THE RED REEL was the most beautiful casting reel I had ever seen. It was on display in a glass counter in the old Oshman’s Sporting Goods in Palms Center in Houston. I was 11 years old. Christmas Day 1957, was several weeks away.
The Red Reel was the original Garcia Ambassadeur 5000. During the mid-’50s, advertisements were prominent in the Big Three outdoor magazines—Field & Stream, Sports Afield, Outdoor Life—but I never had seen the real product.
I was transfixed.
One full-page ad had proclaimed: “Garcia Ambassadeur 5000! By far, the finest baitcasting reel ever made—anywhere in the world!” It was true.
Of all places, it came from Sweden—an odd twist since baitcasting is the only truly American form of angling (having evolved from the simple “Kentucky reels” of the mid-1800s).
The anodized aluminum frame glowed softly in the display case. The cranberry finish and the marbled handle grips were not gaudy; rather they whispered an aura of understated excellence.
The reel rested alongside its fitted and latched saddle-leather case. The case was equipped with stitched loops for a reel wrench, spare parts kit, and a tube of lubricating oil. A small gold crest was embossed on the case, and just above the latch a flourish of script said “Ambassadeur Sweden.”
The import boasted several major innovations over the traditional level-wind casting reels offered by established companies such as Shakespeare, Heddon, South Bend, Langley, and Pflueger. The best of the old freewheeling reels were fine products, but within a few years became increasingly obsolete.
Most important, the Red Reel offered a free-spool lever. The stainless gadget was located on the rear of the right sideplate, within comfortable reach of the casting thumb. When pushed, the lever somehow disengaged the spool from the shaft of the handle.
Or maybe it was the other way around. Don’t ask me. I didn’t design the thing.
Regardless, with a simple click—Shazam! The handle was locked in neutral, and the friction from all associated moving parts was eliminated during the cast.
The whirring blur of the unfettered spool could be finely managed by counter-balanced weights placed on a cross shaft inside the reel. When the handle was turned, the reel locked into an anti-reverse mode, and an easily adjustable star drag regulated tension against a strong fish.
Also significant—huge, in fact—the lightweight plastic spool could tame the springy new monofilament line that was dominating the light-tackle market.
Most of the old direct-drive reels with steel spools simply were not compatible with the coiled “memory” of mono. The inertia of the heavy spool wanted to keep the shaft spinning as the mono boiled under a frantic thumb—often resulting in the celebrated “professional overrun.”
In fairness, a few old models sported narrow frames and aluminum spools; they were fast and smooth in the hands of experts, but did require considerable oiling and cleaning. They performed best with light, limp braid and were under-gunned for any fish with real horsepower.
Through several patents, the Garcia Corporation and Abu Sweden were able to protect the design through the ’50s and into the ‘60s. The first-generation Red Reel stood alone, above all else on the market.
Of course, none of this made much sense to me back then; I just knew I was looking at the future of fishing. I stared and stared and stared until my impatient dad pulled me away.
The Red Reel looked expensive—and it was. The retail price for a 5000 during the mid-’50s was $48. To put that into perspective, the apartment in which we lived rented for approximately $80 per month.
Low-end, but functional casting reels could be had for $5. Most top-shelf models sold for $10 to $20. Shakespeare’s finest product, the President, and Pflueger’s Supreme retailed for approximately $35.
No way Santa could afford to Ho-Ho-Ho down the chimney with a Red Reel in his sack. The grand reel would have been overkill, anyway. My Zebco 33 spincast rig was more than adequate for fledgling bluegill and bullhead forays in urban ponds.
The fact that I was more apt to get soot, switches and lumps of coal on Christmas morning was beside the point. As a matter of fact, Santa sort of split the difference. Under the tree was a Daisy Model 25 BB gun, the hard-hitting model with the long pumping arm, a $10 gift that was wonderful.
I walked away from Oshman’s gleaming display case, knowing that the Red Reel was out of reach. Yet I sincerely thought—“One day!”
I was not misguided—nor alone—in my assessment. Despite the cost, serious fresh and saltwater anglers embraced the Red Reel; within a few years Texas became the largest Ambassadeur market in the world, a ranking it held into the ’70s.
Southeast Texas especially was Red Reel Country. The murky green bays of the upper and middle coast, and the expanding potential of flooded-timber reservoirs were ideal for the heavy-handed approach of baitcasting.
The Red Reel ruled—either while bottom bumping with Texas-rigged worms (“Cross his eyes and play him in the boat!”) or lobbing shrimp under popping corks. And, of course, it was excellent for casting the 1/2- to 3/4-ounce plugs and spoons popular for specks, reds, and bass.
I purchased my first Ambassadeur 5000, serial number 538519, during the spring of 1964. I was 17.
The price had dropped to $40, still ruinous to a young wallet but within reach of scrimping and saving. Wow, it was a thing of beauty, and it was mine—all mine!
Just carrying the reel upped my game, and I carried it near and far through the decade of the ’60s, from as near as Galveston Bay to as far as the Gulf of Tonkin.
I still have that old reel, long retired from active duty, but still capable of making muster. The performance is rough, but I could catch a trout or a bass on it tomorrow. Through the sentimentality of the decades it remains one of my prized outdoor possessions.
During the late ‘60s I bought a second Red Reel just to own another one. It reposes in my den, never having seen line, much less water. It remains mint. It sits on a wooden base inside a clear dome and glows with the same understated cranberry elegance.
I reckon I’ve owned several hundred fishing reels and that is the only one on permanent display. I look at it now and then. I suppose it is a fond reminder of the Christmas present I knew could not happen.
In truth, as measured against the on-going parade of whiz-bang, low-profile super reels currently available, the first-generation Ambassadeur 5000 was a bit of a clunker. The retrieve ratio was a mediocre 3-to-1, the handle knobs were tiny, the drag was sticky, the anti-reverse was slow to engage, and the steel thumb lever was awkward.
But, like a good assault rifle, the Red Reel had loose tolerances and could keep firing under sustained abuse or neglect. Mikhail Kalashnikov had nothing on the Swedish engineers. If a Red Reel was dropped into sand or mud, the hard-charging angler could vigorously jam the rod butt up and down in the water, flushing the reel, then keep on chunking.
The Red Reel was reasonably easy to field strip. The red parts went here, the stainless parts went there, and the brass gears were placed in between. So long as the reassembly sequence was accurate, the odds were good the cranky machine would function after a hurried cleaning—well, most of the time.
Some younger anglers might scoff at this celebration of an outdated product, but I was there. I witnessed the transformation. Consider this as a history lesson and understand this: Every modern casting reel—every one owes its core to the original Garcia Ambassadeur 5000.
The Red Reel was, in my opinion, the most important single item in the advancement of light-tackle sport fishing, as we Texans know it.
For Life: The Story of Abu Garcia
—story by JOE DOGGETT