The Ace Café, and the Brighton Burn-Up

by Ian Kerr MBE
21 September 2015 3 min read
The Ace Café, and the Brighton Burn-Up
Café Racers, Ace Café, 2015.

In 1994 Mark Wilsmore, a member of the Triumph Owner’ Club who not only had a passion for bikes but also and rock n’ roll, organised the first Ace Café Reunion to mark its closure twenty-five years earlier. The event attracted 12,000 people, which included many of the original regulars prior to its closure. Due to its success, the meeting has been repeated every year since, this year being the 22nd running.

Since that inaugural gathering the Ace has once again become a mecca for petrol heads of both the two and four wheel persuasion with almost daily events for clubs and associations. In the evening, it also hosts many musical events harking back to the fifties and early sixties when rock n’roll was part of the venue’s attraction.

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The Ace first opened its doors in 1938 to serve the transport industry on the then new North Circular road in London. Damaged during the war in bombing raids, it was subsequently rebuilt in 1949 and during the fifties it attracted motorcyclists from the post-war generation looking for something different and attracted by the thrills and spills of motorcycling and influenced by the birth of rock n’roll.

It moved away from home cooked food and became a ‘greasy spoon’ attracting the studded black leather jacket brigade who were shunned elsewhere. It was during this period that many of the legends were created such as racing bikes against the records played on the juke box. Finally, in 1969 the Ace Café shut its doors, and for the next quarter of a century it became a tyre depot.

It took Wilsmore seven years after the first Reunion to obtain the rights to the Ace Café name, organise the lease and carry out an extensive rebuild turning it back into a café. But, once it re-opened for business in 2001, it quickly re-established itself as the place to go with your classic car or bike. It has gone onto become an iconic worldwide brand with franchised branches in Finland, Germany, Japan, the USA and most recently Beijing, China.

The Reunion has also grown, into a three day extravaganza celebrating all that is best from the period when the Ace Café was in its heyday, and attracts riders from all over Europe. In fact the weekend starts on the Thursday at a party at Cafe Hubraum in Solingen, Germany, before riders head through Holland, Belgium, France arriving at the Ace on the Friday afternoon ready for an evening of rock n’ roll.

Saturday is still the main Reunion day with a ride-out led by Wilsmore to Battersea Park before they return for the concours judging. Here can be seen some of the best ‘specials’, some harking back to the sixties but others more modern; one of the best at this year’s event was the Ducati engined Norton, although the Velocette engine in a period Norton frame with its period dressed rider epitomised the era perfectly. Speaking of style, as well as the leather studded jackets, white sea-boot socks turned over knee length boots, white silk scarves and open face crash helmets, there was also an abundance of Brylcreem, quiffs, drapes and brothel creeper-shod teddy boys enjoying the warm sun, then dancing to the bands on the open stage well into the night.

Sunday saw the action move to the south coast for the traditional ‘Brighton Burn -up & Ride with the Rockers’ run to Madeira Drive at Brighton for more of the same when around 10,000 bikes descended on the south coast venue. These days there are no headline-grabbing battles between mods and rockers as there were in the 1960s, more a jovial trade of insults as period scooters complete with appropriately dressed riders, discussing the need for mirrors!

Once again the band played on as riders enjoyed the various exhibits and trade stands offering a few bargains as well as the traditional seaside hospitality. Certainly most of the traffic cops seemed to be enjoying the convivial ambience rather than having to do any real work!

Over the years, some things may have changed. The bikes and most of the clientele that now frequent the rebuilt Ace were not born when it was at its height, but the essential essence of the Ace Café lives on and its history is celebrated on a yearly basis. And quite rightly Mark Wilsmore is feted as the saviour of a British icon!

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