For this week's Sunday Social we spoke with Mark Wilsmore, who in 1997 reopened the legendary Ace Cafe 28 years after it initially closed.
Afternoon Mark, how are you doing?
“Alright, thanks. I’ve got a cup of tea and I’m sitting comfortably!”
What’s for breakfast on a Sunday?
“Easy. Poached eggs on toast, with a cup of tea. Like most of us, I guess, I’m a creature of habit?”
What's your mission when you're out on a Sunday ride?
“This might sound corny but my Sunday ride is from my home three miles east on the North Circular to the Ace Café!”
Do you ever ride for pleasure?
“Very rarely. I enjoy my three miles here, and back. It’s a ride that requires absolute focus and attention otherwise you’re dead or nicked. I’m perhaps being a bit glib, but that is my daily ride and it’s a habit of I guess 20-odd years now. Of course I enjoy a ride out, only a fortnight ago was our annual ride down to Brighton. Thankfully it didn’t rain and it was terrific. This year I had the good fortune to be at Glemseck 101. We rode back from Glemseck with some guys from Bell Helmets and BMW. There was about 25 of us and it was absolutely brilliant, riding through every narrow hairpin road in the Ardennes. Absolutely magical. There was very little traffic out there but I feel absolutely at home in the heavy London traffic.”
I read somewhere that you rate the North Circular as your favourite road in the world, ahead of the Pacific Coast Highway. What is it that’s so special about the North Circular for you?
“It’s because you have to be totally focused and that commitment produces adrenaline and that’s the buzz. If you mess up you’re gunna be in a lot of trouble. I’m not suggesting that I’m a great rider or anything, and certainly over the years I have had the benefit of the NHS a couple of times, but these things are addictive. Adrenaline is a drug and as I’ve become older I’ve realised I’m an addict for adrenaline. The other thing I’ve come to be addicted to is the sensation of being able to make progress. That ability to keep going through the traffic when it’s all such. Cyclists get the same thought of feeling as well in urban environments I guess.”
Have you always preferred riding in the city?
“I wouldn’t say I prefer it, it’s just what I grew up with and got used to really. The ride in the Ardennes was a thrill. It was an equally committed ride just with a different setting. I guess you could compare it to food. As much as I like my poached eggs on toast, spaghetti Bolognese every now and then is nice. You don’t want the same thing all the time.”
What got you interested in relaunching the Ace Café?
“Well, my addiction to motorcycles started quite young and the path took me to racing and I became immersed into a particular genre perhaps. 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. My response was something like ‘so what?’ He told me to think about it, and I did and after a few minutes I then 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. After that reopening the café became the mission.”
Did you know you wanted to reopen it as soon as the reunion happened?
“Oh yeah. 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.”
You mentioned your friend taking the mick, did you know much about the Ace Café at all? You were quite young when it shut.
“I missed it, that’s for sure. I was 12 years old when the café shut, so I never came here. I came past it and certainly remember lusting after a motorbike and the whole mods and rockers thing. I didn’t get a motorbike until I was 17 and that was a Yamaha RD250.”
Is that the first bike you did the ton on?
“I think so. All the 250cc bikes of that era were 100mph bikes.”
Were you always tempted towards the rocker scene?
“I guess it’s my age group. The big boys had big bikes and black leather jackets, you know? But I’m also of the generation that admired Barry Sheene. I loved the notion of the burn ups and the ton up boys and things, but by that time the really fast bikes were coming from Japan and gods like Barry Sheene were showing people how to ride them.”
What bike are you riding at the minute?
“The best thing Triumph have ever produced, the new Street Triple 765. I have the good fortune to have had a loan bike from Triumph over a number of years and each bike has been a terrific improvement on the previous model. I’ve always read about them first in MCN and then six months later I get to ride it and I see you guys have got it right. The new bike fits me spot on, its light and nimble, I’m sitting up so I’ve got good vision in the traffic and it’s quick. But I own 14 bikes, which is completely nuts!”
What do you think to the electronics on bikes now?
“Fly by wire is terrific. The kit that’s now available to us is absolutely terrific.”
Where did you go from the RD250?
“I was determined to get a British bike as a born again rocker. The first British bike I ever bought was a Triumph Thunderbird TR65 – the last gasp of Meriden. Short stroke 650, single-carburettor. I rode it every day to work, on holiday, upto Squires if you’ve heard of that?”
I have, I’m from Yorkshire.
“A pack of us would ride to Boxhill, but whenever we went to Squires there was only ever two of us! We’d spend all day up there watching all the wheelies, it was brilliant! My first big trip on the Triumph was to Cornwall with my then fiancé on the back and of course there was the inevitable breakdown. I’ve still got that machine. There was a Honda XL250 as well which I wish I’d kept.”
Once you’d reopened the Ace in 1997 what was the goal?
“We bought the freehold, and we also inherited the tenant, which at that time was a tyre company, who were open Monday to Saturday. So 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.”
Did you ever expect it would still be going full time 18 years later?
“I’ve always held the view that those of us interested in motors want a place to meet with likeminded people. The great unknown was whether I was competent enough to keep it all together!”
And now there are Ace Cafes all over the globe!
“There are licenced cafes in Beijing, Finland, Switzerland, America and one in Spain.”
I can’t imagine you ever expected that?
“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 the thing.”
What do you think to the resurgence of the café racer scene over the last few years?
“I think anything that sparks interest in two wheels can only be a good thing, but let’s not forget the history of the term café racer came about because manufacturers were churning out bikes that were bought by customers – mostly youngsters – who wanted bikes that were racers so they put drop bars on there. Manufacturers didn’t build bikes for the youngsters back then. The only manufacturer that ventured along that route was Royal Enfield with the Continental GT. Royal Enfield asked the apprentices what a new 250 should look like and the feedback was, clip-ons, rearsets, and all the rest of it. As machines started to come in from Japan that were more reliable and gave better performance, those new companies realised that the young market actually wanted bikes with the drop bars emulating the racers.”
Do you think the recent resurgence has come about for the same reason? Because of limited bikes for younger riders?
“Sort of, but people can spend huge sums of money building bikes when they could go out and get a second hand GSX-R1000 for less, which is a proven machine! I do hope the youngsters that are plaguing our cities at the minute survive their youth and progress through to being another generation on the bigger bikes as well, rather than go off into four years.”
On the topic of mopeds, have you experienced any issues with bike crime personally or at the Ace?
“We’ve not had bikes stolen from here, but it’s almost an epidemic now and it’s very sad. It seems that only a few years ago this sort of crime didn’t exist yet today it does and I have to ask the question as to why. I think when you ask that question you end up wondering what changes have been made to the policing in that time. Youngsters are doing what they’ve always done, you know. They’re full of bravado and they’re foolhardy, but this crop have been turned into proper nasty criminals and it’s so sad. There’s other dynamics as well as the lack of policing that have contributed to it, but I think policing has a big part to play, and it seems that since the policy of not chasing them came in we’ve seen a dramatic increase in motorcycle-related crime.”
Do you think there’s anything manufacturers could do?
“I’ve no doubt there is with technology as it is. We all know insurance companies thrive on fear, so no doubt the insurance companies could do a lot more as well. The perception is they just pay out the money but ultimately it’s the policy holders that are paying for it. I’ve been told recently – I don’t know how true it is – that more bikes are stolen in this country than are sold in this country.”
Moving on to more positive things, what’s next for the Ace Café?
“I guess with the changing times and rightful concerns as a society we have with pollution and increasing numbers of people is the advent of electric stuff. We’ve got an electric power point here, but it only fits one bike – a BMW C Evolution I think. They’ve got to get their act together with some sort of universal fitting for electric bikes and cars. I was there for the first year of the TT Zero and it was fantastic to see all the teams were youngsters. The speeds have gone up enormously since that first year but they still only do one lap so they’ve got to sort out the battery technology as well. I think there is a bright future, but old gits like myself are so tempted to say ‘it was better back then!’ No it wasn’t! Tyres are better, brakes are better, road surfaces have improved. It’s getting better! And eventually the stuff we get to in the future is going to be much cleaner and even quicker!”