The Cardinal rule

Old tackle connoisseur Denis Curtin delves into the history of ABU Garcia reels and laments the loss of what were once the very best reels available

 Issue 3 (Apr-May 2015)   Denis Curtin

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I recently had a five year old Shimano reel that began to graunch a bit. This was a mid-range reel that was silky smooth, had excellent line lay and an unbeatable front drag. Since the reel was out of warranty I opened up the cover and discovered the main drive gear had worn teeth and was failing to mesh properly with the spindle. Very fine pieces of the drive gear had found their way into the lubrication and this in effect acted like a very fine grinding paste that, in turn, wore out the bearings. The reel was unsalvageable.

ABU Cardinal
The Cardinal 44X from the mid-1970s – among the first mid-priced Cardinals

The mid-range reel market is hugely competitive. Reels need to have very tight tolerances and be butter-smooth for them to sell. The issue is that all this is done to an absolute price and if a reel is used hard they can wear very rapidly indeed. I used mine for whacking out 40-50g spoons and heavy feeder fishing, not an easy life but still five years is a bit disappointing. In my view if you want a mid-priced freshwater reel that will last the course, it’s time to think Swedish and retro.

So what would you get for your 80 or so euro? Well,if it’s an all round reel I would recommend a mid-1980s Cardinal C4.These reels are bombproof, have an excellent drag and are super smooth. There are a number of reels in the “C” range from the 3 to the 7.3 being ultralight and 7 being heavy specimen/sea work. These reels, although made in Japan, retain the reliability and smoothness of their Swedish forebears. Sadly, it went a bit pear shaped for ABU after this and the 1990s saw them completely lose direction and nowadays ABU exists as a brand only for the Pure Fishing giant. So, who were ABU and why do I consider their reels made in the 70s-mid 80s to be some of the best ever made?

ABU Garcia, originally AB Urfabriken, then ABU Svängsta, is a fishing reel and fishing equipment company founded in Sweden, and is now owned by US tackle giant Pure Fishing (image courtesy of realsreels.com)

ABU began in the early 1920s as precision timepiece and instrumentation engineers. The next ten years saw a shift to fishing reel manufacture. Their high standards and engineering excellence in timepieces was evident in their reels. When one spins an ABU the oft used cliché “Swiss watch” immediately springs to mind. In the mid-60s, ABU brought out a reel that still to this day is seen as a benchmark in quality and reliability – the Cardinal fixed spool. It immediately made the venerable Mitchell 300 look positively medieval and crude. The 300, once the go-to reel for all anglers from match anglers to specimen hunters, was now replaced by the Cardinal. The early-70s saw the introduction of the Cardinal 3, 4, 6 and 7.

In the mid-70s ABU launched a mid-priced Cardinal range – the Cardinal 40, 60 and 70. These reels, although substantially cheaper than their ancestors, are still an excellent reel and one I would highly recommend if one wanted a reasonably priced old Cardinal model. At the end of the 70s ABU released another set of benchmark reels that turned the specimen world on its head, the Cardinal 50 series. These included the sublime Cardinal 55, the choice of nearly all the pioneering carp anglers; Maddocks, Paisley, MacDonald, to name but a few, all swore by their Cardinal 55s.

Cardinal 55
The Cardinal 55, the choice of nearly all the pioneering carp anglers

However, the Cardinal 55’s reign was short lived as Shimano introduced its “Seaspin” baitrunners in the early 80s. Although not a patch on the Cardinal quality-wise it was the convenience of the freespool facility that made the Shimano an overnight sensation. Indeed, Kevin Maddocks used his 55s years after the introduction of the baitrunner but admitted that the freespool facility was too good an advantage to ignore for his carp fishing. In the mid 80s ABU opened a manufacturing plant in Japan and although some of the reels were good they were going nowhere and running out of ideas and really the only edge they had on the competition was their range of excellent closed-face reels, designed for river float fishing (trotting). These alone were not enough to save them.

closed face reel
Even ABU’s excellent, superior range of closed-faced reels for river fishing were not enough to save the company as it was
ABU Garcia Cardinal reels
My growing collection of Cardinals – they really were (and still are) superb reels

The last decent Cardinals were the “C” range, which I mentioned earlier. Solidly built but looking increasingly long in the tooth when compared to its Japanese competitors, just like what ABU did to Mitchell earlier. ABU died off as an entity slowly and quietly in the late 90s and released as its swansong, the Suveran, an astonishingly made reel built in the true Svängsta tradition and highly prized to this day. Prices for Cardinals have risen dramatically in the last ten or so years. Boxed, mint examples regularly go for a few hundred euro with the “X” and “Express” high-speed models commanding a premium. Today ABU is a brand name under the Pure Fishing giant that specialise in lower-end fishing tackle. They were once obsessed with quality and boasting an engineering heritage that’s second to none. We will never see their like again.

Denis Curtin