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Automobiles | Motoring

Max Hoffman Made Imports Less Foreign to Americans

By DONALD OSBORNEMARCH 18, 2007

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Photo Max Hoffman, who brought many European brands to America, raced Porsches in the ’50s. Credit M.O. & M.E. Hoffman Foundation

THE cars of Honda and Toyota, which Americans first came to know as underpowered imports from across the Pacific, are today so Americanized it is easy to forget that their names are derived from their companies’ founders.

But the name of the one man who perhaps did the most to bring foreign cars to the United States after World War II never made it to chrome fender badges. Maximilian E. Hoffman, who helped introduce American drivers to European marques like Alfa Romeo, BMW, Fiat, Healey, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, MG, Porsche and Volkswagen, was known to few.

Called by colleagues “the Duveen of the motor business,” Hoffman was compared to the legendary art dealer of the early 20th century for his ability to captivate clients with his salesmanship, superb taste and forceful personality. Equally known for his directness and penchant for perfection, his market acumen was not limited to cars: He appreciated great architecture, commissioning a landmark auto showroom on Park Avenue — and soon after, a home in Rye, N.Y., by Frank Lloyd Wright. He was also a collector of Impressionist art.

Born in Austria in 1904 to a Catholic mother and Jewish father, Max Hoffman grew up working in his father’s bicycle manufacturing business. He developed sufficient racing skills to earn a position as a factory driver for an Austrian company that produced the French Amilcar under license. More important, he became a dealer for the brand. He retired from full-time racing in 1934 and expanded his activities in sales.

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With German influence spreading uncomfortably across Europe, Hoffman moved to Paris in the late 1930s to run his enterprises, and soon after the start of World War II left for New York. Without the connections or the money to start another auto business, he began a career as a maker of costume jewelry; it was successful enough to finance a return to the auto industry at the end of the war.

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Re-establishing his contacts with Europe, where the pressure to export manufactured goods was great, he opened the Hoffman Motor Company in 1947. He became the supplier of Jaguar cars for the eastern United States in 1948 and was one of the few to recognize the potential of the Volkswagen when it was first shown here in 1949. The going was tough, however, as Americans had not yet realized the charms of the Beetle. After four years of struggling, VW decided to take the distributorship back and Hoffman gladly sold out; he later acknowledged that it was one of his few mistakes.

Hoffman’s abilities extended to persuading manufacturers to offer products better suited to the American market. As the first importer of Mercedes-Benz cars in 1952, he was instrumental in the creation of the 300SL sports car, a model based on a racecar. Hoffman pushed the automaker into building a road version by ordering 1,000 before it had even approved the project. His relationship with Mercedes caused him to lose his lucrative Jaguar contract, but ever the astute businessman, he negotiated a buyout that earned him royalties for every Jaguar sold in his territory for several years. It was a pattern he would profitably repeat with other manufacturers.

Photo The Hoffman Motor Company opened in 1947. Credit M.O. & M.E. Hoffman Foundation

Because of the size of the American market, Hoffman became influential in selecting designs for production, including that of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider. His insistence on roll-up windows, a proper soft top and a functioning heater gave the Alfa an advantage over its British competition. Similarly, as the importer for Porsche, Hoffman saw the need for a cheaper, sportier model. The result was the Speedster, a minimalist version that could be driven to the racetrack, raced and driven back home.

In the mid-’50s he also brought over some of the products of BMW, which at the time had a confused offering. Hoffman quickly realized that a well-priced, attractive sports car with an engine from the company’s sedans could be a winner; the result was the BMW 507 roadster, styled in America by Albrecht Goertz at Hoffman’s direction.

By the mid-1960s, Hoffman had decided to put all his eggs in the BMW basket, selling his other distributorships. BMW had already begun its revival with the 1500 series sedans in 1962 and was further on its way with the introduction of the 1600 in 1968. Hoffman thought that success would be assured by installing a 2-liter engine into the 1600; after persuading a reluctant BMW management to do it, the 2002 was born. It was arguably the car that created the company’s image as the builder of sports sedans.

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. After protracted negotiations, Hoffman sold his company to BMW and retired from the auto business in 1975.

Never one for the limelight, he became an even more private man who spent his time traveling between homes in Florida, California and Germany, visiting friends and building his art collection.

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“He thought when he retired and gave up his businesses he would be miserable, but he kept working as hard as he could” said Ned Rutherfurd, a retired dealer who had worked extensively with Hoffman.

Hoffman was extremely pleased with what he had accomplished, especially his years with Porsche and Mercedes. His relationship with BMW was difficult after the sale of the business because some felt the terms of the sale were too favorable to Hoffman. He boasted of paying more taxes than anyone else in the country in the late 1970s.

According to Mr. Rutherfurd, that situation did not make Hoffman bristle. “He was proud, saying that this country had done so much for him and he was happy to pay it back.”

Hoffman died in 1981; reluctant to think about death, he left a simple three-page will that took years to resolve among his heirs. His fortune was used to establish charitable foundations that carry the names of him and his wife.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page AU6 of the New York edition with the headline: Max Hoffman Made Imports Less Foreign to Americans. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe

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