The story of an automotive impresario.
Mercedes 300SL, BMW 507, Porsche 356 Speedster: if someone were instrumental in the creation of just one of these cars, their legacy would be assured in the annals of automotive history. Max Hoffman was an essential driving force behind all three, and more besides.
Maximilien Edwin Hoffmann (his actual name — the second ‘n’ in his surname would be dropped later) was born in Vienna in 1904. His father owned a bicycle factory, lighting the fuse of his son’s love to go fast with anything on wheels, and young Max became an enthusiastic amateur bicycle racer. Soon, however, he craved more speed and switched to motorcycles, then to what would become his greatest love, motor cars.
While still enjoying the occasional outing as an amateur competitor in motor racing, Max Hoffmann established a car import company in the 1930s, Hoffmann & Huppert. The company represented revered marques such as Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Alfa Romeo, Talbot, Delahaye and Volvo. It was there and then that Max Hoffmann discovered his true calling: he proved to be an excellent salesman, as well as persuasive influence on the car manufacturers his company represented.
While his business was flourishing, dark clouds were gathering over Europe as Nazi Germany became increasingly belligerent and aggressive; the Anschluss in 1938, where Austria was simply swallowed up by Nazi Germany was his final cue to leave: being of Jewish descent through his father, Hoffman knew he had no viable future under the Nazi regime.
Hoffman moved to France, Paris to be exact, but this offered only temporary respite: when France was invaded by Germany and surrendered in June 1940, Hoffmann was forced to flee once again. This time he boarded a ship that took him to the United States, which would turn out to be be his final – and most fruitful – destination. Hoffmann was now at a safe distance from danger, but re-starting his life here by importing and selling luxury cars was out of the question, as people had more pressing concerns on their minds. Almost everyone realised that it would likely be only a matter of time before America became involved in the conflict, which indeed happened in December 1941.
Bright and resourceful minds inevitably find ways to survive, and Max Hoffmann was one such mind. He started a small company in New York that produced cheap jewellery made from plastic embellished with a novel metalization process he had devised. These items were often used in plays and movie-making but also became popular among the general public during these difficult years. This business provided Max Hoffmann with a reliable and steady income while he waited for better times.
In 1947, Max Hoffmann felt that the time was right to return to his preferred trade. He was aware of the many young soldiers returning from Europe, where they had encountered the variety of nimble and compact sports cars available there, and lamented the fact that none of the domestic US manufacturers offered anything similar.
Hoffman (who had by now deleted the second ‘n’ from his surname) opened a beautiful showroom on New York’s Park Avenue(1) designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Hoffman’s initial plan was to sell Delahayes. However, the once great luxury marque had fallen into a sharp decline after World War Two and Hoffman realised he had to include other brands in his portfolio in order to make the business viable. By 1949, Hoffman was representing, amongst others, Jaguar, Morgan, Rover, Lea-Francis, Rolls-Royce and Bentley.
In 1950, Hoffman also secured the sole importation rights for the Volkswagen Type 1 (Beetle) in the US(2). Because of a lack of brand recognition, a technical specification alien to American sensibilities, and likely some residual anti-German sentiment, however, even Hoffman couldn’t really get Volkswagen sales off the ground and he cancelled his import agreement in 1953. Hoffman later admitted that this decision was one of his great regrets and that he should have exercised more patience.
Also in 1950, Hoffman was made aware by a Swiss journalist that Porsche had plans to export its new small sports car, the 356, which could be just the thing for the returned American GI’s. His interest piqued, Hoffman visited the Paris Motor Show in October of that year, arranged a meeting with Anton Piëch and Ferry Porsche(3) and secured an import agreement for the US market.
At first, sales were very modest but in 1952 Hoffman sold almost 300 Porsches, which might not sound impressive, but at the time it represented 20% of Porsche’s worldwide sales. Hoffman felt, however, that the Porsche 356 had the potential to sell in far greater numbers if a cheaper, stripped down entry-level version was added. On the strength of his strong import performance he convinced Porsche to develop what would become the 356 Speedster, which was offered at just below US $ 3,000(4). Porsches sales performance in the USA improved markedly and, by the mid-1950s, Hoffman was selling close to 70% of the Stuttgart manufacturer’s output.
Another German car manufacturer wishing to boost its sales in the USA was Mercedes-Benz. With word having reached Stuttgart about Hoffman’s remarkable success with Porsche, Mercedes-Benz signed a deal with him in September 1952 to become the Daimler-Benz AG importer for passenger vehicles in the Eastern states of the USA. A year into the deal, during a meeting in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, Hoffman expressed his concern about the absence of a Mercedes-Benz sports car that could serve as a crowd-puller for his showrooms.
Brashly, he offered personally to place an order for 1,000 such cars if needed, a number for which he was confident he could find buyers in the USA. The outcome of Hoffman’s lobbying was the W198 300SL coupé and roadster, while production of the cheaper 190SL was also in no small part thanks to the persuasive Austrian car importer and seller.
In 1957 however, the Studebaker-Packard corporation took over the representation of Mercedes-Benz vehicles for the USA, based on a contractual agreement between Daimler-Benz AG and Curtiss-Wright. A key rationale for this decision was the advantage offered by much larger dealership network compared to that of Hoffman. The Austrian businessman reluctantly agreed to dissolve his contract, having been offered a large financial settlement in compensation but, as with his short relationship with Volkswagen, he regretted the decision in hindsight.
A tally of the number of Mercedes-Benz vehicles sold in the USA under Hoffman’s tenure speaks volumes about his impact: 253 cars in 1952, 423 in 1953, 639 in 1954, 2,054 in 1955, 3,109 in 1956 and 6,048 in 1957.
Despite this setback , and also the loss of his Jaguar import contract, Max Hoffman was never one to give up and enjoy an early retirement. The general consensus was that Hoffman was not an easy business partner to deal with and could be very tough, but that he was always trustworthy. Once, when asked about his reputation as a difficult person, Hoffman replied: “I examine a thing very carefully before deciding. I look at every detail and evaluate every aspect. It makes me happy to close a good business deal. And if that is being difficult, well, then maybe I am, too.”(5)
For those in his inner circle, he was always demanding as well. An employee of one of his business partners once declared that an afternoon with Hoffman was as strenuous as a whole week’s work elsewhere. Hoffman was not loved by everybody, but he certainly had the respect of all those with whom he had dealings.
In 1955, Hoffman signed a franchise agreement with Alfa Romeo S.p.A. granting him the exclusive right to purchase Alfa Romeo cars for distribution and resale in all of the United States. It was at Hoffman’s insistence that the Italian manufacturer produced a model dedicated to the US market demands: the Giulietta Spider, another much loved classic today. And then there was, of course, that beautiful failure- the BMW 507. After viewing some design proposals at BMW and being quite underwhelmed, Hoffman contacted Albrecht von Goertz, who had just established his own design company; he asked the German designer to come up with a few alternative proposals to be presented in Munich. BMW was impressed and enlisted von Goertz to finalise the 503 (which had been started by Kurt Bredschneider) and create what would become the 507 in production.
The problem with the 507 for Hoffman was that it was to be sold at US $ 10,000, double that what Hoffman himself had envisioned. (He had intended the 507 to fill in the gap between the Triumphs and MGs and the Mercedes-Benz 300SL). Moreover, despite having the V8 engine from the Barockengel, the performance of the 507 did not match up to either its looks or its price point. Nevertheless, despite the failure of the 507, Hoffman and BMW would enjoy a fruitful partnership during the sixties and early seventies. BMW’s resurgence, courtesy of the Neue Klasse models, was of course also beneficial for Hoffman.
In 1975, Max Hoffman had had enough and sold his business to the Bavarians. He retired to his beautiful house in Rye, just north of New York (another Frank Lloyd Wright design and, thankfully, still in existence) to concentrate on collecting art.
Maximilien Edwin Hoffman passed away in 1981 at the age of 77. A difficult, tough man and hard negotiator maybe, but also one with a very astute sense of market opportunities and the persuasive personality to get his way. Without him, the famous German triumvirate of the Porsche356 Speedster, Mercedes 300SL and BMW 507 would probably never have seen the light of day.
(1) Most regrettably, the showroom was demolished in 2013 and replaced by a bank office.
(2) Dutchman Ben Pon had tried to establish a foothold in the USA with the VW a year before, but returned home empty-handed.
(3) An apocryphal story claims that Hoffman also came up with the famous Porsche emblem, drawing a sketch of it on a napkin during a lunch with Ferry Porsche. The Porsche shield first appeared on the steering hubs of its cars in 1953.
(4) Ironically, in current times the 356 Speedster is among the most valuable 356s.
(5) Source: Group-media.mercedes-benz.com
8 thoughts on “Maximum Impact”
Good afternoon Bruno, and what an amazing hidden history you bring us today. I had never heard of Max Hoffman previously, but he was clearly a man of impressive drive and determination, especially having to overcome such a difficult early life. Thanks for sharing his story.
Good afternoon, Bruno. I was well aware of Max Hoffman(n)’s American history, but not the part that came before that. I was in New York in February 2013 and I didn’t get to see the showroom in Park Avenue. It was demolished two months later 😦
Here’s a picture of Maxie Hoffman’s private Frank Lloyd Wright designed home
Max Hoffman was no stranger to sharp practice, and it was this (and a level of duplicity in the acquisition of the Mercedes-Benz contract) which saw Jaguar’s William Lyons and Hoffman fall out spectacularly. It ended up in the courts – Hoffman suing Lyons for terminating his contract with Jaguar and the courts eventually demanding Lyons settle with Hoffman to the tune of $400,000 and the stunning Park Lane dealership he part-funded.
Hoffman was certainly instrumental in Jaguar’s push into the US (as was Charles Hornburg on the East Coast), but his often ‘robust’ approach lost him a lot of business (Mercedes also jumped ship).
Thanks Bruno for your article. Certainly Hoffman was very influential in the existence of some iconic ´50s sport cars.
A couple of years ago I read in Road&Track magazine website an article by Bob Lutz named “The shadiest people I ever worked with”. Max Hoffman was one of them…
Thanks b234r and Pat. I read Lutz’s article a few years ago and re-read it now. It’s good to keep Hoffman’s automotive accomplishments in perspective so as not to glorify him too much. Nevertheless, I think his legacy, especially in the US auto enthusiast world, remains.
Thanks Bruno for such a thorough account. I learned about Max Hoffman quite early in my car enthusiast life. He was refered to often in the Car and Driver and Road & Track magazines that I devoured with a passion since I was 12 years old. Hoffman was considered a hero in those magazines for bringing into the US market the legendary sports cars mentioned here; his influence on the W198 300SL coupé and roadster giving him almost mythical proportions.