The Ace Café London through the ages
The Ace Café on London's North Circular has been a home from home for motorcyclists for over 80 years, so we at MCN thought we'd put together a gallery of pictures to show how it has changed in that time.
The Ace started life in 1938 as a service stop for motorists using the recently opened North Circular.
Shortly afterwards, in 1940, the building was destroyed by World War II bombers targeting the adjacent railway yards and the Ace operated from a temporary building until 1949 when it officially re-opened.
The post-war boom in traffic and the advent of a new demographic, the ‘teenager’ meant booming business. Young people went to listen to the jukebox because rock ’n’ roll wasn’t getting played on the radio. The only places to hear it were cafés like the Ace.
The British motorcycle industry was enjoying a heyday and the red-tops of the day were reporting that subcultures like the Ton-Up-Boys were terrorising the streets so the Ace offered a safe-haven for bikers to get a meal or a cup of tea, arrange runs to the coast or other cafés.
The blend of bikes and music led to the advent of ‘record-racing’, where a rider would drop a coin in the jukebox and then try to ride to a certain point and back before the song finished. These days, even mainstream manufacturers are building café racer models, but they were born in these days of racing round the North Circular.
By 1969, the expansion of the car industry and the motorway network, coupled with a shrinking bike industry forced the Ace to close its doors. The building went on to be used as a filling station, a bookmaker’s office and a tyre depot.
But that wasn't the end of the Ace Café
Fast forward to 1993, and Mark Wilsmore, the current Managing Director of the Ace had an idea to create an annual event marking the original café’s closure along with a book and a film documenting its history.
"My addiction to motorcycles started quite young and the path took me to racing and I became immersed into a particular genre perhaps,” Mark told MCN in 2017, “but with the passage of time and as my peer group evolved there was a realisation that there was no real home for us bikers in London.
"Living close by we’d ride past the café regularly and bemoan that we had nowhere to go. That changed in 1993 when an older friend of mine at the Triumph Owner’s Club started taking the micky knowing my interest in the rocker scene. He asked if I knew when the Ace shut, which I didn’t. He told me it was September 1969.
"After a few minutes I realised 1994 would be 25 years since the place had shut and that was the lightbulb moment. I shared it at the club that evening and it was quite clear how I could organise it with relative ease."
The first annual gathering at the site of the Ace was incredibly popular, and Mark became single-minded in his mission to reopen the café.
"We had no idea how, but it had to be reopened for sure. With that first reunion there was the evidence. 12,000 people turned up at what was then a tyre company."
In 1997, Mark and some others bought the freehold for the Ace but they also inherited the tenant, a tyre company who were open from Monday to Saturday.
"We got a burger van every Sunday. As soon as we opened up bikes were here, and then the car clubs wanted us to open up for them. The following year we opened up the first Wednesday night of every month after the tyre company had shut. That went on until the full reopening in 2001 when we got rid of the tyre company and opened the whole thing."
What's the Ace Café like now?
With a history rich in rockers and classic British metal, the Ace is the stuff of legends. So, MCN's Justin Hayzelden took to the North Circular in the hunt for Britain’s top biker eatery in 2018.
The Ace’s art deco façade has been a feature along the A406 since 1938, but it was during the 1950s that it became synony- mous with motorcycling, when the ton-up boys would race against the jukebox to complete a circuit to Hanger Lane round- about and back before the song of choice had played through.
These days there’s too much risk to life and licence to even consider such a dangerous feat, but the rock’n’roll heritage lives on and is a big part of what the Ace is all about today.
We went for the sausage sandwich, featuring the Ace’s house bangers. "We have our own recipe," says Managing Director Mark Wilsmore, "using prime English pork and our own blend of herbs and spices. We sell over seven tonnes a year!"
Mark is a great host and regaled us with tales from the Ace’s history, so grab a chat with him if you can.
"I’ve never had a better breakfast in London," says Tom Woodrow from Adventure Bike TV, who uses the Ace with colleague Graham Hoskins. "The sausage and bacon sandwich is outstanding."
David Wilson is a big fan too: "It’s a fair price for a great meal, really good value. The tea gets ten out of ten from me."
For Honda X-11 rider Richard King, the Ace is the perfect place for meeting up, "I organise rideouts from here at least two or three times a month," says Richard. "Everyone knows where it is and there’s plenty of space to park the bikes. The food is good, too."
Rocking all over the world
Not only has the Ace Café London survived being bombed, spurned a whole category of motorbikes and provided a spiritual home for bikers and car-lovers alike for 80 years, it has also spread around the world.
"There are licenced cafes in Beijing, Finland, Switzerland, America and one in Spain. I always knew what the Ace Café means to anybody interested in motors, so I never had any qualms about it having meaning and relevance worldwide. But again, whether I was competent enough to see it go worldwide was another thing."