Athearn is a United States manufacturer of model railroad equipment, produced and distributed by American hobby manufacturer Horizon Hobby, Inc. of Champaign, Illinois, USA.
In 1938 Irvin Athearn built a detailed O scale model railroad layout in his mother's house, which gained an overwhelming response when he placed an advertisement to sell it. Deciding to make his career selling model railroad supplies, he became a full-time retailer in 1946. Athearn opened a separate facility in Hawthorne, California in 1948, and that same year he branched into HO scale models for the first time.
Athearn acquired the Globe Models product line and improved upon it, introducing a comprehensive array of locomotive, passenger and freight car models. Improvements included all-wheel drive and electrical contact. One innovation was the "Hi-Fi" drive mechanism, employing small rubber bands to transfer motion from the motor spindle to the axles. Another was the double-ended ring magnet motor, which permitted easy connection to all-wheel-drive assemblies. Athearn was also able to incorporate flywheels into double-ended drives.
The company produced a model of the Boston & Maine P4 class Pacific steam locomotive which 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. This item was discontinued after the Wilson motor was no longer available, and was not redesigned for a more technologically advanced motor.
Starting in the mid 1950s, 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.
When Lionel Corporation introduced their line of HO scale trains in 1958, many of the trains were produced by Athearn. Athearn also produced trains for the short-lived Cox Models brand of electric train sets in the 1970s. Many of these products were pre-existing items from the Athearn catalog repackaged with Cox branding. Freight cars packaged with train sets sold by Atlas Model Railroad Co. in the 1970s also came from Athearn.
Irv Athearn died in 1991. New owners took control in 1994, but continued to follow Athearn's business model. Paul Lubliner's fine quality tooling for his "Highliners" brand of EMD F-units was acquired by Athearn in 1998 and integrated into their new Genesis line. In 2002, Athearn acquired Rail Power Products, as well as the tooling for modern 50' boxcars from Details West.
Athearn was purchased in 2004 by Horizon Hobby, which moved the company from Compton to a new facility in Carson, California. At the same time, Horizon purchased Model Die Casting and their line of Roundhouse brand trains. A major international hobby distributor, Horizon Hobby is headquartered in Champaign, Illinois. In 2006, Horizon purchased McHenry Couplers.
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 Genesis line.
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.
October 16, 2009; Athearn announced that it would stop making so-called "blue-box kits" because of increased manufacturing and labor costs.
"Effective immediately, we here at Athearn have made the difficult decision to discontinue the production of our Blue Box line of kits. There were several factors that contributed to this extremely challenging decision however, the primary issue revolved around affordability and ensuring that our Blue Box kit pricing remain aligned with what the market can bear. Unfortunately, due to increased manufacturing and labor costs it has been determined that we are no longer able to continue offering kits at competitive price points as compared to our already assembled products." Excerpt from an email from Athearn.
Athearn continues to produce ready-to-run models of diesel locomotives, passenger cars, and freight cars representing a variety of eras and railroads. The company sells three lines: Genesis, the highest-cost, highest-quality, with DCC sound and fine details; and two lower-priced, less-detailed lines: Ready-to-Roll, representing trains from the steam-to-diesel transition period to today; and Roundhouse, representing trains from the days of steam era railroading.