I enjoy reading classic car magazines from Europe and the US and one name seems to appear in every edition – Maximilian Hoffman! Who was he and why was he such an important figure in the automotive industry? By the way don’t confuse him with his namesake who was a World War 1 military strategist who helped defeat Russian advances in 1917 – a pivotal reason for the Russian revolution!
Our Max is much more interesting – he was born in Vienna in 1904 to parents who ran a small manufacturing business which he joined as a teenager. The company was born out of an inherited grocery store (!) and made sewing machines and later bicycles – a common path for many car manufacturers of the time. This company was not related to other Hoffmann motorcycle and car companies that have come and gone.
The experience in mechanics lead young Max to compete on early DKW motorcycles and graduated through the ranks until four wheeled racing took his focus. His success as a racer opened some doors and he became an agent for a local importer of Auburn, Cord and Duesenbergs into Austria as well as Lancia and Pontiac. This naturally lead him to setting up his own business during the mid 1930s with a partner: Hoffmann & Huppert and this company became the sole importer in Austria for Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Alfa Romeo and Volvo as well as other French manufacturers. Note the name: it started with two “n”s but was changed later.
However things were getting hot in Europe and with a Jewish surname from his father, Max realised that the outcome might not be pleasant so he left Austria for Paris and was in the process of repeating his success in France when full hostilities broke out. He was on the move again and this time to safety in the US, arriving at Ellis Island in New York in 1941. With experience in the auto industry behind him and a stagnating US industry, he used his entrepreneurial skills to make some money until he could fulfil his desire to import European cars into the country.
So in 1947 he opened his first dealership in the upper East Side of New York supplying luxury European cars before signing his first manufacturer: Jaguar. This was followed by related brands like Daimler, Lanchester and Lea Francis. This lead to signing a deal with Volkswagen and he imported the first Beetles into the US – quite ironic as the sponsor of the car was the man who forced Hoffman to flee Europe! This didn’t last long as the Beetle was too small for the market at that time – he was 15-20 years too early.
This is where Hoffman’s reputation really took off. He was the Mercedes-Benz importer ordering cars for wealthy people and specifying the fit and finish. It was Hoffman who asked Mercedes to take the Gullwing 300SL and turn it into a roadster. There is a myth that he asked for the Gullwing to be built and when the request was rejected, quite simply ordered and pre-paid, forcing Mercedes to build what would become an icon of the 1950s. He did however, help fund the costs of the similar 190SL. His growing relationship with Mercedes-Benz caused the other relationship with Jaguar to die – they were fierce Le Mans competitors at the time. The resolution to the contract dispute meant that Hoffman still took royalties off every Jaguar sold in the US for several years later!
He asked Porsche for a lightweight speedster to be sold on the West Coast and when they arrived without a logo he persuaded them to design one – another icon of the industry was born!
He was also importing BMWs and persuaded them to design an open topped sports car: the gorgeous BMW 507 was born. However, like the Beetle, it wasn’t a commercial success when launched and nearly caused BMW to declare bankruptcy. It was only an injection of cash by the shareholding Quandt family that ultimately saved the company – Hoffman had triggered another important event in the industry – the Quandts are credited with saving BMW.
He did something similar for Alfa Romeo, persuading them to create the Giulietta Spider from the coupe version. This was a more successful car than the BMW with over 14,000 built. Although Hoffman had ordered it for the US market, it was so popular that it was sold throughout Europe as well.
During the 1960s, Hoffman sold off his import businesses and concentrated on BMW exclusively and ultimately sold his business to them to become BMW North America in 1975.
Hoffman knew how to attract customers and had the celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright design two important buildings: firstly his showroom at 430 Park Avenue, New York (sadly demolished in 2013 to make way for a bank branch) and a private house in Rye, Westchester County, NY. After his death in 1981, his widow created the Maximilian E. and Marion O. Hoffman Foundation Inc. with their considerable wealth – in 2016 it still had assets of $57M! The foundation helps to provide support for education, arts and medical programs mostly in the north east of the US.