Driving force for the 190 SL and 300 SL
Apr 04, 2012
Maximilian Hoffman
Born on: 12 November 1904 in Vienna
Died on: 9 August 1981, at an unknown location
In the mid-1950s, Max Hoffman was a similar stroke of luck for Daimler-Benz as entrepreneur Emil Jellinek had been for the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (Daimler Engine Company) around 50 years before. Just as without Jellinek there would never have been a Mercedes, without Hoffman the Mercedes-Benz SL would never have existed as a series-production vehicle. Because the Mercedes-Benz 190 SL and 300 SL presented at the International Motor Sports Show in New York 6 February 1954 were there thanks to his initiative and vision.
Maximilian Edwin Hoffmann was born in Vienna on 12 November 1904. (Note: in 1946 he struck the second “n” from his surname. For this reason the spelling “Hoffman” is used here.) From an early age he lived in very close contact with the topics of technology and motion. His father owned a sewing-machine factory near Vienna; later the factory changed over to the production of bicycles. At the beginning of the 1920s, Max Hoffman sped up his own personal drive system by adding a DKW auxiliary motor and a belt drive to his bicycle. Later on, this was replaced by a 350 cc motorcycle made by AJS, with which Hoffman enjoyed success in motorcycle racing, a sport that remained his quiet passion all his life.
But not only motorcycle racing. Because his passion for fast cars was one of the reasons for his later business success in the USA. Hoffman, who never saw himself as a technician, engineer or racing driver, had a well-developed feel for technology as well as a talent for vehicle handling dynamics. He was what they call a “car guy” in the US.
Hoffman’s abilities were widespread and by no means limited to automotive matters. His great talent for design and well-developed feeling for forms enabled him to make his mark on the design of his houses and showrooms, too. Among his other talents can be counted his skill as a salesman and his ability to recognise future market trends.
It is said that Hoffman was not always an easy business partner, but that he was always a trustworthy one. Once, when the opinion was expressed that he was a difficult person, he said: “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.” But for those in his immediate surroundings he was always demanding, too. 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 was respected by all those with whom he had dealings.
Hoffman first made a name for himself in Austria as a fast driver in the 1920s and 1930s – and enjoyed success as a motor car importer. Together with a business partner he founded Hoffman & Huppert, a firm that was, among other things, the first Volvo importer in Europe. When the situation for Jews in Germany and Austria became unbearable under the influence of the National Socialists, Hoffman moved to France. After Germany’s invasion of France, Hoffman managed to emigrate to the US on board a Portuguese ship, arriving in New York on 21 June 1941. Since it was not possible to do business with cars in the US during the war, Hoffman had a brilliant idea – brilliant in the literal sense, too. Having found a lucrative gap in the market, he manufactured jewellery for women from metallised plastic. With 300 borrowed dollars he was able to implement his expansion plans, and this led to a very successful business during the Second World War, enabling Hoffman to amass a small fortune.
After the war he returned to his old passion, motor cars, investing the money made with fashion jewellery building up an import business for European cars. As early as the summer of 1946 he travelled to England, France, and Italy to study the possibilities for the importation of exclusive motor cars into the United States. For his new enterprise he struck the final “n” from his surname and occasionally used his full first name, “Maximilian”, instead of the more usual “Max”, because he felt it was better-suited to a dealer in out-of-the-ordinary cars. In 1947, the Hoffman Motor Company opened its first showroom on New York’s Park Avenue. The first, and initially, only item on show was a Delahaye coupé with bodywork by Figoni et Falaschi.
Hoffman was a skilful market observer. Other dealers used to take back – at relatively low prices – the imported cars that had originally been bought from them. Hoffman chose to do the exact opposite: he would sometimes take back well-cared-for cars with low mileages at an even higher price than that at which he had sold them, producing a breakthrough, because with this policy he created a foundation of trust and credibility for the products he sold. This laid the basis for the successful importation of different European car brands, such as Jaguar, Healey, Alfa Romeo, and BMW.
Max Hoffman was always on the lookout for attractive products in his varicoloured bouquet of European motor cars. At first, he still lacked the final blossom to grace the bouquet: Mercedes-Benz. In this sense it was fortunate that in the early 50s Wilhelm Haspel, the first Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler-Benz AG after the Second World War, started looking for possibilities to expand exports, and the US played an extraordinarily important role in this regard. After the presentation of the new passenger-car models Mercedes-Benz 220 and 300 at the IAA, the International Motor Show in Frankfurt am Main in the spring of 1951, Haspel decided to boost activities in the US. This in turn led to Max Hoffman becoming the new Daimler-Benz AG importer for Mercedes-Benz passenger cars in the eastern states of the US from September 1952. For these activities he founded “Mercedes-Benz Distributors Inc.”.
However, both Haspel and his successor Heinrich Wagner died suddenly, the former in January 1952 and the latter in January 1953, so that the responsibility for exports to the USA fell to the new General Director, Fritz Könecke. Könecke recognised the importance of the plan and was prepared to afford Hoffman every possible assistance. On 2 September 1953 a memorable meeting of the Daimler-Benz AG Board of Management took place in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim. Hoffman was invited to the meeting, which centred around his efforts concerning the US market. Hoffman explained his view of the market situation and expressed his concern, for instance, about the dreary colour schemes of the cars in use at the time, and about the absence of Mercedes-Benz open sports cars, something Export Director Arnold Wychodil had already mentioned in May 1953. Now this situation acquired a particular urgency thanks to Hoffman’s personal intervention. Although Hoffman had an exclusive showroom for Mercedes-Benz vehicles, he lacked the “crowd puller”. He stressed that in the US, where Mercedes-Benz enjoyed a particularly good reputation, the public expected from them – without fail – a sports car, and this alone could provide a basis for a dealership organisation.
Könecke closed the meeting with the significant statement that he would give Hoffman every possible support to enable him to successfully continue the promising line of business with the USA which was starting up. And he continued: “We shall dedicate very special attention to our business in the US and, if its profitability is ensured, we’ll also produce special models (sports cars) for this market, which will doubtlessly open up sales possibilities in other countries at the same time.” This heralded the birth of the two SL models, the 190 SL (W 121 series) and the 300 SL (W 198 I series), that went on to celebrate their world premiere at the International Motor Sports Show in New York on 6 February 1954 – two Mercedes-Benz vehicles, the likes of which had never been seen before. This is how the SL model series came about. Low, exquisitely elegant and sleek, fast, radiating speed even when standing still: that’s how the debutantes presented themselves to the astonished public. However, Max Hoffman did not agree with the 300 SL which came to New York as a coupé – from the outset he had also wanted to have the 300 SL as a roadster. And he got it, three years later in 1957.
At the request of Mercedes-Benz, Hoffman expanded his activities to the West Coast. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Texas were until then unknown to him. “Until then I had never been to the West Coast, not even as a tourist,” said Hoffman.
Hoffman’s initiative was successful, as the figures below show. Exports of
Mercedes-Benz passenger cars to the USA in the years 1936 to 1941 amounted to a total of 41 vehicles. This was to change radically under his guidance.
Overall exports of Mercedes-Benz passenger cars to the USA:
1952  1953  1954   1955    1956    1957
253    423      639     2,054   3,109   6,048
Including the following numbers for the model 190 SL:
1952  1953  1954    1955   1956     1957
-          -           -             830   1,849   1,806
On 11 April 1957, Studebaker-Packard then took over the representation for
Mercedes-Benz passenger cars and diesel engines in the USA, based on the contractual agreement between Daimler-Benz AG and Curtiss Wright. Hoffman withdrew from his contract after payment of a settlement, a decision he later admitted to automotive historian Karl Ludvigsen he sorely regretted. All the same, he continued to be extremely successful with Italian motor cars, and especially with BMW. Entrepreneur Maximilian Hoffman died on 9 August 1981.
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