchless bikes would prowl this notorious stretch for a burn up. Many of the characters participating became known in the press as the "Ton-Up Boys" and their favorite haunt was The Ace Cafe. For these coffee-bar cowboys the Ace was not only a meeting place - it also served as a pit stop for the impromptu, highly illegal burn ups that often ended catastrophically.

Built in 1938 at a cost of £10,000 as a stop for the truckers hauling on the busy arterial road, the Ace quickly received the prestigious seal of approval from the Bedford Drivers Club. The surrounding Hendon area, with its high concentration of aviation, transportation and industrial works presenting a particularly attractive target, came under heavy attack in the German bombing campaigns. In one such attack, the Ace was partially destroyed and wasn't rebuilt until 1948 when the second phase of its colorful history began.

It may have been a bikers' paradise during those boom years, but the press penned sensationalist headlines from the antics of the "ton-up boys" and the grisly accident figures. The Daily Mirror's front page of February 9, 1961, dubbing it a "suicide club," is indicative of the tabloid treatment of riders of high-powered motorcycles. The police routinely chased after the young tearaways and, in 1961, following a raid on the Ace, 18 youths charged with insulting behavior were taken to court. The Daily Express reported the bikers had been, in the words of the police, "indulging in horse play, shouting, jostling and jeering at passing motorists." Eight of the accused were fined £5, three more were acquitted and the fate of the others was not reported. As the notoriety spread, raids of this nature became commonplace. I spoke with Brian Read, arrested in one such raid, who even now, some forty years down the line, harbors a deeply felt sense of injustice over the affair.

"We were arrested because we happen to be there and no other reason. We were fined £25, which was the equivalent of about two weeks money in them days, and we hadn't done a thing; we hadn't even got off the bike! The paper the next day reported that all the youths tore away from the court house on 'high powered motorcycles' which was a complete fabrication as we were all there in smart suits. From that day to this, I've never believed a word that I've read in the papers."

As the sixties progressed, motorcycle sales declined. And mainly due to changing attitudes and the expansion of the motorway system, the Ace crowds dwindled to such an extent that the owners were forced to close the doors in 1969. In the years to follow, the old building was used by a variety of businesses: gas station, a betting site, and a tyre depot.

But dreams of the golden days at the Ace persisted, and one man, Mark Wilsmore, organized a reunion in 1994 to celebrate those times on the twenty-fifth anniversary of its closure. Amazingly, it attracted a crowd of 12,000. Many of the people and machines attending had been there during the cafe's heyday, and the forecourt and nearby roads were jam-packed with bikes. The popularity of the reunion, held each year thereafter, grew and the event attracted 25,000 strong in 1997. Encouraged by the annual turnout, Wilsmore continued working tirelessly behind the scenes to get permission for the building to be licensed and reopened again as a working cafe and meeting place for bikers.

Eventually permission was granted and the way cleared for a total restoration, which took nine long months. The Ace Cafe opened its doors to bikers for the first time in over 30 years in September 2001. Curious to learn whether the new Ace measured up as throwback to the rockers' paradise of old, I traveled to London on a wet and miserable day in late November. As I made my way down the old North Circular and under the Ferodo Bridge, it was easy to picture the scene as it might have been over forty years before with the sound of noisy Tritons and the like rasping their way towards the Ace.
I was pleased to see that some hardy souls had braved the weather. A dozen bikes stood proudly outside one of motorcycling's most famous frontages. When I walked through the door, I was greeted by the pulsating rhythms of "Johnny Be Good" blasting from the jukebox and a warm, welcoming hello from Phil Bradley, resplendent in his period jacket. The owner of six classic bikes, Phil had first come to the Ace in 1963 on a 250cc Matchless that had to be jump started, which was fine if you were trying to impress your mates but not so good if you stalled the bike in heavy traffic. With Phil making the introductions, I also met Alan Marrs and Dave Johnson who had both spent many happy hours at the Ace in the sixties, Sean Peschiera, whose Rocket Gold Star look-a-like complete with dustbin fairing holds pride of place inside the cafe, and Mark Wilsmore, the man who had the dream and vision to make it all happen. Like Phil, Dave's initiation into the world of motorcycling began with a fairly humble machine, a 125cc BSA Bantam that was soon replaced by a Triumph Speed Twin.

A smile fell across Dave's face as a live band, The Diamonds, went into their first number so I left him to enjoy the music and spent some time chatting with Mark, the driving force behind the Ace's resurrection.

"I was born in '57, so I didn't know the Ace in its heyday but all my life I've been interested in riding bikes and rock and roll music. I spent twenty years working as a horse-mounted policeman, but away from the 'day job' I was always organising bike events and trips to the continent with my mates. The reunion thing came about a bit by accident. I was chatting to a friend in 1993 and it came up that the following year would be the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Ace Cafe's closure. I decided there and then I would organise a reunion party on the site, which by then was a tyre-fitting depot. I got permission to use the site and advertised through the motorcycle press that it would be happening but was absolutely staggered by the response. The new part of the North Circular Road was being built at the time and as it hadn't been officially handed over to the highways authority, all the bikes were allowed to be parked on the coned-off hard shoulder - there were thousands of them!"

"Little by little things got bigger and bigger. First off, we had a burger van; then we expanded into the corner of the tyre depot and were opened just on Friday nights, Saturday and Sundays. I had been working trying to get permission to revert it back to a working cafe for bikers and it took months and months of work going through various planning committees and the like. It was like a dream come true when it was finally granted, but then the real hard work of restoring it to its former glory began. The building work began in January 2001, but it took nine months before the grand reopening took place in September of that year. The Ace is part of our heritage and it's great that so many of the former patrons have come back to share memories and anecdotes from the glory days."

The whole operation is now run with military precision: It's open 7 days a week and has a staff of forty catering to the thousands who flock there. Mark told me that on summer Sundays it's not unusual for 3,000 to 5,000 bikers to turn up. There are various monthly bike meets held, including Royal Enfields on the third Monday, Harleys on the last Thursday and something that would never have been seen at the Ace in the sixties - scooters. In the bad old days, it's doubtful a scooterist would have dared set foot in the car park let alone the cafe. The varied menu, changed from the original of tea and chips, now includes a traditional fry up of eggs, bacon, beans and sausages and assorted beers.

Times may have changed but thanks to the vision and dream of Mark Wilsmore, the heritage and tradition of the old days sits easily and comfortably with the modern biking scene. For bikes and music there is only one place to be - The Ace Cafe.

When in London, you can pay the Ace a visit by traveling to Ace Corner, North Circular Road, Stonebridge, London NW10 7UD. If traveling by tube (underground), take the Bakerloo Line to Stonebridge Park Station, turn right from the station and walk down the North Circular Road, then right again, along the Old North Circular, and The Ace is 100 yards on your right. Check out the website at www.ace-cafe-london.com