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Max Hoffman - The "Carguy" with the automobile Instinct

Automotive history records various big names of engineers and designers. However, there are also some great people, who influenced automotive development by means of an automotive expert knowledge and an unerring sense for the market.

Consequently, these people marked a decisive setting of the course. In the early years of the car industry, Emil Jellinek is regarded as one prominent instance of such an influential player. Around five decades later, Max Hoffman – who we want to introduce here briefly – followed Jellinek’s footsteps.

Maximilian Edwin Hoffman was born in Vienna in 1904. In the 1920s, he discovered his passion for fast cars and motorcycles and participated in races. In the 1930s, he founded (with a partner) a trading company for import vehicles in Vienna. Particularly due to the political situation, he first emigrated to France at the end of the thirties, from where he eventually set off to the USA. During Second World War, automobile trade also declined in the United States. Eventually, no money was to be made in this sector. Therefore, Hoffman – for the time being – founded a company for costume jewellery making a small fortune. 

When life began to stabilize after war, Max Hoffman returned to his roots and opened his store “Hoffman Motor Company” in the noble Park Avenue of New York City in 1947. There, the first and only exhibited vehicle was a Delahaye Coupe having a chassis of Figoni et Falaschi. In doing so, he set a clear statement in order to demonstrate, in which league the Hoffman Motor Company will act as a decisive player henceforth. From the outset, Hoffman focused on the import of European sports and luxury cars such as Jaguar, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Aston-Martin, Austin-Healey, Alfa Romeo and other exotic brands.  

Max Hoffman and the Porsche 356 

We go back to the year 1953: In April of this year, the production of the Porsche 356 commenced in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen, Germany. Ferry Porsche was looking for new sales markets with regards to his new sports vehicle. He travelled to the U.S. to meet Max Hoffman, who was already well-known in the scene. On the spur of the moment, Hoffman was interested in the import of the Porsche 356. This illustrated his bold sense for vehicles, which did not fit into mainstream. Since who should buy these “small” cars compared to the humble American 44-HP-engine? The Porsche cost more than 4,000 dollars compared to the prize of a big Cadillac Cabriolet. Ferry Porsche seemed to be too modest in his assessment. Especially, when he let Hoffman known that he would be satisfied with 5 sold cars per year. Hoffman vigorously replied that he intended to sell five cars a week! 

The first 365s arrived in New York in the autumn of 1950. The U.S. race driver Briggs Cunningham, purchased two of them. Hoffman placed another in his showroom adjacent to models of Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar. After Hoffman successfully participated in a race with the rear engine boxer, interest in the new German sports car grew and sales figures began to increase. In 1951, 32 Porsches were imported; in 1954, imported cars increased to nearly 600, which presented almost a third of the production at that time! 

And once again, Max Hoffman proved just the right sense for his customers’ preferences. From the Porsche-people, he requested an “emaciated” 365, which should not cost more than US dollars 3,000. They realized his demand and as of 1955, the Porsche Speedster was offered in the USA. 

The weight of the 365 was extremely reduced by means of its rather Spartan equipment. Therefore, it became the optimum base for motor racing. 4,500 Speedster were constructed until the end of the car’s production in 1958. For the most part, they were sold in the U.S.

While Max Hoffman conquered the East Coast of the USA for the brand Porsche, another Austrian operated successfully on the West Coast. Jonny von Neumann was also an emigrant from Vienna having a car business in Los Angeles. In 1951, he visited his friend Max in New York City, where he saw the Porsche 356 for the first time. He was immediately enthusiastic and purchased one right away. He drove home in that car for several thousand kilometres from coast to coast. This vehicle was the first Porsche on the West Coast. Due to Jonny von Neumann’s good connections to Hollywood, he sold the 365s to a range of stars. To this date, one of the most prominent examples is James Dean, who purchased a 356 Speedster and participated in races with this car. Later on, he exchanged the car for another Porsche: a 550 Spyder. In this car, he was killed in an accident on his way to a race. Even after almost 60 years, the tragic accident is still omnipresent and unintentionally, contributed to the popularity of the brand Porsche. 

Around this time, Porsche customers were supervised by the “Porsche Primary Rock” Herbert Linge. Positioned in New York City, he was permanently on the big highways from the East to the West Coast. People highly regarded him as a “One-man Show”. From maintenance works to race participation, he handled the complete programme in the figure of a travelling Porsche workshop. 

Max Hoffman, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spyder and the BMW 507 

Even before the new Alfa Romeo Sprint Coupe was introduced in 1954, the company presented the vehicle to New York’s most important car dealer: Max Hoffman. They expected his judgment with regards to market opportunities in the USA. Hoffman was sceptical and demanded to construct an open, two-seated Roadster, which would have superior sales opportunities for certain. The Alfa team followed his counsel. In no time at all, a prototype was developed and in the following year, the gorgeous Giulietta-Spyder was presented at the International Motor Show in New York City! 

But that’s not all: Max Hoffman was also a fan of the brand BMW and their V8 limousine, the so-called “Barock-Engel” (“baroque angel”). Once again, he came up with an idea and therefore contacted his friend Albrecht Graf von Goertz, who most recently worked for Studebaker as car designer. In 1953, he went into business for himself. Hoffman told him about his idea of an open BMW sports car based on the BMW V8. Goertz worked on first drawings, which were changed and polished within the course of regular meetings. Convinced of their drafts, Graf Goertz presented the project BMW 507 to the supervisory board in Munich. And what happened next? The company built the vehicle and in September 1955, the car was shown – ready for production – at the IAA in Frankfurt. Sales figures of the adorably styled Roadster were not very high with regards to 253 vehicles and brought the company into strong financial difficulties. All the more, the BMW 507 is highly coveted nowadays and an almost explosive increase in value can be observed in the past couple of years. 

Max Hoffman and the Mercedes-Benz SL Types 

This was the Porsche / Alfa-Romeo / BMW story of Max Hoffman in the early fifties. But there is also a story about him on the making of the world-wide most appreciated sports car-icon: the Mercedes-Benz SL “Gullwing” and its little brother 190 SL. 

Even the CEO of Daimler Benz AG, Wilhelm Haspel, set out for the travel to the U.S. in the beginning of the fifties in order to generate new distribution channels for the post-war newly developed Mercedes-Benz types 220 and 300. They were also presented at the IAA in 1951. He met Max Hoffman and they agreed on a dealer agreement, which accounted for Hoffman’s position as the Mercedes-Benz importer of the eastern states of the USA. The supervisory board of Daimler-Benz AG placed great hopes in their new sales partner in New York. One year later, Wilhelm Haspel as well as his successor Heinrich Wagner died unexpectedly. Therefore, Fritz Könnecke became the new contact person for the agile Max Hoffman.

We can document his great esteem in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, Germany, because he was invited to a – as it later transpired – legendary board meeting in 1953. They talked about product and sales strategies for the U.S. market. One the one hand, Hoffman criticised the conservative and dreary colour palette of the vehicles offered and, one the other hand, the lack of attractive sports cars in the Mercedes-Benz programme. In doing so, he was thinking of the successful racing car 300 SL, which, one year earlier, sensationally achieved among other things a double victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the famous Carrera Panamericana in the USA. The idea was, he suggested, to develop the car as a production vehicle having a civilian presence. Additionally, he proposed to build a two-seated Roadster, which should be rather affordable. 

The board responded positively to this suggestion. Within the extremely short time of only five months (!), in February 1954, Mercedes-Benz presented one prototype of the 300 SL “Gullwing” (road version) and one of the 190 SL at the “International Motor-Show” in New York. The audience and the trade press were thrilled and consequently, the progress of implementation was decided. Already a few months later from August 1954, the 300 SL “Gullwing” was placed into the dealers’ showrooms. One year later in May, the 190 SL entered production. 

Both vehicles achieved great and legendary success. Apart from the Porsche 356-types and the BMW 507, they became a synonym for the creative and self-confident fresh start in war-damaged Germany. They were cars, which actually no one needed. Today, the 300 SL presents one of the most famous automobile design icons. In 1999, readers of the Motor Klassik chose the vehicle as the sports car of the century. Furthermore, the 190 SL (similar to the “great” SL) also ranks as one of the most popular classic cars. 

Without the ideas and initiatives of the Viennese car dealer from New York, our world would be a little poorer without the automotive treasures. 

Thank you Max Hoffman!