Journey to the Center of an Obsession, Part 2
by Espen Olav Sjaastad
© 2009 Espen Olav Sjaastad. All right reserved.
We meet Jan Sjöblom, plant manager, in his office. As expected, he exhibits more than a marginal interest in fishing reels. He is open-minded and accessible and supplies us with some valuable bits of information about the reels we are researching. We also learn that ABU is weathering the hostile economic climate quite well. The Ambassadeur has been winning market shares of late, to some extent offsetting the effects of a shrinking market, and sales in Sweden have increased. I look past Sjöblom and recognize some seductive, familiar curves in an unfamiliar costume, a prototype 2501CDL with gold-plated frame and red sideplates. Our licence to shoot is still good, so I wipe some drool from the corner of my mouth and reach for my camera.
This enormous building is divided into four floors which, in descending order, contain offices, assembly, machining, and surface treatment. In assembly, the work stations look a bit like those in a collector’s basement, except that the tools are better. ABU’s finest reels – the small Ambassadeurs and the Mörrums – are still assembled by hand. There is also a production line where the fully automated assembly of the C3s and and C4s and other models takes place. There’s plenty of activity in machining, too. Some parts are now made in Eastern Europe and Asia. Others, like the frames and spools and gears, are machined here at the factory from brass and aluminum rods and sheets. One more trip in the elevator and we’ve reached the ground floor, where anodizing and plating takes place. I follow Karl-Eric through the factory in a half-daze, too mesmerized by machines and colors and bins full of parts to take the pictures I had planned.
Later that day, I’m thrilled when Karl-Eric gives me a Norwegian edition of the ABU 75th anniversary poster, a poster of some note among ABU fans. He mentions, offhand, that the Norwegian posters came from the printer with a number of spelling mistakes and were all destroyed. He thinks. This was one he saved from the scrap heap, it might be the only existing Norwegian specimen. He thinks. I’m a collector, so back at Lotta’s I spend the rest of the evening in a feverish hunt for those magical typos that would support his theory. Collectors are mad.
Thursday morning at Lotta’s. Across the street is a row of apartment buildings just like the one in which I’m staying. Under new ownership, the Halda watch factory would recover from its 1920 collapse and would, at its peak, employ 1300 workers. ABU, around 1980, employed 700. Halda shut down for the last time in 1989, while ABU now employs about 100. All those workers gone, and many of them lived across the street. The buildings fell into disrepair and were marked for condemnation, but some of my compatriots caught wind of this, picked up the apartments for a song and half a dance, and restored them to summer home status. More followed and a Norwegian colony gradually formed.
July is the big vacation month, but some Norwegian migrants are already here. Gathering outside in the parking lot, stretching, yawning, wondering how to spend another perfect day. They look happy enough. Stereotypically, Danes are Scandinavia’s tropical tribe, fun-loving and friendly. Norwegians go to Denmark for a beer and a laugh. But Sweden feels more like home. The landscape is familiar, the spoken language more accessible. And Swedes radiate something more temperate, not a heatwave but a mild summer breeze, easier on our frozen Norwegian souls.
ABU’s reputation in Scandinavia owes a lot to its service policy. In Oslo, I never had to worry about parts. Regardless of model, they always had what I needed. And in the good old days, if you sent an Ambassadeur for service and it was sufficiently trashed, ABU would simply send a brand new one in return. Unfortunately, the Oslo inventory of parts was recently shipped back to Svängsta. More worryingly, a couple of years ago, ABU stopped producing spare parts for the classic reels from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. They still have the tooling in Svängsta but tooling won’t help if the knowledge of how to use it is lost. Prices in the online market for parts may soon explode.
The ABU Service Department is located in a long, single-storey building behind the factory. Karl-Eric says hallo to a number of old colleagues before we sit down with his namesake, Håkan Svensson (no relation), to talk about small Ambassadeurs, the 1500C and 2500C models and their closest relatives. Of the classic models, the small ones and the 7000 are apparently those that generate fewest problems and complaints. Håkan explains that there are issues associated with some permutations of the small ones too, but that’s another story for another time.
We sit down for coffee, where we are joined by Jan Svensson (no relation). Jan has brought some old factory catalogs and schematics. We discuss past changes to small Ambassadeurs for a while. It’s Thursday afternoon. Outside the sun is shining. Just down the road, people are swimming or catching fish. In America, a few dozen incurable reel addicts are preparing for a guided tour of the IGFA Museum. Somewhere in this world, people are making money, making love. And here I am, in the ABU Service Department, listening to three unrelated Svenssons lamenting the march of time and cursing the inventor of jerk bait techniques. There is no place on earth I would rather be.
On a day when the wind is just right – or just wrong, depending on your perspective – you can hear the blasts from the open-air concerts at the Sweden Rock Festival all the way to Svängsta. Most of the bands are Swedish, and many of those bands have banded together to form an organization called “Ge fan i våra vatten.” This is untranslatable, which is just as well, since expletives are involved. But the general purpose of the organization is conservation of Swedish waters and the fish stocks they hold. In support of this initiative, ABU recently unvailed a reel in loud greens with the organization’s suggestive logo anodized into the tailplate, the Ambassadeur 5601C Raw. A percentage of receipts goes to conservation. A marriage of two desirable trends: the increasingly cool image that recreational fishing enjoys among Scandinavian rockers, and the growing realization among tackle makers that if there are no fish, there is no reason to buy tackle.
After leaving the Service Department, we visit with Els-Marie Svensson (no relation), who works with product development at ABU. A few of the rock & roll reels are scattered around her office. Els-Marie educates us on some of the finer points of Ambassadeur foot numbers, then shows us another rock & roll reel in black and aubergine. She calls it the Harley-Davidson reel. Still later, we talk to Arne Johansson. Arne is another retired ABU reelmaker, and he willingly shares his memories of the small Ambassadeurs. Then he and Karl-Eric get into old stories from their ABU days, the crazy things that seem to have happened on a regular basis. They talk about getting the old gang together, revisiting the past, using this as a foundation for a book or a video. Amen.
Lennart Borgström has said that it’s always either up or down, you never stand still. Many collectors believe that his leaving ABU not only marked the end of a long ascent and the beginning of a long descent but actually precipitated these. Karl-Eric thinks Lennart Borgstöm did the right thing – Borgström would not have been a happy man at ABU today, not within any plausible counterfactual scenario. The rise of ABU was a small miracle, but things change. Tax policies, cost levels, competitors, tastes. Perhaps it’s equally miraculous that, despite it all, Ambassadeurs are still being made right here in Svängsta.
Thursday evening, I go for dinner with Karl-Eric and his wife Mona to a restaurant in Karlshamn. They advise me to take a different route back to Oslo the next day, through the heartlands of Sweden, places I have never been. It may take a little longer, they say, but it’s worth it. I’m thinking I might get lost, it’s something I’m good at, especiallly when I’m daydreaming about reels. But then I figure if I just keep going north for a few hours, then hang a left, I’m bound to reach Norway sooner or later. Devoted pilgrims always find their way home.
If you collect small Ambassadeurs and have stories or pictures that you are willing to share, or if you would simply like to discuss these reels, feel free to contact Espen at email@example.com -- and look here for information on the book, as I'll post it as soon as I hear anything!
-- Dr. Todd