Spinning Reels Then And Now

Spinning Reels Then and Now

Much can be garnered from an old photograph, like the one above featuring Joe Carrie hefting a 34-pound bass. He is holding a fiberglass surf rod with Perfection wire guides and Neocork grips. Attached is a Centaure French-made spinning reel that is taped to the rod for a warmer grip in cold weather. Finally, in the fish’s mouth is a Junior Atom. Everything about this black-and-white photograph is vintage 1950s.

Fixed-spool or spinning reels were first invented and used in Europe in the 1930s. After World War II, a wealthy American sportsman named Bache Brown went to France, where he helped develop a small spinning reel that he named after himself and brought to the United States to market. His company was purchased in 1947 by the toymaker Lionel and named Airex. That same year, Airex brought out a new model called the Beachcomber. It was not a very large reel, weighing in at 16 ounces and holding 250 yards of 15-pound-test monofilament. It had a full bail with an external trip, contrary to the half bail on most European reels. This was the beginning of a whole new era.

Airex Bache Brown Spinster
The spinning reel was brought to America in the 1940s by Bache Brown. This Airex Bache Brown Spinster was one of the earliest spinning reels available.

By the 1950s, many more spinning reels came on the scene, primarily freshwater ones from both Europe and America, but some larger ones designed for surfcasting were also coming from Europe. From France, there was the Mitchell, RU, Luxor, and the Centaure. Italy produced the Alcedo and the Delfino, and Germany made the DAM Quick. Reels from Asia were not on the scene until the 1980s, although Daiwa and Shimano did make a few freshwater reels in 1966 and 1978, respectively.

Penn came out with a surf spinning reel in 1961—the model 700, later refined to the 704 and 706. This reel used a worm gear drive the company probably copied from the German Quick. The 704 and 706 were (and still are) excellent reels still made in America. No other reel in the history of fishing can come close to matching that longevity.

Airex Beachcomber
In 1947, Airex introduced the Beachcomber. It had a full bail with an external trip, contrary to the half bail on most European reels.

Except for the large Luxor and the Penn, none of the reels had ball bearings, and the Luxor and Penn had only one, the main pinion bearing. I should mention that the 706 had two, one being in the line roller. Essentially, all the remaining spinning reels relied on sleeve bearings that, if properly maintained, did a good job. Of all these reels, the Luxor and the Penn were the most popular, primarily due to their strength and reliability. The Luxor was easy to convert to manual pickup, and because of its simplicity, could be disassembled and lubed in ten minutes. This feature made it the reel of choice for wetsuit-wearing fishermen, who came on the scene at Montauk in the early 1960s. Don’t forget that there were no waterproof reels back then. The Van Staal didn’t appear until 1991—about 30 years too late for me and other early wetsuiters.

antique spinning reels
Numerous manufacturers jumped into the spinning reel market in the 50s. Most of the larger reels designed for surfcasting were made in France, Italy and Germany.

The Centaure and the RU faded in popularity in the 60s, probably due to their half bail features that most anglers did not like. The RU actually had a stationary roller … that’s right, it didn’t roll. However, both of these reels had a feature that none other did—a flanged (or skirted) spool. With a few exceptions, this style now dominates modern spinning reels.

In the 60s and 70s, the Luxor was the top choice among serious surfcasters on Long Island and in Rhode Island, but trouble was brewing in France with Pezon et Michel, the distributor of the Luxor. A Frenchman named Paul Mauborgne, who designed the reel, had a falling out with Pezon et Michel. Mauborgne then marketed the reel under the name Crack (which means champion in French). The two adversaries became involved in endless court battles, and around 1980, production of the Crack ceased. Over the next few years, parts for the reel became rare and fetched black market prices, leaving the Penn 704 and 706 as the only options. Mitchell and Delfino did compete, but both reels had reliability issues. It took 10 years after the demise of Crack before another suitable surf reel was created—the Van Staal.

Penn 700
Penn became the first American company to produce a surfcasting reel. In 1961, they introduced the model 700, which was later refined to the 704 and 706.

Both the Van Staal and the ZeeBaas are essentially waterproof Luxors. The mechanics of both reels are very similar, but I freely admit that these submersible reels are superbly constructed.

With the exceptions of the Penn 704 and 706, which have a worm gear drive, almost all the rest have spiral bevel gearing. For gear construction, there is stainless steel, brass (an alloy of copper and zinc), bronze (an alloy of copper and tin), zinc, aluminum, and duraluminum (an alloy of copper and aluminum). The manufacturers usually indicate which metal is used, unless they use zinc, in which case they don’t want to brag about it. Next, there is the issue of the reel cam. A cam, sometimes called an eccentric, is a mechanical linkage to transfer rotating motion to linear motion; in other words, what makes the spool of the reel reciprocate.

Van Staal VS300
Van Staal entered the spinning reel scene in 1991. The VS300 was the first submersible reel on the market, and went into full production in 1993.

Only four reels have a direct-drive cam: Van Staal, Zee Baas, and Penn’s 704 and 706. On these reels, the spool goes in and out once for each turn of the reel handle. All the rest of the reels either have a crosswind gear cam driven by the main drive gear or an oscillation worm gear for the spool reciprocation. The latter is used when the reel maker wants a very slow spool motion for what is called a long cast reel marketed by Shimano, Daiwa, and Penn. Whether or not the elongated, slowly reciprocating spool results in a longer cast is debatable.

Lastly, there is the question of what the reel body made of. Many reel makers use a graphite or synthetic material, while others use aluminum. Some reels have metal for the gear housing and graphite for the rotor. Make no mistake about it, all-metal (aluminum) reels are the most expensive and the best.

Another issue among spinning reels is that of the anti-reverse. This was always a weak point in many past reels, but in 1991 the then-new Van Staal solved this problem by building into the pinion drive a one-way roller bearing, which was very effective and trouble-free. A decade or so later, just about every manufacturer adopted this design. It is a full-time feature, though several reel companies do allow the anti-reverse to be defeated on some of their models. All of today’s spinning reels have greatly improved drag systems – miles ahead of the crude, early drag systems.

Crack reel
Starting in 1968, Crack reels were introduced from France. They are believed to have influenced the design of Van Staal reels.

Finally, there are ball bearings. Don’t be too impressed by the number of ball bearings on a reel. One manufacturer offers a $90 reel that has ten ball bearings. Other manufacturers have reels costing several hundred dollars more that have between five and seven ball bearings. There are a few very “high-end” reels with up to 14 ball bearings. However, although ball bearings are relatively cheap, they do come in various qualities.

So, there you have it–a product’s evolution over 80 years that has seen it almost solely made in Europe, with a few U.S. makers, and then becoming an Asian business (primarily China). Most of those European companies still market reels for European consumption, but they are all made in China. There are two exceptions, though. Of the many reels that ABU Garcia markets, one reel is still made in Sweden and a company named Peerless BAM still produces spinning reels in the southwest of France. Although only three companies in the U.S., Penn, ZeeBaas, and Accurate, assemble or make reels in America, I should be fair in saying that China, Japan, and other Asian countries do a fine job of turning out quality products. In conclusion, as the surf fisherman exclaimed when the line parted after a long fight with a trophy bass, “That’s that.”

44 on “Spinning Reels Then And Now

  1. Johnny Roastbeef

    Great article! You should include a piece that shows how much the old reels used to cost vs. how much VS reels are and how everyone thinks they need a $700+ reel to land quality fish.

    1. Greg W

      Mr. Roastbeef,
      You do not need $700+ reel to land quality fish.
      I have fished many reels for striped bass from $30 to $250 before slowly up grading to VS reels. To me the difference (for this argument let’s say $550+ vs $250-) Is less maintenance and complete dependability. I have fished surf reels in the $250- area that I loved but felt I had to and did completely break the down 2 to 3 times mid season. Now I fish the $500+ In the surf and never feel the need to break the down mid season. COMPLETE DEPENDABILITY!

    2. Oksalt

      I agree with you Roastbeef. I have fished Long Island from Long Beach to Montauk. And I have fished with a lot of friends who love their Van Staals and Zeebaas reels. But I use exclusively Penn Z 706 circa 1980’s. I have fished them hard and maintained them for years and they have never failed me. I think the best quality of my 706 is the fact that I can field strip them, clean them out, grease them back up and be back in the surf in less than 15 minutes. try doing that with VS and Zeebaas.

  2. John krauss

    My first was a Dam Quick was about 50 $ in the 1950’s
    Then a few of real made in Sweden

  3. George Brown

    I am still using the Crack 3000 I got as a gift in 1983. Take care of them and they will live forever.

  4. Joseph P GaNun

    My first true surf reel was a Mitchell. I think it was a 302 ? Mounted on a 2 pc 9′ Garcia fiberrodglass. Wish I still had it for old times sake. Just like my Lionels, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Mays etc BB cards. I guess I wish I was 17. I’ll take my VS and VSB’s all day long.

    1. fred

      My parents bought me my first fishing reel, a Mitchell 302, sometime in the mid or early 60’s, I used that reel all those years from fresh to saltwater, and guess what? I still use it today and it works great. Reels back in that day had some sort of weird paint, I’ve beat this reel, you know because for a while I was a kid, and the paint never chipped or scratched down to the metal. I took it apart and cleaned and lubed it after every time I either surfed, pier or boat fished in the ocean just to make sure it wouldn’t corrode. Like I said I still use it, it’s my go to reel for heavy freshwater fishing now that I don’t live near the ocean anymore. My parents also bought me a 2 piece Actionrod (most of the decaling is gone, I think it was made by South Bend but my memory could be wrong) to go with the reel, I used that for some lighter ocean fishing as well as fresh, I did have to replace the eyes on it about 30 years ago but I still use the rod today.

  5. PAUL A EILENBERG

    Great article. Thanks! I am in the process of having a very vintage 10 ft surf rod restored to it’s former glory. It’s a Model 510 Carboly – St. Croix, One Piece Rod or undetermined vintage. Any thought about a period correct reel? I plan on fishing with it.

    Saw it & just knew it needed to be restored. Just way too good for a dumpster.

  6. Tom Largy

    As a boy of 13 or so in Seattle 1953-55 I spent precious $ on a couple of really terrible Japanese rod/reel sets that broke my heart. After that, with a whole month’s paper route money, I bought good stuff. I think $32.95 for a Luxor, which I still have. A Centaure or a Ru Mer which I lost when I overturned a rowboat, and so on. I loved those reels, and loved just turning the crank on them.

  7. Greg W

    The first reel I bought that did not come with a combo but was first viewed under glass and brought home in a box was a late 80tys vintage Abu Garcia Cardinal. My father had a large green metal late 60tys vintage Cardinal mounted on a custom 8ft glass surf rod that hung on the garage ceiling. Back then at 11 or 12 to me Cardinal equaled the best. I still have both reels but that surf rod I’m afraid is lost to history.

  8. Roy Bouchard

    My first fishing reel was a Luxor spinning reel. I got it when I was 10 (in 1953) and they were relatively rare at that time. It was bought in Calef’s store in Barrington, NH. I lost it on Plum Island fishing at night in 1964 when a big fish of some kind ripped the rod and reel out of a stake and the entire unit went out to sea never to be seen again. That reel had lots of use in both fresh and salt water and was trouble free for eleven years. I wish I still had it!!.

  9. Dave Trumbull

    Pardon my OCD, but do you have any further details on the rod that Joe Carrie is holding? More specifically… brand, length, and number of pieces? thx in advance !

  10. Mike M

    Interesting article. I came into possession of some very old reels (some of which are referenced in article) and have been trying to ID and put a date range to them. Any other suggestions for reference material to better identify these older model reels?

  11. Rod Raso

    We all hated ”Big Mouth Charlie” with his new spinning reel.
    In the early 50s we kids would fish for snapper bluefish off the town dock in
    Port Washington NY. We all used long bamboo poles and various shaped floats.
    Big mouth Charlie showed up one day with the first spinning reel we had ever seen.
    Cast after cast he would catch a fish and yell; ”I got another one”, like we should all be happy for him. The the rest of us kids had to be content with whatever fish came close in the shallow waters near the dock.

  12. ROBERT H PEARSON

    I am still using all of my AMERICAN made PENN spinning reels from SS4500 to SS8500 including a 706 (black body). All are in perfect condition, work well and require very little maintenance. I have recently sold most of my conventional PENN reels since most of my fishing is in the surf. They were in perfect condition when sold and will last many more years. I am using a PENN spinner SS5500 & a PENN SS6500 for the majority of my surf fishing. I would say all of my reels are at least 30-40 years old! I am 76 and have been fishing with PENN since I was 6 years old first using a PENN 200 Surfmaster(still using it on my party boat trips.) Thank you PENN for so many years of good service reels!!!!

    1. Steve

      I bought my first 650ss for $35 in 1986 used cause it was “too heavy”. Not the best NJ surf reel because it’s fast but even so my collection now includes 4 650s 2 850s 2 750s 2 5500s and I think 2 or 3 in the 400 series

  13. Sean Woodburn

    Thanks for a great article, great retrospective!

    I would like to take exception to one comment however. The various longcast features pioneered by Shimano and Daiwa are VERY effective in the hands of a skilled caster. All serious carp fishers in Europe use these reels to cast in the 150-200 meter as well as tournament casters who are casting in the 240+,(800 foot), range.

    Are these needed for fishing?
    Mostly no in America but the efficacy in the art of ling casting is undeniable.

    Cheers!

  14. Joe Rap

    Great article. Even better memories. I still have my first spinner, the Mitchell 300 that came with two spools. I fished it with the first rod I built on a 6 ft Lamiglass, cork seat and two rings to hold her down. Maintenance was easy, three screws opened her up, put some grease on the gears and closed her up. Recently, I opened a Daiwa and realized you have to go to special school, need special tools and special lubricants.. Gee, not like the old days ! I still have my Penn 710 and it still runs smoothly but need to use mono due to the rollers. Unfortunately, My go-to setup when snappers hit the bays was my Alcedo micron with 4lb test mono on a 6 foot rod. Unfortunately, I am unable to locate it. Those were great days and now the toys are more expensive but the joy of fishing still remains in our hearts as we fish through the next month before calling the end to the season.

  15. Frank Dougherty

    Really appreciated your history of Salt Water Reels. My first spinning reel in the early 50’s was a Langley with a Harnell rod. Then graduated to Ru Mer reels until the 80″s. These outfits replaced my original Calcutta surf rod and 155 penn conventional reel loaded with 36 lb braided nylon, which I could barely cast into the surf in Seaside Park, N.J. Thanks, you brought back great memories. I

  16. John Jancewicz

    I have a Bache Brown reel as shown but in mint condition. Yup its old. 1940s. I also have a 1947 polar cub fan. Pretty neat stuff. Not made in cheena. And both still work well

  17. Tom R.

    No mention of the ABU Cardinal reels imported from Sweden by Zebco. Not sure if these were available until the 60’s, but they were incredible spin reels back then.

  18. Scott

    You missed one up and coming US manufacturer of spinning and fly reels. IRT Reels are all built in Pine Grove,Pa.

  19. Nitro Z 17

    I am sure that those were great reels . Take a look around I love the person who feels the need to explain why they paid over 500$ for a spinning reel . Salt water fishing is like golf of fishing. Take a nap as you just troll then fight a fish for 36 hours 300 yard out . Cheers boys enjoy the salty water and 2nd mortgage Payment for your spinning reel

  20. Michael Rossiter

    Any information on the 1973 brandie corporation and the trigmatic spinning reel model S-410A. I just purchased one and can’t find anything on line about it or the brandie company. I did find an advertisement for the trigmatic in a 1973 fishing facts magazine that said it was a brand new reel just out. I’d love to know the history as it is a wonderfully built reel. Any help would be greatly appreciated

  21. [WR]

    After using several Shakespeare Alpha combos and losing my DAM Record set up to a housethief, I went back to my Diawa Giant that I bought new for $35.00 way back when I had a buzzcut and wore funny green clothes. Its gone with me everywhere I’ve worked across the world and handled everything from trumpet fish to surf perch to rooster fish. Have had offers to upgrade to newer models but , why?

  22. Troy Marcroft

    Great article Thank you, I grew up Surf fishing on the west coast of California

  23. Carlos

    Great article. 54 years old and I still surf Florida’s Atlantic coast. With my Shakespeare 2090 , 2080 and my beachcomber occasionally..

  24. Nelson

    Very informative
    Nice to know those old school reels and seems still last more than the new reels made now a days.
    I have had of my own few reels collection namely 300/302/306 Mitchell France
    German made DAM 220 ,Zebco 80L, Ted williams 401 both from Japan, 1980s Daiwa , Shimano and Penn, also from Japan
    All these are old reels and it’s over made, just like man of steel. I don’t normally use new reels as all of my vintages reels gives me what I want
    So hoping to buy these few old vintage reels mentioned in this articles, availability is a big ??

  25. Tamara

    Article is great. I have been researching reels trying to find the Rookie company in Japan with no luck. Anyone have a lead on them. Very old reel so not sure if they morphed into another company or not.

  26. Waxedfish

    I still use 5 Penn Z series except 1 Shimano Stradic HKFG. I can at least work in the Z series, the Shimano has to be sent off to be repaired. So I have a $200 reel that has to be serviced once a year at $50 a shot or a $50 reel that I can service as it needs to. I have owned 1 Zeebaas and 2 Van Stall reels and the old Penn Z series work just as good, they may not be as fast or as smooth, but they do the job very well. Its going to be a shame when I can’t get parts for the good Z series.

  27. Greg

    I thought the fisherman in the picture was wearing golf shoes when I saw those spikes. Must have been special boots for the surf fisherman?

  28. SCLI

    I still have my Penn 710Z Spinning Reel that I believe I purchased during the 70’s. Doesnt look much different then it did when I bought it. Very easy to maintain. Smaller reel (rarely mentioned) that has caught more then its share of Fluke, Flounder, Bluefish and many other inshore species over the years. It’s still in great working condition. I recently had to part with my Penn SS5500 V because I could no longer get parts. Another great reel that’s lasted the test of time. Replaced it with the 5500 VI. I remember having a Crack Spinning Reel. Gold Paint always peeling off. LOL, but for the life of me. Dont remember much about it. Lots of good and not so good Spinning reels over the yrs.

  29. Robert KOELEWYN

    Hello Ralph, Nice historic writeup. I would have like to see you mention my name and the novelties that were adopted from my reels! However I do want to let you know that I started an new brand again under the name VISSER. You can see more info on our facebook.com/visserreels and soon to be launched website. All the best.

  30. phfatcat

    I have a Martin spinning reel I bought in 1980 to use for surf fishing. Model 8950, 3980, something like that. Made in Korea.

    When i opened it, it looked quite a bit like the innards of the Penn 704-706 reels.

    Not many parts in there.

    It hung in the garage since 1980. Used it exactly one week on a family vacation that year.

    I took it down and it was frozen. Smeared a little grease here and there and it runs like a new one. I have it on the 9 foot surf rod I built in 1980 from one of those rod building kits Cabela’s used to sell. I really liked those kits. Built 4 or 5 or 6 rods from those kits…fly rods, surf and bait casting rods.

  31. Native Miamian

    I, too, really enjoyed the article which I stumble across while trying to find info about my first spinning reel, a Pfleuger that had a pickup but no bail. It was probably 1954 or 1955 and my dad brought home two of them, one for each of us, and Shakespeare rods. He never had much money (I inherited that skill) but would barter for stuff, including fishing tackle, even an old 18-foot cedar strip boat that required much work and which we fiberglassed ourselves. The spinning reel was in the back of my old shed, which had been abandoned for years (diseases that limit mobility are at the bottom of the list of non-life threatening illnesses) and has a leaky roof. Got back through the collected “valuables” to the old reel, which has a bad layer of corrosion and needs lot of TLC, and was amazed to find it works! I caught many bass, bream, warmouth, snook, and far too many gars in south Florida and crappie and even chain pickerel in Lake Okeechobee. My son has nice Penn reels but my 4-year-old grandson could start with this Pfleuger. Anybody have any ideas about where I could get parts for it?

  32. Colin T. Birch

    I enjoyed the article. I have quite a few vintage spinning reels that I still use. They include multiple Mitchells from ultra light, several 300’s and 306 & 302 saltwater reels. They’ve given me years of trouble free service ensured by annual maintenance. I also have a very large Heddon saltwater spinning reel of 70’s vintage, it’s made in Japan. I also own two large fresh water Daiwa spinning reel that date from the early 70’s. In fact the only issue I had with the article was the statement that Daiwa reels weren’t in use till the late 70’s, early 80’s. I distinctly remember seeing large Daiwa skirted spool reels for sale and in use on Cape Hatteras in the early 70’s. It stuck in my mind because I’d never seen a skirted spool reel before. I own much newer Daiwa & Shimano reels, but still use all my Mitchells, because quite frankly I haven’t found anything else that fishes appreciably better.

  33. louis alfano jr

    I was just given a new penn 700 with the surf rod that came with it, Its still new never been used or seen water,would anyone know what the value of this rod and reel would be now, new with out penn box

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