The One That Got Away

The One That Got Away: Ace Cafe owner Mark Wilsmore on the Triumph that got caught up in disaster

by Charlotte Vowden
28 September 2022 6 min read
The One That Got Away: Ace Cafe owner Mark Wilsmore on the Triumph that got caught up in disaster
Photos courtesy Mark Wilsmore

“I’m stood here in the Ace Cafe car park on a glorious sunny morning. The building is one that many are familiar with, we welcome all who share our passion, which is founded upon the rich traditions of motorcycles, cars and rock n’ roll, but there’s part of its history that not everyone will know about and that’s the night the ground beneath my feet blew up, taking my Triumph TR65 Thunderbird with it. 

The TR65 was an awesome bike, a total rare bird, that I bought in the early eighties but I can’t remember how much for. It had a 650 short stroke engine, single carburettor and ‘classic’ British Triumph styling. The scalloped paintwork was blue and silver, and it had a black vinyl-covered seat that was very comfortable. I had some great rides out on that bike before the incident at the Ace – we’ll come to that…

The Ace was established in 1938 on the then brand-new North Circular Road surrounding London but unfortunately, it was promptly demolished in 1940 during an air raid. Of course it wasn’t an enemy target, it was a simple roadside café catering predominantly to truckers, but it sits rather close to a mainline railway bridge, which they missed but flattened everything else in its vicinity. 

Ace Cafe flood article

It was late on a bitter cold night in March 1999 that disaster next unfolded at the Ace. I was speaking to a chap outside what we call the ‘stage end’ of the café (for obvious reasons) when suddenly there was this extraordinary sound, it was as though someone had put my head inside a jet engine. It was a totally overwhelming sensation and within two clicks of a finger the car park had blown up and we were running for our lives.

There were bikes clattering down from the air all over the place and while two fellas pushed past me to try and save theirs, I didn’t attempt to rescue my TR65; I had more pressing things to do. I yelled to people ‘walk, don’t run’, and made sure everybody was out of the building, which was shaking, but the chap I’d been talking to was nowhere to be seen. Outside, a foamy column of water about 15ft high shot up out of the ground towards the heavens, but I had to go back into the Ace and find him. I could hear windows smashing and there was rubble everywhere so when I found him phoning his Mrs to tell her he’d be late, you can understand why I didn’t tell him to get out politely!

It turned out a water main had blown up and the hole it created was so gigantic you could have dropped three tipper lorries inside it. The force of the explosion made the asphalt unpeel like the lid on a tin can and the TR65 got mangled in the process. The police sealed up the Ace and soon enough the car park was a lake with gulls and ducks bobbing about on it. The water board responsible quickly settled the cost of damage to the owners of the bikes but we had a bit more of a battle on our hands when it came to the Ace. We won in the end so the place was brought back to life, and the bike, which was also a total wreck, got fully restored too.

I’ve got great memories of whizzing around London on it with friends before the explosion. We had an almost weekly ritual of meeting up in Camden or Westbourne Grove then riding down to Bar Italia in Soho for an hour or so then on to Chelsea Bridge – all at speeds that aren’t possible to do today.

Linda, my wife, and I did a lot of travelling on it too. It was delightfully light and nimble, but there’s one particular trip that gets regaled from time to time. Although I’m not that mechanical, the mechanics of the TR65 were fairly simple and I thought there was very little to go wrong, so off we set on this big adventure to Cornwall (in spite of Linda, who was my girlfriend at the time, saying we could get cheap deals on railway tickets) and as we raced along the M4 we got a puncture on the back tyre. 

I told the fella fixing it not to hammer the axle home once he’d finished the job and so we wandered off to get a cup of tea leaving him to it. It was all fairly relaxed at this point, and soon enough we were back on the road – but darkness had started to fall and we’d lost a lot of time. A little while later we pulled into the services to get some squirt and that’s when I realised there was something wrong with the brakes. I managed to pull up safely, get off and see the back drum glowing bright orange. Fuming, I realised the bloke repairing it earlier in the day had ignored my advice because he’d dislodged the shoes on the drum brake. I dismantled it to find the springs had ground away. The upshot was that I’d got a back brake that was barely working. It was at this point that we admitted defeat and had to find a hotel in Exeter, it was gone midnight. 

Ace Cafe flood

The next day the rain came down horizontally with such force it felt like we were being hit by needles; our waterproofs and leathers were totally saturated, but we continued on. We had a lovely couple of days staying with a friend who helped us to find a new spring and fit it on the bike, then on the way home, as we were going down a steep hill towards the Tamar Bridge, the bike seized. We were snookered, it needed a new rotor. We had to abandon it with a bloke in the middle of nowhere (whose garden was like a cottage industry of motor parts and tools) for repair and catch a flippin’ train back. It cost an arm and a leg, but what I hadn’t realised was the track goes all along the coast; it was a fantastic journey!

I sent this guy the new part by post and took the train to collect the bike about a week or so later. It was torrential rain all the way home and my whole body, including my face, got covered in black dye from my leathers. I later had the bike checked over and found out the inner tube that had been used for the repair was vastly bigger than it should have been; we were lucky we didn’t have a blow out. Fortunately, the bike couldn’t sustain high motorway speeds of 80-90mph. I look back at challenges of the moment on those trips fondly as they are what make them memorable, so too was the discovery of people in oddball locations that will try to help you as best they can.

I’ve had lots of bikes over the years, invariably British ones such as BSAs, Nortons, Tritons and Dunstalls, but with the passage of time the long-term impact of injuries I’ve sustained during crashes over the years has started to catch up with me. My brother worked out I’ve been in hospital for a total of five years so the fact that I’m still going is testament to the first rate work of the NHS, but the older bikes became too big and hard for me to live with so shortly before Covid I pretty much sold the lot at auction, which was 14, including the TR65, which went for £5175. 

I saw it as the end of a chapter, and out of all of them, it’s that TR65 that I would have liked to have kept, not least because it was a delightful thing to hear. I miss the sound of its four-stroke engine, so I particularly relish it when the Ace is hosting groups such as The Vintage Motorcycle Club, it’s the mustard I’ve been brought up to enjoy.

I think about how it got destroyed here one night and how I bought it back into service, but it was time for it to move on and in truth I didn’t use it much after its restoration, which was a great shame. Today I ride around on a modern Triumph, a 765 Street Triple, which is stunning and fits me ergonomically. I can cope with its weight in the London traffic and push it in and out of the garage at home. 

It seems to me that it can all be summed up with the term ‘horses for courses’. The TR65 fit me for a time and the 765 fits me now but I suspect as the years go by, I’ll progress downwards to something like a 125 because it will be easier still. We’re not here forever and the engines we see around us will also be gone in years to come, it’s just the dynamic of life, but the spirit and motivation behind the Ace will always remain the same.”

Read more

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The Triumph Silver Jubilee Bonneville’s reign was short-lived
A classic British bike is one of life’s great pleasures – when it’s working

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