The Reel of the Decade – Maybe Longer

Zebco/ABU Cardinal 4 circa 1971.

I think we can all come to an agreement with this one. Without a doubt, the Zebco/ABU Cardinal 4 (and 3) was the best spinning reel of its time. They may not have been the number-one selling reel, they cost more than an ordinary spinner at the time, but they were bomb-proof – pun intended.

The reels, manufactured by ABU Sweden and sold by Zebco, became available to the U.S. market in roughly the 1969 time frame and by 1971, Zebco was in an all-out marketing war with Garcia and their French-made Mitchell. By the mid 70s the reel had become the most widely sought-after spinning reel in the country.

So what made the reel so good? It was the first reel to come with a rear drag system that eliminated having to reach through the line in order to adjust the drag while fighting a fish. The drag also had more surface area than any other reel on the market at the time. Because of the rear drag, there was no need for a knob in which to release the spool from the body. This allowed them to design a push-button release so anglers could quickly change spools.

Zebco Cardinal ad from 1971 challenging the Garcia Mitchell. I’d have taken the Cardinal over the frog reel any day.

In order to cut down on the age-old problem of broken bail springs, ABU installed two – therefore allowing each spring to do half the work of a standard single-spring reel. Half the work – two times the lifespan. The reel also sported a precision worm gear that placed the line on the spool evenly.

Couple those features with stainless steel bearings (no bushings) and an enamel finish – you had a reel that would last decades.

I still have five or six Cardinal 3s and a Cardinal 4 that have been retired. They still work as well as they did the day I bought them – used in the mid-80s.

What killed the reel was the advent of the skirted spool by Diawa in the late 70s. Although the quality overall was not as good as the Swedish-made reel, the new technology prevented the line from going beneath the spool and getting wrapped up on the spool spindle. Still many anglers preferred the Cardinal over any other reel even well into the 80s. If you want to read a really good account of the Cardinal, click here.

Do you have a story about your Cardinals?

  • Robert Taliaferro

    Need a replacement for the spool on my Cardial 4. Please let me know if you can help me. This is such a great reel. I still use mine at times. Thanks.