Max Hoffman: The spark behind the American love for Mercedes classics
July 21, 2023
For the top designers at Mercedes-Benz, the postwar era proved to be a period of rebirth, despite the fact that most industries were still struggling to get back on their feet. The mid-century was when Mercedes-Benz were beginning to redefine their place on the racing podiums, in the automotive industry and in the popular imagination of their new American audience. In this story, one man’s name comes up time and again.
Maximilian ‘Max’ Hoffman.
“Maximillian Hoffman is credited with single-handedly establishing the imported vehicle business in the United States.”
Automobile Hall of Fame
As an avid racer in his youth, Max Hoffman’s automotive career was rooted in motorsports. He was born in Vienna, Austria in 1904 to Jewish lineage. By the 1930s, he had worked his way to become a middle European sales representative for manufacturers like Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Alfa Romeo and Volvo. Yet the trajectory of his life was off-routed by Nazi influence, which was quickly spreading across Eastern Europe. In the 1940s, Hoffman emigrated first to France and then to America to escape prosecution and war, despite not knowing anybody.
Through hard work and determination, and against all odds, Hoffman was able to save enough money working as a costume jewellery designer to go back to his real passion. He opened Hoffman Motors in 1947 and worked as a car dealer and importer of new European cars, introducing innovative designs to an American automotive market that had fallen behind as a result of the war. At certain periods of the business, Hoffman Motors owned the exclusive rights to import marques like Jaguar, Volkswagen, Alfa Romeo, BMW, Fiat, Austin-Healey and Porsche. In 1952, the Mercedes-Benz name was added to the list.
Around this time, master engineer Rudolph Uhlenhaut, along with his racing team manager Alfred Neubauer, were working to build the W194 300 SL race car and with it, the Mercedes racing reputation. At a time when Germany was still dealing with the fallout from the war, frugality and efficient innovation was key. Modified parts from the old S-Class series along with new engineering inventions, such as the super light frame, produced Mercedes’ most powerful race car to date.
In its first outing at the Mille Miglia in 1952, the 300 SL race car finished in disappointing fourth position. A process of constant alterations and improvements led to the car coming first, second and third at the Bern Grand Prix. The 300 SL would again dominate with a first and second placing at the 24 hour Le Mans, and a sweep with first, second, third and fourth placing at the 25th Anniversary Nürburgring Race on home turf. Feeling like they had nothing left to prove, the Mercedes team decide to pull the plug on the 300 SL racing program to make way for the 300 SLR. This might have signalled the end for the 300 SL. Had it not been for Max Hoffman.
“As the first importer of Mercedes-Benz cars in 1952, he was instrumental in the creation of the 300 SL sports car.”
New York Times
With his deep knowledge of his customers and their desires, Hoffman immediately recognised the potential of the 300 SL as a road-going model. Despite a lot of initial resistance, he was able to persuade Mercedes to create a road-ready Gullwing by ordering a thousand units to sell at his own dealership. Of course, he was proven right. Soon after it debuted at the 1954 International Motor Sports Show, American car enthusiasts, along with the brightest stars from around the world, were falling in love with the 300 SL Gullwing and its unmistakable roof-hinged doors. In the same year Hoffman is also credited for influencing the creation of the 190 SL as a more affordable option than the Gullwing, hence its moniker as ‘the Gullwing’s little brother’. The 300 SL Roadster, with more classic side doors and a soft top for open cruising, followed in 1957.
More than a car dealer and a middle-man, Max Hoffman is remembered today as the bridge between European car makers and the American automotive market of the 1950s. His business savvy, entrepreneurship and pure grit allowed him to build a thriving business in an unfamiliar land from the ground up. By paying close attention to the market, building strong relationships with his clients and trusting his gut instincts he was able to change the landscape of the modern luxury car industry. Simultaneously influencing the design of some of the most beloved classic cars ever made and elevating the Mercedes name to iconic status in America.
“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.”