With the popularity of HO scale, there has long been an abundance of manufacturers producing a range of products to fit every budget. Here, we’ll cover some of the most common HO train manufacturers, sharing a bit about the company history along with some fun facts mixed in.
Founded by Irvin Athearn in 1946, Athearn first ventured into HO scale train models in 1948. After an O scale model railroad layout he built became a sales success in 1938, Athearn answered his calling to sell model railroad supplies.
Fun fact: Athearn produced many of the HO scale trains for the Lionel Corporation line that were rolled out in 1958.
Irvin Athearn passed away in 1991; by 2004, the company was purchased by Horizon Hobby. Production relocated to China in 2009. Also in 2009, Athearn discontinued their infamous Blue Box line, citing rising manufacturing and labor costs. HO Collector has a great presentation here detailing a timeline of Athearn’s Blue Box era.
Today, Athearn still offers locomotives, passenger cars, and freight cars in three product lines. Genesis is the top-of-the-line, while Ready-to-Roll and Roundhouse are more affordable but less detailed.
Atlas has quite a fascinating history. It all began in 1924 when an enterprising Czechoslovakian immigrant named Stephan Schaffan, Sr. first founded the Atlas Tool Company at his home in New Jersey. Less than a decade later his teenage son Stephan Jr., a model airplane enthusiast, came to work for him.
Steve Jr. often asked the owner of a local hobby shop if there was something he could do to earn more money. The shop owner suggested Steve Jr. might create improved track components with the materials in his shop. He was up for the challenge – the “switch kit” he designed was a success, so much so that the whole family worked on them each night in the basement.
He didn’t stop there: Steve Jr. made several other inventions, all of which catapulted the popularity of model railroading and helped to make it a mass-market hobby enjoyed by thousands of enthusiasts.
By the late 1940s, the business had outgrown the family home and relocated to a factory built in Hillside, NJ. And in 1949, Atlas Tool Company was officially incorporated. It wasn’t until 1975 that Atlas got involved in the HO train market, when they started importing Austrian models manufactured by Roco.
Steve Jr. passed away in 1983; the 1990s saw a name change to Atlas Model Railroad Company, Inc. Did you know? Atlas was actually once two companies: Atlas Model Railroad Co., Inc. encompassed HO and N scale products; Atlas O, LLC focused on the O scale line.
Then in 2011, Atlas O, LLC merged with Atlas Model Railroad Co., Inc. The following year, in 2012, Atlas announced an agreement with Wm. K. Walthers, Inc., under which Atlas purchased their N scale locomotive and rolling stock tooling, including Walthers N tooling and the former “Life-Like” tooling.
For a comprehensive historical glimpse into Atlas, explore The Train Collectors Association page on Atlas Trains.
According to the Bachmann Trains website, the company boasts quite a fascinating history, beginning with its founding in 1883 by Henry Carlisle. The company once fashioned horn, ivory, and tortoise shell into Spanish combs for the Southern aristocracy, then expanded into other hair ornaments and umbrella handles following the Civil War.
Beginning in the late 60s, Bachmann began offering model trains, produced by the Hong Kong based company Kader. In 1981, Bachmann was acquired by Kader, which renamed it Bachmann Industries.
Today, Kader is a major industry player: it’s the world’s largest manufacturer by volume of model railroads. Bachmann says they are the only model train company with HO, N, On30, O, and G scale lines all on the market.
Did you know? Bachmann was the first American company to manufacture prescription sunglasses.
Broadway Limited Imports
A newer company established in 2001, Broadway Limited Imports (BLI) focuses on limited-run HO and N scale model railroad locomotives and rolling stock. Often considered the luxury brand of model trains, they’re notable for pioneering on-board sound in HO scale locomotives back in 2002.
Broadway Limited merged their website with Precision Craft Models, Inc. in 2007; that same year, they also added the “Blueline” product line which boasts digital sound systems. “Blueline” products don’t have DCC, but they’re also less expensive than Broadway’s “Paragon” models.
2009 saw another expansion, with the introduction of the Paragon2 line, and in 2015, Broadway Limited debuted Rolling Thunder, which is a system that transmits low frequency bass sounds from the locomotive to a subwoofer that’s positioned under the model train layout.
Headquartered a short distance from Disney World in Florida, Broadway Limited website shares that they’ve become known in the industry by a variety of nicknames, including “the on-board sound guys” and “museum quality detail guys.”
Established in 1981, International Hobby (IHC) is well-known among enthusiasts for its affordability, reliability and performance, making them a great starting point for beginners. The majority of IHC products you’ll find are HO scale; however they also manufactured N and O scales. IHC locomotives and rolling stock often lack the higher levels of detail seen in more costly and newer models.
Some of IHC’s products were sold under other brand names utilizing the same tooling – examples include Mehano, AHM, and Model Power. steam and diesel locomotives, freight and passenger cars, structure kits and accessories.
As of 2019, it seems IHC is no longer in business…
KATO U.S.A’s parent company is Sekisui Kinzoku Co., Ltd., headquartered in Japan. Established in 1986, KATO U.S.A. is based in Schaumburg, IL, where all research and development of new North American products is carried out. Kato manufactures ready-to-run HO and N scale models, as well as UNITRACK, a high quality rail and roadbed modular track system popular in HO and N gauge.
In an interview published on Gaugemaster.com, Hiroshi Kato, President of Kato Precision Railroad Models shared some insightful observations on the changes to the model railroad industry since he founded KATO USA, Inc. back in 1986, including:
- The relocation of factory plants to lower wage countries beginning in the 1990s
- The increase of DCC technology pushing up pricing of models, while lowering production amounts
- An absence of real expansion of passenger and freight services in American railroads in spite of “decent activities” of both Euro and Japanese railroad manufacturers.
You can check out Kato’s news feed, download their current loco and car stock list, and see what’s coming soon at their website here.
Originally founded in 1926 as Mantua Metal Products, Mantua started making HO scale trains in the 1930s and quickly became a popular brand. During the war years, Mantua suspended production of their model railroad products to focus on the manufacture of precision measuring and mapping equipment for the armed forces.
By 1957, Mantua became an innovator in HO scale ready-to-run die-cast locomotives. These were sold under the infamous TYCO brand name; today, some of those original products have become collectible.
After Tyco left the model railroad industry in the 1990s, Mantua and IHC produced many of the Tyco model train products. 2001 was a bittersweet year – it was both the 75th anniversary of Mantua, as well as the year it was announced they would shutter production of model railroad lines.
Check out this interesting article detailing how different (and ultimately, confusing!) production was during the final years of Tyco’s train line, ending with the final catalog appearance in 1993.
Founded by a then 20-year-old man named Mike Wolf, MTH (Mike’s Train House) grew from humble beginnings when it was a mail order business in the basement of Wolf’s parents home to become a leading company known for its outstanding quality of model railroad products with exceptional detail.
This innovative company stands out not only for their product quality; they also value communication with their audience and say that they’re the only model railroad company to publish a weekly e-newsletter. They’re also active on various social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Back in 2005, DCS emerged in MTH’s HO scale Pennsylvania K4s Pacific, with the locomotive featuring Proto-Sound 3.0, which included both DCS and NMRA-standard DCC receivers. A 2015 product catalog references the company’s slogan, “HO Trains That Do More,” and highlights their innovative digital electronics for the HO train market, with sound equipped locomotives compatible with all HO operating systems.
MTH’s website says that they boast the widest product range of any model train company in the world. Here’s a fun, informative timeline chronicling MTH’s rich history.
Rivarossi has long been one of the most well known manufacturers of model railways. Founded in Italy in 1945 by Alessandro Rossi, Rivarossi was acquired by Hornby Railways in 2004. Long known as a top quality manufacturer of HO scale railway models,
While early model trains used sheet metal, milled, turned and die-cast components, a transition to plastic happened over time as Rossi found that plastic (bakelite at the time) offered the opportunity for greater detailing.
1957 saw Rivarossi HO models licensed and sold by Lionel as Lionel HO. Beginning in 1958, Rivarossi products were sold through Athearn. Thereafter, virtually all Rivarossi products were distributed through AHM (Associated Hobby Manufacturers).
For a deeper look into the Rivarossi – AHM connection, I recommend reading My Memories of AHM: The Rivarossi Connection, an insightful article written by V.S. Roseman in HO Collector Magazine.
Probably the newest manufacturer on our list, ScaleTrains.com has already made its mark as an innovative manufacturer of HO and N scale model trains since announcing their company in 2015. At present, the company produces four brands and is officially licensed by CSX Transportation, GE Transportation, GATX Industries, and Union Pacific Railroad.
You can read more about their current product lines here, which include Museum Quality™, Rivet Counter™, Operator™, and Kit Classics™. For their Museum Quality™ line, ScaleTrains says they blend extensive historical research and a dedication to perfection to create historically accurate replicas of North America’s most famous locomotives.
Other HO scale train manufacturers include:
- Fox Valley Models
- Model Power
- Stewart Hobbies (currently: Bowser Trains)