By Tony Cook/photos by the author
You think you know the early Athearn product line pretty well, huh? The early 1960s steam locomotives, the made-for-Lionel Rectifier electric locomotive, early metal freight cars kits (in HO but first in O scale), and a few more, right? You have a mid-1950s gold Globe F7A shell, you have the operating crossing gate from the early 1960s, you have the geared-drive Hustler sold by Cox in the early 1970s, you own that Ajin-made 2-8-2 Mikado from the early 2000s… but how about Athearn’s 1:48 scale cowboys?
This colorful product line appears to have begun as “Miniature Masterpieces” in 1955. The kits were injection-molded plastic replicas mostly based on an “Old West” theme with horses, wagons, and figures. Miniature Masterpieces was a Venice, Calif., company, and samples of select toolings carry this identification. I don’t know the history on how exactly Athearn became involved with that company or these items. One lead is the non-Old West with a circus theme (Big Top Circus Kit) that you’ll find in a Globe Models-branded box. Collectors know the connection between Globe Models and Athearn, so perhaps these came along with the F-unit toolings and flat-stock shorty streamliner passenger cars in Globe’s collection?
ABOVE: Are those light tan plastic pieces fuel tanks and diesel detail parts? No, they are from Athearn’s Medicine Wagon (as is the decal sheet). The brown plastic pieces are from the Western Models series Stagecoach kit. With everything molded in a single brown color, hobbyists were challenged to apply realistic paint colors and weathering to finish off the models. While Athearn produced a line of HO scale (1:87) model trains, these Western models were O scale (1:48).
Packaging includes two variations; one is similar in many respects to those familiar “blue box” model train kits that served the company from the early 1960s (replacing yellow boxes) into the 21st century. The other packaging shares its design and decoration style with western-themed kits sold by Adams & Snapp, and those boxes feature a full-color mural covering the width of the box lid. If you begin searching, you’ll find Miniature Masterpieces under a variety of brand names including Adams Action Models, Renewal, Revell, Snap Plastics, our point-of-interest Athearn, and likely others over the years.
Besides the Old West theme, military, circus, ancient Rome, and other oddities either exist or populated the sides of the boxes as other attractions to seek out and buy… though again whether all made it to production is questionable (at least certainly in production and marketed with an Athearn box). Athearn appears to have limited its releases to the Old West models (with one exception) from the Miniature Masterpieces line. Those noted other subjects did make it to the sides of Athearn boxes (compounding the curiosity and mystery). Some of the models (and no scale for them is listed) include a Thor Missile (K-162), Missile Transporter (K-158), Marine Amphibious Landing Vehicle Tracked (LVT) (K-157), Hawk Missile Battery (K-154), Honest John & Launcher (K-150), La Coquette Balloon (K-80), Atomic Ship N.S. Savannah (K-320), and Ben Hur Racing Chariot (K-450). Quite an eclectic bunch of subjects!
The series of kits was history by the mid-1960s, at least with respect to Athearn involvement and my research into them. None of these releases makes an appearance or receives any coverage in the series of Athearn catalogs produced from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s (when I believe these kits were current and available to buyers as at least one instruction sheet thankfully includes a 1962 date to give some age estimate to it and the series). There are six releases that make up the Athearn offerings: Wells Fargo Stagecoach (K-230), Covered Wagon (K-231), Ranch Wagon (K-232), Chuck Wagon (K-235), Medicine Wagon (H-521), and Western Figure Set (H-509)…