the real hard rock cafe

Cayte Williams on a man with a mission to give rockers back their favourite haunt

Cayte Williams
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:49

The British biker has had a rough ride in popular culture. In the film Quadrophenia rockers were just a faceless sea of leather in Brighton, about as threatening Charles Hawtry in a side-car. Mods were much cooler. Now businessman Mark Wilsmore, 39, who was too young to experience the rockers first time round, thinks it's time we made the connection between ''British biker'' and ''cool''. His mission is to re-open the Ace Cafe, the rockers' centre in north London and throw some light on a much-maligned aspect of youth culture.

In 1994 he staged a 25th anniversary reunion on the Ace Cafe's original site off the North Circular. Twelve thousand people and 7,000 bikes turned up, from expats in Japan to a much younger crowd. There was a huge demand for authentic gear, most of it wartime army surplus, but it was impossible to find.

''People kept asking me where they could get stuff so I did a lot of research,'' Mark explains. ''I found that many factories had gone bankrupt but still had original machinery and patterns.'' He and his wife Linda eventually found some manufacturers who could reproduce biker clothes and they decided to set up a mail order catalogue. ''We agonised over the right zip, the right angle and the right colours,'' Mark recalls. Original patterns and processes were rediscovered for one-buckled, sheepskin-lined RAF flying boots, RAF jumpers and there was much angst about bleachig in order to get the colour of the old off-white flying scarf just right.

''By the summer of 1996, Mark and Linda had their collection. In September they launched the One Stop Rockers Shop catalogue selling black leathers, government surplus and accessories. ''These clothes are the real McCoy,'' Mark says with a mixture of pride and relief. ''If you went back in time you'd get exactly the same garment.''

Back in time was early 1950s Britain. War-time motorbikes flooded the market and with the Hire Purchase Act you could get a bike on the never- never. So the rocker was brought kicking and revving into the world and the Ace Cafe, formally a sandwich stop used by bicycle enthusiasts since the 1920s, became a full-throttle rock'n'roll cafe just off the North Circular.

From 1955-1965 there'd be rows of British bikes - Triumph Nortons, Goldies or Tritons - lined up outside the Ace. Inside, wall-to-wall rockers got a bacon sandwich and a cuppa for 3 shillings and put the change in the jukebox. It was an obligatory stop for any rocker. Gene Vincent made sure he paid a visit whenever he was in town. Robert Plant and John Entwistle were regulars and legend has it that Lennon and McCartney (pre-world domination) were thrown out for playing the same Buddy Holly record over and over. Terry Childs, an ex-biker, remembers his days as the Ace's night manager. ''It was a big boys club and the girls played second fiddle,'' he says with questionable relish. 'The boys all had different backgrounds - from garage mechanics to stockbrokers - and all we were interested in was motorcycles and how to make them go faster. We didn't drink, smoke or take drugs. We couldn't afford to. Our only vice was the girls. They used to sit outside the Ace, you'd give them a nod and they'd come on the back with you.''

Kings of this heady machismo were the Ton-up Boys, a motorcycle gang famed for ''doing a ton'' (100 miles an hour). Their favourite pastime was ''record racing'', where they'd put a 45 on the jukebox, jump on their bikes and race each other to get back before the end of the record.

Sadly, all this motorcycle mania came to an end when the Ace Cafe closed in 1969, about the time Mark Wilsmore abandoned his tricycle. So why the obsession? ''There was a motorcycle cafe where I grew up and my dad wouldn't let me go in. I suppose my fascination comes from it being forbidden.'' But his main gripe is the swamping of British biker culture by Americana. ''There has been an enormous amount of interest in America over the years, with McDonald's, Planet Hollywood and Harley Davidson,'' Mark explains hotly. ''I have a passion for motorcycles, rock'n'roll and all things British. As a child I was aware of mods, rockers and Carnaby Street and one day I thought, wait a minute, where's our culture gone? Easy Rider killed off the Ace Cafe.'' He's got a point. Mention bikers and most people think of Peter Fonda on a Harley not Sid revving his Triumph round the North Circular.

But Mark might get his revenge. He plans to re-open the cafe in the next couple of years, so by the millennium you could be travelling back in time to petrol coupons and Spam. Who knows, you might be sitting next to Americans exploring the latest Brit-themed restaurant. Best buy the RAF flying boots now.

The One Stop Rockers Shop catalogue is available from Ace Cafe London on 0181 202 8030.

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