Three simple expressions but they represent perhaps the most powerful fusion, not only in the yesteryear rock n’ roll era, but also today
Okay.. let’s rev-up but rewind to the early 1960's. It's Saturday night which has just turned into a Sunday morning; but it’s only just gone .The creaking old Ford van doors are finally locked and we all pile inside. Mmmmmm, sublime grins cross our collective faces as the engine is turned and first gear is engaged. Nobody has said much since our last number an hour ago. “Okay… Let’s get the show off the road,” is a wisecrack well used on these long nights before heading home. Paid up, job well done, adrenaline flushed and starving hungry, we always did hit the nearest late night eatery and so too did many of the gigging bands.
What a booking did for the appetite back then was legendary. What the eateries did for the bands who called in for their essential culinary satisfaction that early in the morning, is an almost life saving act within itself. Steak, egg and chips, fish and chips – it solely depended which suitable hot fast food establishment could be found first.
This was the scenario up and down the UK highways at the turn of 1960’s. A travelling army of ravenous musicians traipsing from out-of-town gigs along the corridors of the A1, A2, A3 and A’s 4's, 5's, and 6's et al; well before the motorways and their expensive and rancid excuses of a midnight cafe retreat were ever built.These wonderful establishments were found at strategic junctions, one of which was The 'fab' Ace Cafe.
Opened in 1938 as a roadside travel break it catered for passing traffic using the then new North Circular Road, quickly becoming a favourite anytime rendezvous for long distance lorry drivers.It was state-of-the-art for its time and one of the first to use neon signage: Heaven in a cark park!
I hope you are keeping up with all this: Okay? Now fast forward to the early 50s.. the advent of the “teenager” saw The Ace Cafe booming, with the arrival of the ton-Up boys and girls.The British motorcycle industry was at its peak, when along came rock n’ roll.It wasn’t played on radio stations, so the only places it could be heard was at fairgrounds or on jukeboxes in transport cafes.
Come the sixties, the Rocker had emerged, and The Ace became a launch pad for many British rock n’ roll band'sAce patron Johnny Kidd went on to form Johnny Kidd & The Pirates.Gene Vincent also visited the cafe on one of his tours, and The Beatles are reputed to have been there sometime before they too became famous.
Wee Willie Harris & Friends:
Willie was once a Patron of The Ace.
The rock n’ roll peak was over by the mid-sixties, made safe by The Beatles and pushed aside by Carnaby Street and the Mod era.Changes to the social order and growth of the car market at the expense of the motorbike and the retirement of the owner, saw The Ace Cafe - viewed back then as a 'greasy spoon' - serving-up its last egg and chips in 1969.
The beat goes on…
So, what of today's Ace Cafe?
Although no longer open 24-hours, the cafe’s iconic reputation continues to flourish.With a jukebox still in situ, for the last ten years they also showcase live music.Many gigs are tribute nights to rock n’ roll icons, such as Gene Vincent, Elvis, Eddie Cochran & Billy Fury, to name but a few. With room to dance, the cafe’s gigs have featured top artists, such as Robert Gordon and Linda Gail-Lewis, through to real rockabilly hoe-downs with contemporary bands and DJs.
Mark Wilsmore greets Rita Tushingham star of the sixties film 'A Taste Of Honey'.
The atmosphere is very laid back, you can relax and read the latest magazines, challenge your mates to a game of table football, listen to the jukebox or simply drool over the amazing array of hot-rods and motorcycle machinery that turns up to compliment the cafe’s wide array of exotic vehicle meets.
The bikes, cars and music may have changed over the years, but the spirit remains the same.
Ace Cafe London’s Car Park Signage
Bill Hart with Mark Wilsmore.
Motorcyclist and Ace Cafe- London founder Mark Wilsmore warmly greets Christine and I - wearing a big grin and a cool denim jacket and faded jeans. He talks with an air of confidence and pride in his achievement at having reopened the place in 2001, and as the full story of place unfolds, he positively glows, like an exhaust pipe after a ton-up at Brands Hatch!"Ten years ago the place was derelict and falling apart. I bought it and together with my business partners we now have this."
He shows off to us with pride and joy the buzzing Mecca he has re-created, including the old authentic fluorescent light tubes hanging overhead from the ceiling.
"I hate 'em with a vengeance!," says Mark. "But in order to adhere with today’s health and safety regulations, we had to put metal grill protection covers over them to prevent them being broken in case a fight broke out! Now I've got an earliest 21st Century throwback to late 1950's - early sixties rock 'n roll hey days."
The iconic bikes displayed on the stage are temporarily removed
prior to live music act's performances.
Part of the building is given over to a newer extended stage area where The Ace puts on many acts DJs live music and bands to suit all musical tastes - as long as it rocks. Chalk boards announce the latest attractions like new years eve with The Blue Flames, Elvis's Jail House Birthday Night in January and a Johnny Kidd Night - yes - a tribute act to 'Him' and The Pirates.
Pick out the main newspaper headlines for yourself..
Our visit coincided with the start “Old Skool Ford Night”.All the cars were pre-1984
The best Hot-Rod Ford on the night won a T-Birds Records CD.
A bite a drink: The Hot-Rod Ford enthusiasts begin to arrive.
A plethora of posters..
There are plenty of reminders on the walls about the colourful history of
rockers, mods and teddy boys.
More historic collages and “What’s On” flyers adorn the walls upstairs.
And almost finally.. the cafe’s One Stop Rockers Shop.
On Sale: Tee shirts, badges & Book: The Ace Cafe: Then & Now.
Christine and I finally make to leave. Mark see's us politely to the door and into the bustling car park. Moving slowly against a tidal flow of noise and eager customers flaunting their high revving Ford cars, we turn to wave and bid Mark a big Lanky Beat thank you and goodbye. He shouts out loud to be sure he is overheard to us: "If you know anywhere up north in Lankyland. I'm looking to open another Ace Cafe up there very soon!"
'The sooner the better Mark - We can't wait!'
Bill Hart & Linda Wilsmore with Christine Hart: December 2010