Article - Hall of Fame

The Abu Cardinal 55

By John, added on 07/06/2008

Click to enlarge

It's boxy, square and coldly efficient, so why am I nominating the Abu 55 for the PurePiscator 'Hall of Fame'?

Because it does everything it must well and nothing more. It isn't flashy or pretentious, reeking of ruggedness, it's typically Swedish. The Volvo of reels, well engineered and built to last. Tank like even, they feel bomb proof (well except for the spools maybe..but more of that later). Long, cold winters followed by dry, hot summers, Sweden's climate is a game of two halves. You get the impression the 55 was designed to meet both.

Open up that metal body and the simple engineering before you means they're easy to service yourself too. Like old cars before engines needed diagnostics and computer processors to repair. Even abused models can have new life breathed into them with a bit of grease, oil and time. One of my 55's seemingly had a previous owner who thought that spraying a can of WD40 into the reel was a good way of maintaining it. A kitchen roll later, some proper reel grease and oil, and hey presto a nice smooth reel again.

The clean, angular lines mean looks are merely straightforward and functional, nothing more. Yet there's a certain charm there nonetheless. Continuing the automobile theme, the black and gold livery and that metal badge, taking pride of place on the right hand side, provokes images of 'John Player Special' draped Formula One Lotuses of the same era. Optonics the same, it seems black and gold was all the rage then.

Today, fitting somewhere between the worlds of old and new tackle, the 55 holds the delightful position of offending complete purists, yet still looking ancient to modern tackle tarts. For those that are somewhere in between it's a revelation.

Click to enlarge

The Abu Cardinal 55, the poster boy for the specimen scene of the late 1970's and early 80’s.

Arriving with the dawn of carbon, hairs (rigs and moustaches), Lafuma bedchairs and shoulder patched army jumpers, for me it takes centerpiece in summing up that era. You rarely see a set of Optonics, monkey climbers and high banksticks pictured without the 55's hanging from the rods.

Savay, Yateley, Redmire, Ashlea, Frensham, Frampton, North Harrow Waltonians, the all black 55 saw action at them all via the rods of most of the big names of the era. Maddocks, Mohan, Maylin, Macdonald and probably lots of other anglers whose surname started with M!

In his book 'Carp Fever', first published in 1981 and the then 'bible' for carp anglers, stalwart of the time, Kevin Maddocks made clear his preference for the reel even after the first incarnation of the Shimano Baitrunner had emerged (though I believe he eventually switched over to the Japanese giant with the Aero models, another fantastic and legendary reel...love them or loathe them)

 

"The three most commonly used for carp fishing are the Mitchell (various models), the Abu Cardinal 55 and the Shimano Baitrunner. I use the Cardinal 55 and have done since 1978. I could find no faults with this superb reel although they do need to be packed with grease when first purchased to pre-load them slightly. The most impressive feature of the reel is the clutch operation which is totally reliable, smooth, easily controlled and is also unaffected by temperature variations......Besides high quality engineering, another good point is the twin bail arm springs, which are definitely needed at times."

- taken from Carp Fever (1981) by Kevin Maddocks, Beekay Publishers

 

Even now 30 years on, well looked after examples turn smoothly, bail arm snaps back strongly and the whole deal just feels tight in operation. But what really grabbed the attention of the specimen boys back then, and still stands up today, was, as Mr Maddock says above, the clutch. Though Abu had already used the rear drag position on it's earlier Cardinal models, the 55's was a step forward in reliability and smoothness. A multi-washer arrangement, allowing settings from light tension to locked up, that is still the basic system used on rear drag reels today. All those determined 'backwinders' now had the choice of relying solely on playing fish from the clutch (ok perhaps we're getting a bit romantic here, of course there were good clutches before the 55 but you get my meaning). If your lucky enough to get one, whizzing away with a fast take, the 55's drag note is recognizable and full of character.

Click to enlarge

You sometimes hear the line lay on the Cardinal 55 being criticized, it has to be said mostly in comparison to modern reels, but it's actually not that bad at all (see photos). Sometimes you'll find a particular spool is the problem, maybe it's slightly warped, and another will have much better line lay on the same reel. And, if the Abu 55 has a weakness, it would be these plastic spools. They're usually fine, but some haven't aged as well as others. The plastic can fade to grey (on the spool and bail arm blocks) which isn't exactly a problem in itself, but you do find some warped spools and even the odd tale of spools exploding in extreme conditions?

Line capacity however is good for most tasks (290m/0.25mm, 200m/0.30mm, 160m/0.35mm) and the push button spool change is practical to boot. It'll happily take lines from 6-15lb, 8-12lb is perfect, making it suited to everything from heavy feeder fishing to light sea fishing and all in between. Bar a few exceptions, such as extreme distance fishing with heavier lines, and even then this limitation is to do with spool size and not the reel's age, the 55 will do everything the modern reels do (at least if like me you don't use a freespool facility very often). Carp, Pike, Barbel, Bass, versatility is the key. However it's with the carp fishing boom of the late 70's/early 80's that the reel will always be linked, in the UK and Europe at least.

The 55 went through several incarnations during it's lifetime (1978-83? - if anyone knows the exact production years please do email in). The earliest models are badged 'Abu' only, before Garcia, with cleaner and less fussy side plate graphics. The anti-reverse was also of the non-silent kind. Later 'Abu' only reels, (1980 onwards?) came with silent anti-reverse.

These 'Abu' only models are normally the ones sought after by collectors.  Personally I prefer the silent anti-reverse 'Abu' only version (even though I always switch off the anti reverse when playing a fish, whether I'm playing the fish off the drag or not, it nice to have the 'emergency backwinding option' when their under the rod tip).

The next major change came with the slightly fussier looking 'Abu Garcia' badging (around 1981), underneath though they're still the same quality reel and where still made in Sweden. 

Looking at the serial numbers on mine, I would guess that the first two digits show the year of production. My oldest model, a non-silent anti reverse, 'Abu' only reel, serial number starts with '79..' (1979), my 'Abu' only, but silent anti reverse 'users' both start '80...'. From what I've seen the 'Garcia' badged reels seem to always have a '81' or later serial number which would also support the theory.

Along with the smaller Cardinal's, the rarer 52 and 54 (an excellent general coarse angling sized reel), the 55 also had a bigger capacity brother, the Abu Cardinal 57. Again the 57 sized reels were popular with the 'specimen hunters' of the time but never quite as much so as the 55. For the American market, the 55 was badged as the 'Ambassador', and along with the smaller 54 model, it found popularity as an all-round spinning reel.

In addition, alongside the standard Cardinal range, Abu also offered economy versions of each of the reel sizes, badged the 152/154/155/157. Not owning any of these models I’m still trying to find out the differences that came with the lower price tag?

Prices taken a copy of 'Coarse Fishing'' magazine from August 1981 show the range priced at 'Sportsmail' as ;

  • Abu 54 - £33.10
  • Abu 55 - £33.65
  • Abu 57 - £39.73

For reference/comparison, the Mitchell 300, undeniably a classic reel but a little long in the tooth by 1980, is listed as £19.97.

 

Click to enlarge

Ultimately putting the nail in the coffin for the legendary Mitchell 300, the 55 became the specimen hunter's darling for just a few years before itself being swept away by that Japanese giant with a freespool facility, the Shimano Baitrunner. Compared to the Mitchell from the 50’s therefore, and the later Shimano Baitrunner, the Abu Cardinal 55's reign at the top was relatively short.

But not everyone moved on it seems, and many carp, pike and barbel anglers never replaced them. They're becoming fashionable again too. Modern, Fuji seated stalker, floater and barbel rods are again being paired with Abu's finest fixed spool ever as 'retro' tackle becomes cult again. Things have come full circle, disillusioned with the modern market, even relative youngsters like myself are rediscovering them second time around.

Which means prices are currently (see article date above!) somewhat buoyant too. On the open market i.e not via a dealer, £35-40 should get you a runner, £60 a minter, £80 perhaps a box and manual.

What!!!!!!!! £60 for a 30 year old reel you say, but that's the whole point, find a good one, look after it a little, and you know you've bought a reel that will last for 30 years, it's pedigree proven. How many similarly priced, far eastern 'modern' reels can guarantee that? Certainly not Abu's current fixed spool offerings anyway...

So why not grow on that moustache, pull on that army jumper, steal the bottle tops from the Fairy and seek out a 55 (or two).

To conclude it's a classic, a 'retro' angling icon.

 


LATE ADDITION: Since I started writing this I've just seen a almost mint, boxed 55 go for £150+ on the old fleabay...to quote a friend...feck!

FURTHER ADDITION:  Another John has been in touch to say the 1** range were the same reel but not ambidextrous., they only came with left hand wind. Many thanks for emailing in John.

Having since found some original advertising material, on the 1** range,  it seems the line lay was also 'simplified' - See here for details

This site is optimized for Internet Explorer 6+ and Firefox.