The Strange Connection between Toothpaste and Ambassadeur Reels
About ten years ago I got a call from a friend of mine who had just purchased a vintage Ambassadeur casting reel. These Swedish-made beauties need no introduction, as they are among the most famous—if not the most famous—casting reels in all of fishing history. Their wide-spread acceptance in the 1950s saved American bait casting at a time when the spinning reel threatened to make its casting rival a relic of the past. My friend’s initial excitement over his find was somewhat tempered by the fact that the reel’s operation was intensely sluggish, a fact easily attributed to the mounds of a grey/whiteish gunk he found on the inner gears when he cracked open the Ambassadeur to find out what was wrong. The whiteish gunk—dried from years of dessication—felt remarkably like…dried toothpaste?
That couldn’t be. Who would use toothpaste as a lubricant, especially on a high-end ABU reel? I was as perplexed as my friend was, although he was adamant that if it wasn’t toothpaste he was damned if he knew what else it might be. That is where the matter rested until almost a decade later I purchased a tackle box at an estate sale. At home I eagerly dug out the lures, spoons, and spinners and set them aside, then grudgingly picked through the bottom of the box, separating out the band-aid boxes, rusty hooks, and assorted ephemera. I picked up an incomplete newspaper article clipping, moldy and water-damaged, and was about to throw it out without bothering to look at it when a headline caught me eye. It read “It’s No Joke, Toothpaste Has Bass Casters Reeling in Glee.” As I read the surviving portion of the article, I smiled because I now knew the answer to my friend’s nearly decade old conundrum.
The article gave no sign as to date or place of publication, but the author was the noted outdoor writer C. Boyd Pfeiffer, probably best known for the classic do-it-yourself fisherman’s bible Tackle Craft. Only half the article survived the ravages of tackle-box life, so I put it on my ever-growing list of things to do to try and track down the full article. I knew Pfeiffer wrote for every major sporting journal, but was also a columnist for The Washington Post. A few months back while searching through the back issues of The Post for something totally unrelated I stumbled across the complete text, and now I can conclusively put to rest why you may find toothpaste on the inner gear workings of your Ambassadeur reel.
“Mother never told you about Ultrabrite,” Pfeiffer began in the article dated 18 September 1973, “at least when it comes to polishing your bass casting reel to a slick smoothness undreamed of by the manufacturer.” Using toothpaste as a gear polishing compound was an idea developed in the early 1950s by Texas native Gene Bullard, a Dallas custom rod builder and fisherman who turned to toothpaste when valve grinding compound failed. The theory was that the abrasive components in over-the-counter toothpastes would, through an arduous process, eventually polish the inner gear teeth to a point where performance would be extraordinary and the Ambassadeur would “cast farther, more accurately, and…will not backlash.” The last claim was based on the dubious idea that “minute spurs and uneven surfaces of machined reel parts cause the reel to slow and jerk, causing the backlash in the first place.”
The process of actually polishing the gears began with packing the side plates with a mixture of 50-50 grease and toothpaste (Colgate and Ipana being Bullard’s first choices), the grease acting as a suspending agent. Then the intrepid fisherman would continuously turn the handle anywhere from eight to twenty hours, either by hand or by hooking it up to a small motor turning at 100 rpm. The mixture was to be reapplied on occasion to the pawl and worm gears so that these parts would be polished as well. Once the polishing was done, the Ambassadeur was opened, stripped of the mixture, lubed and oiled and ready for work.
The toothpaste technique was “kept for all these years within the borders of Texas,” and publicized nationally by Pfeiffer’s article. How many Ambassadeur reels received the Colgate Treatment is unknown, but it is an interesting (albeit trivial) chapter in the history of this great reel, and exemplary of the ingenuity of the American fisherman. As for my friend’s Ambassadeur 5000, it would appear the original owner read the Pfeiffer article, got excited about fixing up his reel, squirted a tube of toothpaste inside the gear plate and started cranking. Before long, he apparently tired of this tedious task, set aside the reel, and forgot about it. More than twenty years later my friend soaked the gears to remove the crud, cleaned, oiled, and lubed the reel, and took it out fishing. He claims that it does indeed work like a dream (although it still backlashes), so maybe there is something to the Colgate Compound after all!
-- Dr. Todd