Athearn is a United States manufacturer of model railroad
equipment, produced and distributed by American hobby manufacturer Horizon Hobby, Inc. of
Champaign, Illinois, USA.
Athearn 'O' scale 40' Steel Box Car Kits
The company's history began in 1938, when it's founder-to-be, Irvin R. Athearn (1904 - 1991), started
an elaborate 'O' scale layout in his mother's house that he was constantly modifying. A few years later, Irv valued his 'O'
collection at $10,000 and placed an ad in Model Railroader magazine to sell it. After receiving much response to it,
Irv decided that selling model railroads would be a good living. He sold 'O' scale motive power and box car kits and
other train products out of his mother's house through most of the 1940's via mail order. The first products sold by
Athearn were metal 'O' scale kits. Some parts for early 'O' scale kits were machined by Bill J. Lenoir.
1940's ads by Athearn in Model Railroader magazine state 'O' gauge only!
After becoming a full-time retailer in 1946, Irv opened a separate facility in Hawthorne, California in 1948.
That same year he branched out into HO kits for the first time.
The early HO kits were stamped steel boxcars and refrigerator cars sold through the Overnight Distributing Service.
Athearn 'O' scale 40' Steel Reefer Kits
Because raw materials were in shortage after WW2, Athearn resorted to acquiring sheet metal wherever it could obtain it.
Some Athearn kit-built freight cars
have turned up with sides made from surplus Coke bottle cap material. The Coca-Cola bottle cap printing is visible on the
interior sides of the cars.
Athearn AAR type 40' 'O' scale box car kits used metal sides with the door openings punched out. The Athearn designs
used thin, stamped metal doors, sliding in U-channels. Roofs and car ends were also made of metal. The Athearn steel
reefer kit model was based on a PFE R40-14 aluminum prototype with a wood floor. The kit used aluminum parts too and
was the only 'O' scale model ever made that was true to a PFE aluminum prototype. Early metal Athearn kits built up
into pretty much the best looking models of their day; details included free standing ladders and grabs, separate roof
walks, teeny working door tracks, and stamped metal doors, just like the real railroads. These early kits were issued
in red, then yellow boxes.
Athearn 'O' scale 50' Steel Double Door Box Car Kits
In 1950, Athearn introduced an HO tank car kit and in 1951 the diecast HO metal wrecking crane was released.
Athearn acquired Milwaukee based Globe Models product line of wood and brass kits in July of 1951. Globe Models
started producing their line of metal sided HO freight cars in 1949. The boxcars and refrigerator cars were
similar to Athearn cars, but had die-cast roof walks and brass car ends. The stock cars had plastic sides
which deformed over time. They also made tank cars and their own trucks. Much of Globe's original tool and
die work was performed by Milwaukee master modeler Carl Traub. Much like Varney,
Globe kits were very similar to Athearn metal kits in general "tab in slot" construction. Athearn improved
upon the line, introducing a comprehensive array of locomotive, passenger and freight car models over time.
Globe had developed a plastic F7 A and B unit in HO scale during the very early 1950's. Athearn started
producing them under the Globe name in 1954. These plastic engines originally came as unpowered dummy
units painted in gold and sold for less than $1 each. Because they were inexpensive, a flurry of interest
developed amongst modelers and hobbyists to also acquire powered chassis, decals and paint to customize
and finish them. Initially Irv Athearn used the Globe name to test the market for these plastic
kits. After seeing the success, Irv moved the Globe Models to the Athearn name in 1956. It is believed
that the sudden demand for decals allowed the Wm. K. Walthers Co. to turn
around their business, which was not doing well during this time.
Early on, Irv Athearn recognized the importance of time and value to his customers. He introduced “an entirely
new principle in HO car construction,” a reefer kit with a preassembled body and spot-welded underframe—a
precursor to the popular Ready-to-Roll line. Athearn continued to shake up the model train industry through
the years, consistently marketing their products as innovations in quality, workmanship and excellent value.
Irv Athearn’s ability to recognize new trends and change with the times allowed the company to strike with a flaming
iron. For instance, in 1956, Athearn released the EMD F7 diesel utilizing a revolutionary 'Hi-F' drive mechanism, employing
small rubber bands to transfer motion from the motor spindle to the axles. The GP9 followed
in 1957 as the first detailed model 100% tooled by Athearn (the F7 was partially done by Globe, an Athearn buyout),
and received the same level of success, becoming a classic and widely-used locomotive in many model railroaders'
collections. The GP9 was also fitted with
the Hi-F can motor system with rubber band drive. This system worked well for the early Globe F7's, but it was a
tight fit inside the narrower body of the GP9, and the rubber bands dried out over time. To meet the needs of
advancing model train design, a new system consisting of a narrower electric can motor and a geared drive was
constructed. Pittman, a large manufacturer of DC motors, was chosen to produce the motor
to power the new 'Blue Box' drive. The Pittman based system featured a gear drive consisting of a series of sprockets
which interconnect inside the locomotive's trucks and drive each axle. A major improvement in this system was the
ability to have all the locomotive's wheels pick up electricity from the track, where as the early Athearn models
only used one truck and required insulation on the other to draw track power. Another innovation that came later
was the double-ended ring magnet motor, which permitted easy connection to all-wheel-drive assemblies.
then in 1973 Athearn introduced the F45 and FP45, which were among the first model locomotives to include flywheels
on the motor shaft. The gears were connected to the flywheels on the motor via a diagonal worm gear and male/female
universals. Later Athearn drives featured a single dog bone universal instead of male/female parts to reduce friction
points, but many of the old drives continue to function with proper maintenance and attention.
Starting in the mid-1950's, Athearn produced shortened versions of streamlined and heavyweight passenger
cars based on Southern Pacific and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe prototypes. The company also offered a variety
of freight cars with sprung and equalized trucks. The cars could be obtained in simple kit form, or ready-to-run.
A model of the Budd Rail Diesel Car was introduced in 1953 with a metal body, and reintroduced in 1958 in plastic.
The comprehensive scope of the product line contributed to the popularity of HO as a model railroad scale, due to
the ready availability of items and their low cost.
Over time, Athearn discontinued 'O' scale manufacturing and concentrated solely on HO scale. Kits became
simplified and were issued in blue boxes where the modeler only had to screw on the trucks and add a few parts here
and there. Athearn metal and wood kits were revived for a time in the 1960's by G. F. Menzies, who had acquired them
from Athearn. Menzies also offered the former Athearn line of metal kits as separate parts. Since these metal parts
were much thinner than the plastic ones that were commonly found on manufactured car kits during this period,
modelers replaced the clunky plastic pieces with these to obtain a more prototypical look. Menzies became D. J.
Baker Co. in the 1980's, and was still selling the 40' and 50' double-door round roof box car kits and the 40'
AAR box and 40' steel reefer kits. In 1990 the Menzies line of freight car kits was purchased from the D.J. Baker Co.
by Bowser Manufacturing of Montoursville, PA.
Beginning in 1958 through the early 1960's, Athearn licensed HO gauge trains that it made for
resale by Lionel, which resold them as their own. Custom manufactured items included
a Rectifier Electric and auto loader. All other Athearn made Lionel pieces appeared to be exactly like Athearn's own
trains except for the inclusion of a circled "L" logo being the differentiator. The other locomotives provided
were F7-A's as powered or dummy units, dummy F7-B's, GP-9's, and the 4 wheeled Hustler industrial switcher.
Lightweight Athearn passenger cars and a large assortment of freight cars were offered to round out the rolling
stock assortment. The Rectifier was a unique offering in the Athearn line and was the only electric locomotive
ever sold by Athearn as the company focus was primarily diesel with some steam. Lionel reportedly retained the
molds to the rectifier, which is the only Athearn-tooled HO piece that did not remain in Athearn possession.
Lionel would produce a drive on its own for powering its Rectifiers. The Athearn models rode
on the GP9 underframe and had EMD Blomberg trucks, a spotting feature for examples found without a box.
Athearn is known only to have cataloged and sold the blue and yellow Virginian Rectifier, while Lionel produced
other road names, including New Haven and Pennsylvania. Interestingly, in 1993 Athearn mistakenly issued an Erie
50' gondola kit in HO that had a rubber stamped Lionel circle L logo on it. This error was caused by use of
original 1958 drawings for production of the car's new rubber stamps. While this was an inexpensive car,
the error makes it quite collectable.
In 1958 Athearn introduced the plastic-bodied RDC-1 and RDC-3, powered by the Hi-F Drive, and a
plastic version of the 200-Ton Crane. 1959 saw release of the 4-6-2 steam locomotive with the Hi-F Drive, as well
as the 50' Double Door Box Car, Quad Hopper and Pickle Cars. Athearn Heavyweight Passenger Cars were new in the fall of
1960. The first road names were B&O and Santa Fe, plus they were available as undecorated, in both kit and R-T-R form.
Athearn sold some of its GP7 shells to Penn Line that were paired with their own power
chassis to create the Penn Line GP9's. By 1961 Athearn had introduced a gear-drive version of its 4-6-2 and a
gear-driven 0-4-2T 'Little Monster' and 0-6-0. The 4-6-2 was a model of the Boston & Maine P4 class Pacific
steam locomotive. It incorporated a cast zinc alloy base and thermoplastic resin superstructure. It had a worm
drive and all power pickup was through the bipolar trucks that carried the tender. The 4-6-2 Pacific was planned
to be part of the Lionel HO line, but difficulties in production kept it from joining
that catalog. This item was discontinued after the Wilson motor was no longer available, and was not redesigned for a more
technologically advanced motor. After a short run, the 0-6-0 and 0-4-2T were also discontinued and no steam locomotives were
produced by Athearn for almost 4 decades. In 1962 Athearn introduced their GP30 diesel. A ring magnet motor for
diesels came out in 1964. This led to the release of the GP35, SD45, SDP40, DD40 and SW1500 Cow & Calf in 1966.
Alco PA1 and PB1 models were introduced in 1970, and a year later U28B, U28C,
U30B, U30C, U33B and U33C diesels were released. In the 1970's Cox trains complete
line of HO products consisted almost entirely of Athearn produced items, including F-7A and B diesels, GP-35
diesels, SW-1500 diesels, U28-C diesels, PA-1 and Hustler locomotives. Rolling stock produced by Athearn
for Cox included the 40' box car, 50' plug door Box car, 40' reefer, 40' hopper, 40' cattle car
3-dome tank car, 62' tank car, single-dome tank car, 50' gondolas, cupola and bay window cabooses, 50' auto
box car and Athearn's streamline passenger cars. Cox also marketed several Athearn accessories as their own.
Athearn also supplied freight cars for Atlas to sell with its Roco-made
diesel locomotives in train sets starting in 1975. These sets consisted of EMD diesels made in Austria by Roco that were
trend-setters in the marketplace, and Atlas packaged fully assembled Athearn rolling stock that was standard pieces
from the Athearn line.
In 1980 Athearn released its version of the Fairbanks-Morse Trainmaster. The Athearn
H24-66 Trainmaster was an early example of prototype-specific tooling being offered on ready-to-run plastic models.
In 1984 Athearn improved their locomotive line with a new drive that had new narrower motors and new handrail stanchions.
New plastic EMD Blomberg truck side frames were applied to the F7, GP9 and GP35. Athearn introduced the SD40-2 and SD40T-2
Tunnel Motor. With the new narrow motors, they are Athearn's first hood units to feature scale-width hoods. A GP38-2 and GP50
were late 1980's releases.
Irv Athearn passed away in 1991 in Hawthorne, CA. The company passed on to Bob Macias, one of the head employees at Athearn
and the manufacturing genius behind the majority of products in the vast Athearn line who became president. New owner
Mike Geddes took control as Chairman in 1994, but continued to follow Athearn's commitment to high-quality products
at reasonable prices. Additions to the line included the Genesis line of premium models,
the licensing of John Deere kits and tractors, the acquisition of Rail Power Products, Inc., the entry into
the N-scale market and the development of the Ready-to-Roll line. The 1990's also saw the introduction of the
50' Modern Double-Door Box Car, the MAXI-III and Husky-Stack Well Cars, the GP60, GP50 Phase II, the AC4400CW,
AMD-103, Bombardier Bi-Level Commuter Cars and C44-9W. In July of 1998 Athearn purchased the F-Unit molds and
tooling by Paul Lubliner from Highliners to be used to produce decorated F2A&B, F3A&B, F7A&B, and F9A&B diesel
locomotives as part of the Genesis line. Highliners retained the exclusive rights to sell the F-Units in
undecorated kit form. The announcment was made by then President Bob Macias and Vice-president Tim Geddes.
The line continued to evolve and constant improvements were being made. To increase detail, a narrower Pittman motor
was designed to fit narrower and correct-width locomotive hoods. Notches in locomotive pilots for couplers were enclosed
to match the prototypes. In the final blue box decade, the radiator fans and grilles were given a 'see-through' appearance
with improved molding techniques. Many characteristics of the blue box line including re-worked mold tooling even survives
today as part of Athearn's line of Ready-to-Run trains.
In 1999 Athearn entered the steam locomotive market with the Genesis Series USRA 2-8-2 Mikado and 4-6-2 Pacific.
The models were manufactured overseas by Samhongsa. At the time, this was the first new steam locomotive offering
in almost 40 years. The other companies offering steam locomotives at this time were Rivarossi,
Model Die Casting/Roundhouse, Tyco/Mantua, and Bowser. However, those
models were still being produced using decades old technology. The Athearn Genesis models included can motors,
flywheels, improved (non-tender) electrical pickup, very quiet operation, DCC-ready wiring and moderate detail.
In 2002 Athearn acquired the molds, dies and inventory of Rail Power Products of Park City, UT.
The purchase was announced by then Athearn President Tim Geddes. Rail Power had been in business for 15 years and was
initially formed to use Athearn's mechanicals while providing highly detailed locomotive bodies and models that others,
including Athearn, were not making. There were 15 locomotive body styles available from Rail Power for Athearn to
further update and enhance its Ready-to-Roll brand of HO locomotives. Athearn would also produce the former Rail
Power Products models of Intermodal equipment in 1/87 scale. This included the Rail Power Products developed
over-the-road trailers, containers and a 56-foot intermodal well car. The same year Athearn purchased the rights
and the tooling for four 50' Box Cars from Details West of Chino, CA. The boxcars were a 50-foot single plug door,
50-foot smooth side single plug door, 50-foot plug door/sliding door, and 52-foot double plug door.
These cars were later released in the Athearn Ready-to-Roll line. The deal with Details West included its
inventory, plus tooling and molds. Details West, however, would retain the rights and continue to sell the floor
and underframe for these models.
Athearn introduced their N scale line in 2002. Irv Athearn was inducted into the 'O' Scale Hall of Fame in
2002 in Chicago. In 2003 Athearn released their first locomotive equipped with sounds.
Athearn was bought in 2004 by Horizon Hobby Inc. who became the exclusive distributor of the Athearn products.
Athearn was then moved from its 58,000 foot manufacturing facility in Compton to a new facility in Carson,
California. Around this time, Athearn had 50 employees and was making more than 2,000
model railroad products. Under Horizon, Athearn then purchased Model Die Casting of Carson City, NV and their
line of Roundhouse brand trains, launched 1:50-scale precision die-cast products, and created the 4-6-6-4 Challenger
with sound as well as other exciting new models, including a Union Pacific Big Boy 4-8-8-4 (released 2006), a
Union Pacific class FEF 4-8-4 (released 2007), and a Southern Pacific class MT-4 4-8-2 Mountain with Vanderbilt
type tender (released 2010). In 2006, Horizon purchased McHenry Couplers. Michael Stephens was named as the new
president of Athearn Trains in January 2007. His father was Rick Stephens, who served as Chairman
of Horizon Hobby when the Athearn acquisition was made in 2004. The announcement was made by Joe Ambrose,
Vice-president of Horizon Hobby, Inc., Distribution Division. Before joining Athearn, Stephens was vice president
of marketing for Kalmbach Publishing Co. While at Kalmbach, he was co-chair of the World's Greatest Hobby
campaign. It was announced that former Athearn president Tim Geddes would continue to work with the firm as a
consultant. Tim had served as president since 1995. In 2008, Athearn acquired the tooling for the short-lived
"Tower 55" series of HO scale diesels from Overland Models. Much of this tooling made its way into the Athearn
The firm of Model Die Casting, acquired by Athearn in June of 2004, has its roots in model train production
dating back to 1938, when musicians Jerry Joice and Perry Bodkin established a hobby store called Roundhouse at
1301 North Catalina Street in Hollywood, California. The first train kits produced were HO scale and were made
of die cast metal parts. In 1939 the business was purchased by part-time employees Clarence H. Menteer and
C.A. Voelckel. Shortly after assuming leadership, they were hired to build models for Cecil B. DeMille's
film Union Pacific. In 1939 Roundhouse Products introduced an HO scale 0-6-0 steam locomotive as a
brass and lead alloy kit. Like most other manufacturers, World War II forced Roundhouse to suspend
operations. By 1946 Menteer & Voelckel's company was now called Model Die Casting, Inc. and production
of the Roundhouse Products line was resumed. In 1948 Model Die Casting relocated to Los Angeles, California.
In 1950, they released the first four cars in their cast metal car kit line. These were steel sheathed box cars
with pre-painted and lettered sides using 410-M paints. In 1955 the company relocated to Hawthorne, CA. In
1956 C.H. Menteer became the sole owner of Model Die Casting, Inc. and served as its president for the next
50 years. MDC/Roundhouse made various freight cars and steam engines in Zamac prior to 1960. Their first
plastic models were the ore car kits of 1960. In 1979 the company introduced their N Scale product line.
In 1984 Model Die Casting introduced their 2-truck Shay steam locomotive kit. And in 1985 they released their
Alco RS3 diesel locomotive kit, which hobbyists believed to be the most accurate RS3 ever made.
In 1993 Model Die Casting relocated operations to 5070 Sigstrom Drive in Carson City, Nevada. In 1996
new can motors were introduced. The Roundhouse 30' Wood Caboose kits became very popular with modelers.
Finally in 2004 the acquisition by Athearn was made. Roundhouse was known for putting out kits with themes,
such as the 'Old West', 'Old Timer Mining', 'Mountain Logging' and 'Snow Battling'. After the acquisition,
the Roundhouse name was to be used only for a line of HO scale Pre-WW2 products, with the rest of the Roundhouse
line moving under the Athearn name.
In mid-2009, all remaining U.S. production was moved to China and warehousing moved to parent Horizon Hobby.
Sales and product development was moved to a smaller facility in Long Beach, California. The company also
announced on October 16, 2009 that Athearn would stop making its famous 'blue-box kits' because of increased
manufacturing and labor costs. The company decided to concentrate on making fully assembled products.
The company established three lines of products. The Genesis line is the highest-cost, highest-quality,
with DCC sound and fine details. Two lower-priced, less-detailed lines are the Ready-to-Roll introduced
in 2001, representing trains from the steam-to-diesel transition period to today, and the Roundhouse line,
representing trains from the days of steam era railroading. 2009 was also the year that Athearn
established its relationship with SoundTraxx to begin offering locomotives equipped with Tsunami sound.
In 2010 Michael Stephens left the company and took a position at Walthers as
Vice-President of Proprietary Products.
In 2014 Athearn released an Electro-Motive Division GP39X diesel unique to the Southern Ry. for the first
time in plastic. It was available in HO scale equipped with a SoundTraxx Tsunami Digital Command Control
(DCC) sound decoder and a motor with two brass flywheels. This model was an accurate depiction of the
2,600-hp prototype locomotives first introduced in 1980. In 2017 Athearn introduced its 4-6-6-4 Challenger
articulated locomotive in HO scale modelled for the first time in plastic. A large portion of the current
Athearn RTR line traces all the way back to the original plastic kits first produced in the 1950's and 60's.
The 40' petroleum tank cars, 40' stock car, bay window and "western" style caboose, 40' and 50' flat cars
with trailers, boats, planes, 40' steel reefer, the streamlined and heavyweight passenger cars, 200 ton
crane (originally all metal), crane tender caboose, derrick car, pulpwood car, 40' quad hopper, pickle car,
rotary snow plow, and the 50' double door box car, all date back and have only seen the most minor changes
and upgrades since their introductions.
Because of the quantity produced and number of years made, nearly all Athearn HO blue box
kits and ready to run plastic injection molded trains and N scale pieces are easy and inexpensive to obtain.
Complete 'O' scale and HO scale yellow box wood and metal kits from the 1940's and 50's are
more difficult to find however. The challenge, entertainment and value to collecting Athearn trains may
lie in locating unbuilt, original mint kit examples with all the parts and paperwork. This would include
the Athearn, Model Die Casting and Global lines.
Link to Athern web site.