We Visit London's Iconic Ace Cafe

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Categories: Frontlines, Motorcycle History

I've reached the shores of London's urban heat island, still 12 miles from the iconic Ace Cafe. The six layers I put on back in Cardiff are suddenly too much. Temperatures in the UK's capitol city are almost always at least 5 °C (9 °F) warmer than where I live, roughly 150 miles to the west, and the unexpected presence of sunshine is only making things worse.

Feeling the heat build in my helmet, I awkwardly push my face shield up to try to cool off. The air is thick with car exhaust. My eyes burn. I can taste petroleum. I click the face shield back down and push on.

You've probably heard of the Ace Cafe. If you haven't, you've seen pictures of it. Arguably, it's the place that put "cafe" in "cafe racer," and when manufacturers want to tap into that market, the first thing they do is run to the Ace. Just last year, Triumph honoured the cafe through its special-edition Thruxton Ace.

Triumph Thruxton Ace
Triumph Thruxton Ace

These days, the Ace Cafe is a worldwide brand, expanding to Germany, Switzerland, Finland, China, Japan, and soon, the United States. It's a legacy the cafe's original owners probably couldn't have envisioned in 1937, when it first opened.

The Ace Cafe History

Britons struggle with the English language. They refer to cookies as "biscuits," cigarettes as "fags" and spell every other word incorrectly. So, the first thing to know about the original Ace Cafe is that it was not a cafe. It was a truck stop, a greasy spoon, set up to lure commercial traffic on the newly built North Circular Road.

The Nazis dropped a bomb on the cafe during World War II. Not necessarily because they disliked truck stops, you understand. They just liked dropping bombs on stuff. The Third Reich had a strange sense of humor. The Ace rebuilt almost immediately, and in the post-war years became an epicenter for motorcycling and cultural change. The reason for that is partially down to location and luck.

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Rationing in Britain persisted in some cases for 12 years after the war—food, clothes, and fuel. As Dusty Rhodes would say: hard times, daddy. Fuel rations weren't really enough to fill a car, and anyone caught using more than his fair share would have his license revoked. Motorcycles became a thing of necessity. Especially for young people eager to reclaim some part of the childhoods they lost to living in fear that the aforementioned fun-loving Nazis might choose to obliterate them, or their home, or friends' home, or school, or a soccer field, etc.

tonup boys

Meanwhile, the North Circular Road was still, in those days, on the outskirts of London. Relatively wide, straight and uncrowded by British standards, it was a great place to see how fast your bike could go. The Ace was one of dozens of cafes that served as meeting points for these motorcyclists, who were known as ton-up boys, leather jackets, or rockers. The cafes were places to have a cup of tea, shake off the interminable British chill, or to try to put your bike back together well enough to make it to the next cafe.

Although we associate shining Triumphs, Nortons, and the like with cafe culture, most of the kids wouldn't have had the funds for such bikes. They rode whatever they could find—much of it unworthy of a scrap yard…CONTINUE READING (RIDEAPART)


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