Max Hoffman: The father of the European car in America
If you enjoy European cars in the United States, you have Max Hoffman to thank for it. His Hoffman Motor Car Company on Park Avenue and 59th Street on the upper East Side was the epicenter of European car delivery. What Luigi Chinetti wasn’t importing through his dealership in Greenwich, Connecticut, Hoffman was in Manhattan, eventually in one of the most iconic showrooms in the world. Prior to his involvement, European cars in the United States were luxurious and exclusive, outpacing the run of the mill Duesenbergs and Packards produced here. They were grand, ostentatious chariots, only available to one-percenters when that term actually had some meaning. You can think of Hoffman – born Maximilian Edwin Hoffmann in 1904 with two Ns – as the Henry Ford of Continental European automobiles. He democratized the European automobile, and made small, economical, yet well-designed transportation a status symbol. Along the way, he nudged European manufacturers in the direction he was confident Americans would respond to even more favorably. Like many automotive pioneers, Hoffman started his career as a bicycle builder and motorcycle racer, competing first with DKW, and later moving on to British AJS motorcycles. Simultaneously, he was an importer in his native Austria. Initially an agent of Smoliner & Kraky – which imported many American brands to Austria – Hoffman soon formed his own company, Hoffmann & Huppert, which was the exclusive Austrian agent for Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Delahaye. Interestingly, Hoffmann & Huppert was also the first agent for Volvo outside of its native Sweden. The Third Reich’s disdain for Jewish citizenry forced Hoffman to Paris in the late 1930s, and eventually to the United States in 1941 when Hitler took control of France. For a period during the war, Hoffman designed costume jewelry and his company proved successful enough to finance the Hoffman Motor Company in 1947. He immediately re-established contact with his vast network of carmakers in Europe, all of which were hot to export cars to the millions of victorious soldiers who had spent so much time there during World War II. In 1948, Hoffman supplied Jaguar cars to the eastern United States, and with cars like the voluptuous XK120, his business hit the ground running. In 1949, he took delivery of the first 20 Volkswagen Type 1s in the country, selling only two the first year. Hoffman would largely miss the crest of the Volkswagen wave, which didn’t hit the United States until 1955.
It did, however, establish him with Porsche a company he established a partnership with to import the first 356. Gentlemen racers were cropping up all over the Northeast, competing at Bridgehampton, Watkins Glen and in 1957, Lime Rock Park. Hoffman saw a golden opportunity to supply increasingly affluent customers with the small, sporty cars they needed. Perhaps apocryphally, Hoffman is supposed to have helped design the Stuttgart crest with Porsche at a restaurant in New York.
To his everlasting credit, he convinced Porsche that the American customer would be interested in a light-weight, stripped-down version of the 356 for racing, and Porsche responded with the Speedster in 1954. That same year, he convinced BMW to contract with Albrecht von Goertz to develop the 503 and the jaw-dropping 507, which debuted at New York’s Waldorf Astoria in 1955.
Despite the legend, Hoffman was far from perfect. His earliest opinion on the Porsche 356 -- a car he'd already agreed to import -- bordered on the tone deaf. Karl Ludvigsen writes in his masterful book "Porsche: Origin of the Species," that Hoffman was unenthusiastic about the 356's styling. "That design is impossible," he told Ferry Porsche. "You will never sell that car in America."
Hoffman went as far as bringing Porsche, on one of his visits to America, to see commercial artist Cory Whitmore, who provided sketches with the flowing fenders that most Americans associated with foreign cars of the period, such as the MG TC and the Jaguar Mark IV.
Similarly, the 507 missed the mark, but not because it wasn’t a stunningly gorgeous automobile. High production costs drove the price of a 507 from Hoffman’s vision of $5,000 – a figure at which he was convinced he could sell 5,000 507s per year – up to $10,500, leaving the 507 far behind the Mercedes-Benz 300SL.
Hoffman was also instrumental in demanding that car from Mercedes-Benz, on behalf of his American customers. He was the initial importer of Mercedes-Benz in 1952, and in 1953, contracted Frank Lloyd Wright to develop a showroom for Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz products. The showroom opened in 1955 on 443 Park Avenue, and months later it was featured in a two-page spread in Architectural Digest.
By the 1960s, Hoffman dissolved his partnerships with other brands and focused his attention on BMW. According to Ludvigsen in a column in Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, “in late 1965 when he saw a new model the company was planning to launch, he was flabbergasted. It was a slimmed-down, short-wheelbase, two-door version of its sedan, powered by a 1.6-liter four. As far as Hoffman could see, it was a high-cost car that BMW would have to sell for a lot less money--a guaranteed profit-killer. He told BMW's executives that they were in for a big disappointment.”
Hoffman persuaded a reluctant BMW to upgrade the car for the American market with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder. When David E. Davis wrote about the 2002 in Car and Driver at its launch in 1968, he called it “one of modern civilization's all-time best ways to get somewhere sitting down.” He wrote “If the 1600 was the best $2500 sedan C/D ever tested, the 2002 is most certainly the best $2850 sedan in the whole cotton-picking world,” a cherry on the sundae of Hoffman’s influence with BMW. His influence was even more obvious in the American-market BMW Bavaria, which launched in 1971, the only car BMW ever produced without an alphanumeric moniker.
In Donald Osborne’s piece on Hoffman in the New York Times on March 18, 2007, he writes that BMW’s success with Hoffman was eventually what forced him out of the automotive business. “Not surprisingly, BMW’s growing success in the United States market created an urge to reclaim control of its own distribution, a situation that Hoffman had seen play out again and again,” Osborne wrote.
Following a long negotiation, Hoffman eventually sold his business to BMW and left the automotive business in 1975. He spent his remaining years as an art collector.
Hoffman died in 1981.
Photo Credits: M.O. and M.E. Hoffman Foundation, www.productioncars.com