Few places currently in operation are as central to Motorcycling history as the Ace Cafe in London. Regardless of the type of machine you ride, you have probably heard of it, but if you like British bikes, then it is one of those places to which you have made (or plan to make) a pilgrimage. This is because it is a place that was both influenced by, and in turn probably influenced postwar motorcycling in England. The Ace cafe first opened in 1938 in North London as one of many Transport Cafes, which were conveniently located off major motorways. It was destroyed in a WWII bombing raid, and reopened in 1949. The Ace was one of few places open 24 hours, so it naturally attracted truckers and became a hangout for young men and women out late motorcycling and listening to emerging Rock and Roll. This in turn lead to several legendary facets of the Ace. Races to a fixed point that started when a song began and the challenge was to be back before the song ended. Essentially a 3 minute time trial. The cafe was a natural gathering spot for the Ton Up Boys, so named because they had an affinity for speeds 100 MPH and above, which was an accomplishment on a motorcycle in the mid 1950s.
As you might expect, the Ace also attracted its fair share of fights and bad behavior which have made their way into the folklore of the place. This in turn gave rise to the efforts of father Bill Shergold, who helped to provide a more positive outlet for wayward youth via his 59 Club. After a long run, the Cafe closed in 1969 and part of it became a tire shop. Fast forward a few decades, and Mark Wilsmore decided to host an Ace reunion on the original site in 1994. It was a success, and continued for a few more years. Things went so well, that he decided to purchase the place and return it to its original function in 1997. Mark is a great approachable guy that really comes across as a bloke who loves to ride bikes. He told us that taking on the Ace was a pretty risky move at the time, and that there is a big difference between organizing an annual event, and running a venue like the Ace on a daily basis. Remember, this is well before the current resurgence of Cafe Racers. We are glad he took the plunge, and it now stands as an must-visit place for gear heads from across the world. During our visit, we talked to patrons from the USA, Australia, Belgium, and India.
As an indication of the stature that the Ace now holds, it was the site of the UK launch of a new model from Royal Enfield called the Continental GT. Enfield brass from India were milling about along with press and some of the Royal Enfield faithful. Nice examples of Cafe’d and original Enfields were in the parking lot on a wet and rainy evening. There was a healthy flow of people having a pint and a bite, and grabbing something from the gift shop. They now have club nights for Minis, tuner cars, and Yanks (US classics), in addition to multiple bike nights. The Ace is much more than a transport cafe next to a motorway and around the corner from a busy hub for the postal service (Royal Mail). It has transcended location and function to become a living piece of history. Branches are opening across the Atlantic and others are under consideration. Merchandise gets shipped worldwide. However, something about being on the original site, in London, in the rain, as dark descended, connects you with history in a way that no museum probably can. You just want to twist the throttle on your Manx as the needle drops on the jukebox….