30th March 2021

The Ace Café: From Toad in the Hole to Rock’n’Roll

A story of almost impossible Britishness, and fuelled as much by a good cup of tea is it is by high octane fuel, the Ace Café has gone from a truck-stop café to a global brand in 75 years, surviving a bombing, rock’n’roll bikers gangs, a period as a tyre depot and even a 25-year hiatus in-between.  

Starting, as many good things do, with a cup of tea, the Ace Café opened its doors in 1938 to serve the trucks that had begun to flow on the newly-built North Circular road in London. In the more conservative pre-war times road-side cafes were the preserve of the working man as motoring was not yet a widespread middle-class pursuit. Nevertheless, the ‘refreshment stop’ did a roaring trade 24 hours a day, in the run-up to, and during the Second World War.

After suffering a near direct hit from a Luftwaffe bomb in 1940 - in the true Blitz spirit of the times - the café continued in temporary housing, was rebuilt in 1948 and re-opened into a new era for Britain. Gone was some of the pre-war stuffiness and in its place was a growing motor culture for both cars and bikes. The young men and women that had survived the war often found themselves seeking adrenaline in other ways and, as biker culture dawned, the Ace was there to serve it.

From a state-of-the-art premises the Ace served good food, all day, and cheaply. The hours were long and the car park was large. It was a successful recipe, and an appropriate meeting point for petrolheads in the days before mobile phones or social media. Once music was added to the mix however, the rise to popularity was stratospheric.

As Rock’n’Roll came to Britain from the USA, it was a cause of moral outrage by the establishment and was not heard on the radio. For the ‘rebel’ youth that wanted to hear it, a jukebox was the only option so, with one installed at the Ace, the venue soon became the go-to venue for rockers and café racers.

At the Ace the music was loud and the bikes were fast. Legendarily, the challenge for the bikers used to be to get from the café to the Hangar Lane roundabout and back again before the record had stopped playing. At a distance of 3.4 miles, it was no easy feat for the riders in view of the speed limits in the vicinity, but it added to the mystique and popularity of the venue.

As biker culture began to peak, the café closed its doors in 1969 and it played home to a tyre depot and garage. It was mourned by many in the biking and motoring community as a lost meeting place for kindred spirits. When the 25th anniversary of its closure came around, it was seen as the perfect time to re-open. Initially running alongside the tyre depot, the Ace opened on weekends and bank holidays only, but as the popularity of its opening grew, it soon became clear that only a full-time establishment would do.

Since its full re-launch in 2001, the Ace has continued to serve the motoring community of two wheels and four. With an inclusive ethos that celebrates all types of machinery from classic bikes to modern supercars, it has become a must-visit destination for UK petrolheads, and has now even opened franchise cafés across the world.

Do you remember the Ace Café from the 50’s biker days, or from more recent times? Let us know your memories in the comments below.