10,000 get back on their bikes: Humble cafe and Sixties' drug den. The Ace, an icon in working-class history

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Indy Lifestyle Online
To generations of motorcyclists it was the place to hang out. To their parents it was the North Circular's answer to Sodom and Gomorrah. The Ace Cafe has long gone, but on Sunday thousands of bikers who remember it fondly will gather to pay their respects.

For much of the Fifties and Sixties the Ace, a humble

transport cafe on the outskirts of Alperton, was at the hub

of British youth culture.

It attracted serious motorcyclists who would sit for hours, fuelled by pie and chips with a mug of tea, discussing the relative merits of camshafts and carburettors. Its appeal was bolstered by 24-hour opening and a rock and roll jukebox.

In the austerity of post-war Britain the combination of music, fast machines and a rebellious attitude acted as a magnet to young men and women from doctors to blue-collar workers.

The Ace thrived until the late Sixties when the shift towards hippy culture saw it turn into an intimidating drugs den. In September 1969 it was closed down.

This weekend a reunion for Ace regulars is taking place at the former cafe, now a tyre shop and vehicle delivery firm, to mark the closure's 25th anniversary. Around 10,000 bikers are expected to attend, some travelling from Europe and the Middle East.

Reunion organiser Mark Wilsmore, 37, was too young to experience the cafe first hand but learned about it as a biker and rock and roll fan.

'The cafe was built in the Twenties at the same time as the North Circular as a restaurant and filling station for lorry drivers, but it was a motorcycle haunt from day one, I know of someone who's 88 and he remembers going there as a young man.

'In the early days of rock and roll there were only two places you could hear the music, fairgrounds or transport cafes. Quite a lot of the kids who went down the Ace went on to form bands, it was a meeting place.

'When American stars like Gene Vincent came over they would ask to go to the Ace

because it had a massive reputation. British celebrities like Billy Fury and Diana Dors were visitors.'

Part of the Ace's allure lay in the adrenalin-fuelled danger of the motorbike scene. Riders became known as 'ton-up boys' - even though a fair proportion were women - through their passion for speed. Many lost their lives road racing from the Ace west to Hanger Lane or east towards Neasden, returning in the time it took for a record to play on the jukebox.

One man recalls losing 18 friends in smashes during those pre-crash helmet days.

Another has not ridden a motorbike since the day his girlfriend rode past the cafe waving at the assembled crowd and ploughed into a brick railway bridge. He plans to break his self-imposed ban to drive to the reunion.

Despite the deaths, all ton-ups road raced to prove themselves and their machines, with illegal bets laid on their success. Black humour was rife - riders mocked each other about who they would leave their bike to if they died - but the more successful became professional racers.

Such bravado attracted hostile media scrutiny. Ton-ups were accused of threatening other road users, while mid-Sixties clashes between rockers, as bikers were then known, and mods, derided for their low-powered mopeds and lack of technical knowledge, inspired widespread moral panic.

Episodes of Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars dealing with the perils of road racing were shot at the Ace, with regulars being recruited for walk-on parts.

Film-makers cashed in on the ton-ups, too, with The Leather Boys (1963) starring Rita Tushingham, and Hell Drivers (1957) featuring Sid James, Gordon Jackson and a young Patrick McGoohan.

Violence was not unknown at the Ace - one regular, Terry Childs, became night manager after a bloody fight between a Scotsman and some local roughs that sent his predecessor running out the back door. Tables were screwed down to stop them being used as missiles, and the second jukebox was placed inside a metal cage after the first was destroyed. Once every window in the cafe was smashed when the price of tea went up.

Terry is keen to play down this side of Ace life. Instead he highlights the way bikers helped other motorists, leading them around a London which, for some years after the Second World War, still lacked road signs.

'There was 'fogging', when the smogs were really bad and a lorry driver would get you to ride in front because you knew the roads better, in return for a tanner or breakfast. Or you'd get drivers asking to get across the city and it was, 'yeah mate, no problem, follow me'.

'We were the first medical carriers, we used to carry blood for the hospitals. It wasn't very organised, you'd get a phone call and be asked to take a

bottle of blood somewhere double quick.

'We were completely civilised compared to what they do today, all those nutters on Jap crap. We had respect from other motorists and cars stayed out of the way.'

Terry remembers with affection the cameraderie among the bikers, and the pride they took in their machines. 'Your bike was always immaculate when you went to the Ace. We would sit and talk about bikes all the time, that's all we went for and worked for.

'If you ran out of petrol or needed some tools for the weekend someone there would help out. It was a place where you saw people you knew, and people you didn't know who might know a bit more about bikes than you did.

'We couldn't afford to drink, you needed all your money for your bike. You would go without dinners because you wanted a new

camshaft.

'The pictures cost three shillings and sixpence (17.5p). That was the price of a gallon of petrol, so we didn't go.'

Now 61, camera technician Terry retains his love of motorcycles. He owns 14 machines and socialises regularly with other bikers, including another former Ace regular turned despatch rider. Both will be riding to the reunion and Terry admits he had a lump in his throat when he recently met other ex-Ace faces.

Mark Wilsmore hopes Sunday's meet could become an annual event, and is talking with publishers and film-makers over a project to bring the Ace legend to a wider audience.

He dreads the site being demolished because of road widening or a take-over by an American fast food chain. Rather, he wants to see the building reopened to commemorate its glory days.

'This was English working-class culture; it's been almost forgotten.

'We have all these phoney American imports like the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood, but we should remember our own history and make sure it's not lost to the future.'

(Photograph omitted)

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