Irv Athearn began his life-long affair with model railroading in 1938, when he filled his mother’s house with an elaborate O-scale layout that he was constantly modifying. A few years later, Irv valued his O collection at $10,000 and placed an advertisement selling it in Model Railroader. Response to his ad was rabidly favorable, giving Irv the idea that perhaps selling model railroads would be a good living.
He continued to sell O scale motive power and box car kits and other train products out of his mother’s house through most of the 1940’s, eventually becoming a full-time railroad retailer in 1946 and opening a separate facility in Hawthorne, California in 1948, the same year he branched out into HO kits for the first time.
Early on, Irv 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’s ability to recognize new trends and change with the times allowed Athearn to strike with a flaming iron. For instance, in 1956, he released the EMD F7 diesel utilizing the revolutionary “Hi-F” drive, and, in 1973, he introduced the F45 and FP45, among the first model locomotives to include flywheels on the motor shaft.
Irv Athearn passed away in 1991, but the company he founded lives on as one of the greatest forces in model railroading history.