Famous for more than 50 years, Ace is still crowded with bikers and car enthusiasts.
The Ace Cafe in London is a bikers' shrine from the 1960s
Gordon Allum didn't ride to the Ace Cafe tonight. The dapperly dressed 81-year-old is to be forgiven - he's recently had hip surgery and so his "shifting" leg isn't quite up to snuff. But - and this makes Allum something of a legend around these parts - he's been coming to the Ace Cafe's bike nights since 1946. In case you're reaching for your smartphone's calculator, I'll save you the trouble: that's 65 years.
The allure is easy to understand. The Ace may be the most iconic of motorcycle-gathering places in this, one of the most enthusiastic motorcycling nations in the world. Indeed, according to Mark Wilsmore, the man who returned the iconic London cafe to its former glory (the building was briefly a tyre repair shop but bikers used to gather in its car park, so great was the cafe's historic allure), more than 12,000 people showed up for its grand reopening in 1999. Traffic was backed up for miles and motorcycles were parked on the median of the nearby motorway.
Allum, of course, remembers when the Ace was just a dinky little cafe serving transport drivers as its main clientele and catering to bikers at night as a sideline. But then the famed "Mods and Rockers" scene exploded in the early 1960s and if you had a motorcycle - as opposed to the Mods' scooters - you hung out at what were suburban cafes, as the Ace was 60 years ago, that offered plenty of open roads to race.
Because that is what the Ace was famous for. Of course, the term "cafe racer", still enshrined in motorcycling's lexicon, was coined way back in the '50s when the young and the foolish would race their souped-up Triumphs, BSAs and Enfields from cafe to cafe. Or, as was more typical, says Wilsmore, screech out of the Ace's carpark, race around London's famed North Circular road and back to his cafe.
"They'd all try to do the ton [100 miles per hour (160kph), a major feat in its day] right in front of the cafe," says Wilsmore, who co-owns the shrine-like cafe in Stonebridge, north-west London. "Thankfully, it was a far less crowded thoroughfare than it is today."
And, according to Wilsmore, policing was comparatively lax, although the circa-1960 Guardian headline posted to the Ace's historic bulletin board that laments police having to issue 98 speeding tickets on one particularly energetic night might indicate otherwise. The fines totalled £838, a sum you could easily exceed by yourself today by getting just a little too enthusiastic on the M1.
Things are (slightly) calmer now. For one thing, the M1 and its feeder links are nearby, making for some heavy transport traffic in the area. And the cafe racers are not as young or adventurous (that should be read downright rash) as they once were.
Nonetheless, the Ace's parking is packed almost constantly with motorcycles. Wilsmore claims that virtually every night - except Christmas - is booked by clubs looking to make the Ace their meeting place/watering hole. So, depending on the night you drop by, the parking lot may be full with Suzuki GSX-Rs, Harleys or even Buells showing off their chrome. Wilsmore says he's had as many as 5,000 (yes, 5,000) guests on a single evening if the weather (always a bother in England) cooperates. And, on nights when motorcycles are not in abundance, Wilsmore has invited car clubs (like those catering to ancient Pontiac muscle cars - another passion, it seems) to bask in the landmark's glory.
Tonight is a Wednesday, and a little rainy at that, so there are probably "only" about 150 bikes - mostly Triumphs, as it is their night - in the parking lot. But that doesn't change the age-old ritual of admiring gleaming machines, listening to the owners' ruminations of their many improvements just so you can make them listen to yours. It's not that the bench-racing rituals are any different at the Ace, just that the scale is unlike anything most motorcyclists have encountered before.
The Ace has become such an institution that there's even a bike - a Triumph Thruxton 904S produced by a local tuning shop - named in its honour. Wilsmore has a soft spot for the iconic British marque, with four of his prized Triumphs holding centre stage in the dining area. There's a nicely tatty Triton that looks like it's been ridden - and hard - just yesterday, a fully restored Metisse Rickman and an oddly painted Bonneville that Wilsmore claims the city council had to rebuild after a water main broke and engulfed the Ace's car park (and his Triumph) in nearly a metre of water.
But what really holds Wilsmore's thrall is the "Mods and Rockers" scene. Obvious from his still-duckbilled haircut that he wore leather (rather than the teddy blazers and drain pipes favoured by the mods), Wilsmore contends that the well-documented conflict between British rock 'n' roll's two most iconic gangs "was really overblown". On the other hand, even more of those newspaper headlines - "Scooter gangs 'beat up' Clacton" and "'Wild Ones' invade Seaside" - might, again, indicate otherwise.
No word from Mr Allum on which group he belonged to. The former army dispatch rider is just anxious to get his Honda Deauville back on the road.