The Red Reel

This Swedish import revolutionized the sport of baitcasting.

Field & Stream Online Editors

The casting reel may be an american original, but the grand old game amid the lily pads and bay shores was changed forever in the years after World War II with the introduction of a single foreign product-the so-called "red reel."

The Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000 with its red anodized frame and fitted leather case glowed with no-nonsense elegance and authority. It could even talk-at least to awestruck anglers. The first one I saw as a kid in 1958 at the Palms Center Oshman's store in Houston said: Step aside, son; the A-Team is here. The first one I borrowed unleashed dazzling performance and, within a few casts, carried a tentative levelwind game to a smoother, higher plane.

I knew that one day I would own a red reel.

the red abu ambassadeur 5000, imported from Sv¿¿ngsta, Sweden, by AB Urfabriken, debuted in the United States at the 1954 New York World's Fair (ABU's European precursor to the Ambassadeur was the Record series). The import, distributed as the Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000, incorporated a push-button free-spool design that disengaged the spool from the handle. It boasted a patented centrifugal brake to control the windmilling spool during the cast and an anti-reverse mechanism to eliminate backspinning during the retrieve. An adjustable star drag regulated the tension on the outgoing line against the locked handle.

And, unlike the sputtering freewheelers, the Ambassadeur 5000 with its plastic spool and centrifugal brake was the first casting reel that could handle the introduction of springy monofilament line. This was huge. During the late 1950s, mono pointed straight (even while stretching) to the future. Braided line was immediately relegated to something your grandfather toted in his battered wooden box.

No small point, the Ambassadeur 5000 looked cool. Elvis Presley had his blue suede shoes and Abu Garcia had its red anodized frame. The Ambassadeur was faithful to the "round reel" appeal of the old Kentucky watchmakers, but it was a rock 'n' roll machine with solid heft (the early models with chrome-plated brass frames weighed approximately 11 ounces; the later ones with aluminum frames, approximately 9 ounces, on a par with the larger direct-drive casting reels such as the Shakespeare President and the Pflueger Supreme).

It is a safe bet that the established reel manufacturers were in shock. Wouldn't you be if you were trying to sell biplanes in the dawn of the jet age? The 18-year patent on the centrifugal brake prevented imitations, and the only thing that kept the Marhoffs, Sportcasts, and Nobbys moving at all was the brutal price tag on the import. The red reel retailed at approximately $45, a staggering sum during the Eisenhower administration. A few direct-drive reels came close, but many accepted models were less than $15 or $20.

Despite its high price, the red reel took off because it proved itself with reliable performance in the red-hot Texas saltwater arena. The Ambassadeur was like a good jungle assault weapon. It had loose tolerances and simple parts, and with a screwdriver and a can of oil, you could keep it firing. The drag might get sticky and the free-spool button might catch, but the machine would continue to function.

I paid $32 for my first Ambassadeur 5000 at a FedMart discount store in 1965. I was a sophomore at the University of Houston. I don't recall which meant more that spring, the red reel or the purple-and-gold Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity pin. Both were big deals.

I fished bays and surf, lakes and ponds with that reel and carried it on an aircraft carrier to war in 1969. The old "four screw" reel from lot No. 538,519 is rough and crusty and the 3.75:1 retrieve ratio seems dated, even quaint, in today's fast lane-but it works. You could spool it with fresh 12-pound mono and fish it tomorrow.

The peak year for the red reel was 1967, when 490,000 units were produced.. Sales backed off in 1968 with the introduction of the black-frame ball-bearing 5000C. Suddenly, the color of cool was black, not red.

The Ambassadeur Series saw numerous models and upgrades, and the old 5000 faces the new century under different marketing wraps. The current reels, under the corporate mantle of Pure Fishing, benefit from more than two dozen modifications to the original and enjoy a large following. The reels are also considerably more affordable than the original. (The "new" red classic retails through Cabela's for approximately $80. Other tweaks on the same design cost less than $60. In contrast, top-end casting reels by Abu Garcia, Shimano, and Daiwa are in the $200 to $300 class.)

The Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000 has had the longest production run of any levelwinder, past or present, and according to the factory in Sweden, approximately 4 million red reels of the 5000 design have been made. More important, the reel changed the past and spawned the future. It is no exaggeration to say that every casting reel on today's shelves has borrowed from the original red reel.