Conquering America. How Porsche became big Stateside. And Porsche needed the USA too. Delwyn Mallett tells the story of how, with importer Max Hoffman, the 356 conquered America.
PORSCHE AT 70 CONQUERING AMERICA Uncle Sam wants you!
The Porsche 356 in its Stuttgart-built, mass-produced form was still a decade in the future, but June 1941 was to become one of the most important dates in its history. It was the month in which Vienna-born Jewish emigre and super-salesman Maximilian Edwin Hoffmann (soon to be known simply as Max Hoffman – with one ‘n’) landed in New York, fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. As sole importer to the US, at his peak Max would account for 70% of Zuffenhausens production. Without Hoffman, Porsche would not have grown as it did during the 1950s.
At that moment thoughts of producing a sports car were far from the minds of Ferdinand Porsche and son Ferry, the German war machine was in full spate and seemed unstoppable. Ferdinand Porsche’s staff were busy designing tanks and other military hardware and on 22 June, Hitler, buoyed by his army’s success and his own megalomania, made the fatal error of invading Russia and opening up a war on two fronts.
On 7 December, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and declared war on the United States, and, in the words of Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, ‘the sleeping giant was awakened and filled with a terrible resolve’. Four days later Hitler also declared war on the US.
Soon millions of young Americans found themselves overseas, exposed to ways of life quite unlike anything they had experienced. The GIs posted to Britain in particular, apart from falling in love with our girls, also seemed to fall in love with English sports cars, the diminutive but rakish and lively MG foremost among them, and the seeds of America’s love affair with the sports car were sown. Enough servicemen returned home with glowing tales of the ‘Yurpeen sports machines to start a groundswell of interest in the US.
Born in Vienna in 1904 to a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, Hoffman as a youngster worked in his father’s bicycle manufacturing business. He started racing motorcycles while still a teenager, moving from two wheels to four with an Amilcar in the 1930s. Max continued to race until his blossoming car import business, Hoffmann & Huppert, demanded more of his attention.
By the time the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, Hoffmann was the importer for Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Alfa Romeo, Talbot and Delahaye, and the first agent outside Sweden for Volvo: a class act, at the top end of the market. But Max could see trouble ahead for the Jewish population and headed to Paris. And when the Germans arrived there too, the New World beckoned.
For a car salesman he arrived in the States at the wrong time, just as domestic production ceased and the factories switched to military ordnance. Undaunted, he started a business producing cheap costume jewellery and by 1947 he was able to open a car showroom on New York’s prestigious Park Avenue. His intention to continue where he left off in Vienna was evident in that the first car he displayed was a Delahaye with Figoni et Falaschi coachwork. His interest was purely in importing European cars and
Hoffman did more than anyone else to introduce Americans to the European automobile, representing Alfa Romeo, Allard, Aston Martin, Austin, Bentley, BMW, Cooper, Fiat, Jaguar, Jowett, Lancia, Lea- Francis, Mercedes-Benz, Morgan, Porsche, Rolls- Royce, Rover, Simca, Volkswagen and probably more.
He was a great admirer of Professor Porsche, whom he had met before the war, and when, in 1950, respected Swiss journalist Max Troesch alerted him to the new 356, he quickly arranged for two to be imported. In the October he travelled to Paris to meet the Porsches at the Salon de l’Automobile, then Europe’s most important auto show.
Tucked away in a corner on a tiny stand, the Porsches were launching their Stuttgart-built 356, showing a coupe and a cabriolet. A discreet sign on the stand declared ‘1900 Porsche 1950’. As fate would have it, exactly 50 years had elapsed since Ferdinand Porsche had displayed his very first automobile design, the electric-powered Lohner-Porsche, at this very same venue, and it’s not difficult to imagine the emotions that the Professor must have experienced.
A deal was struck for Max to represent Porsche in the US and the first cars were soon making their way across the Atlantic. Famously, Ferry Porsche hoped that Hoffman would be able to sell five cars a year, to which Max replied that if he couldn’t sell five a week he wasn’t interested. Max didn’t hit his target in 1951, managing to shift a mere 32 cars, but sales started to gather momentum from then on, and in 1952 he upped a gear and moved 283 cars – 20% of the factory’s output – and by 1954 Max had more than doubled his prediction and was selling 11 cars a week.
Max, like Ferry Porsche, was a firm believer in ‘race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ and he was an active participant in the European-style road racing scene that was rapidly gaining popularity on the East Coast. Racing was good publicity for the odd little German car with the engine at the wrong end, and it was easier to sell the expensive cars to competition-minded weekend racers looking for class wins than to Joe Public. From day one, Porsches were cars for enthusiasts and that enthusiasm was fuelled by Porsche’s own participation and success in racing and rallying.
Porsche sales represented a mere drop in the vast US automotive ocean. In 1950, US output was 8 million cars: Ford alone contributed 1.2 million, Chevrolet bested that with 1.5 million, and even luxury brand Cadillac produced a record 100,000 cars, the scale of the task facing Hoffman should not be underestimated – the little 1 ½ -litre Porsche was competing against the car of the moment, the svelte and far more potent Jaguar XK120 that cost $300 less!
It was also far more expensive than the MG TD, which was advertised for $1850. In 1950, 2810 MG TDs were imported, 5766 in ’51, peaking at 9901 in 1953. Max was also trying to interest Americans in the VW Beetle – yours for $1325 – but abandoned what he saw as an uphill struggle in 1953. It’s a decision that he ruefully admitted years later to have been one of his rare errors.
On the West Coast, another Viennese emigre would enter the frame and make his own considerable contribution to Porsche’s success. John von Neumann ran a small North Hollywood speed shop called Competition Motors and, on a trip to New York in ’1951, having known Hoffman in Vienna, he dropped by his showroom. Inevitably, he drove home in a Porsche, the first to ‘go west’. More soon followed, the road- racing craze had taken sunny California by storm and very soon von Neumann was not only demonstrating the little Porsche’s prowess as a track car but supplying the Hollywood set with the sleek new coupe.
Price continued to be a problem for Max and he kept the pressure on Ferry Porsche to build a ‘cheap’ stripped-down base model that could double as a weekend racer and could sell for under $3000 – as he pointed out in one of his many letters, at $4500 a Porsche was more expensive than a Cadillac and you could buy two Buicks, three Chevrolets or three Fords for the same money. He presented Porsche with a comprehensive list of requirements, of which a reduction in weight was a priority, and also specified details such as an easily removable windscreen.
Porsche reluctantly responded with the short-lived aluminium-bodied America Roadster. This failed to meet Hoffman’s criteria on price and, backed up by von Neumann, he kept up the pressure. Porsche’s second attempt was a resounding success – the immortal Speedster. Finally, in 1954, Hoffman was able to advertise that a Porsche could be yours for less than $3000 – albeit only $5 less. It’s hard to imagine a car better suited to the sunny climes of California, where the majority of Speedsters found a home. Very quickly the Speedster began to displace the MG TD as the up- to-1500cc mount of choice in club racing. Many of the great names in American motorsport earned their racing spurs at the wheel of a Speedster.
In 1955 the machine that whisked teen idol James Dean to a premature appointment with St Peter arrived in America, the four-cam Carrera-engined 550 Spyder (named Spyder at the insistence of Hoffman, who argued that a name had far more emotional appeal than just a number) and its later derivatives possessed giant-killer qualities that ensured that the Porsche name would be spoken of with the same degree of respect as Ferrari and Jaguar.
The Hoffman/Porsche relationship, despite the sheer volume of cars he was importing, was not entirely friction-free and without its problems. After-sales service was often not up to Zuffenhausen’s high standards and in 1955 Porsche sent over its own man, Erich Filius, to liaise with Hoffman.
It seems inconceivable today, in an age of exclusive dealer networks, that in the 1950s Hoffman was not only peddling Porsches but Mercedes and BMW and, perhaps more significantly from Ferry Porsche’s point of view, Alfa Romeos – in effect a direct competitor. Hoffman had also convinced Alfa to cut the roof off the very pretty Giulietta, thus creating a very attractive alternative to both the Speedster and the Cabriolet. Indeed, Hoffman at one point insisted that when a dealer ordered a Porsche he had to take an Alfa too!
By 1959 it was obvious to Porsche that America would continue to be its most important market and so formed the Porsche of America Corporation, with six independent sales companies spread across the States, Hoffman retaining the East Coast. Max was compensated financially with a royalty on each car imported until the relationship finally expired in 1964.
Porsche 356 production ceased in 1966, by which time 76,313 had been built, the 911, which was introduced in 1964, saw a whole new chapter begin for Porsche and in the years to come the 911 would for many become the neplus ultra of the sports car world.
‘The US has been Porsche’s largest export market since 1951’
In 1969, as a result of its joint venture with VW on the mid-engined 914, Porsche struck a deal that saw a new distribution network set up in both the US and Europe. In future Porsches would be sold through a newly created Porsche+Audi franchise, which persisted until 1984 when Porsche, without prior consultation, announced that it was suspending the arrangement and creating a new, wholly owned company called Porsche Cars North America. This bombshell created a backlash so vicious and embarrassing for Porsche that, with lawsuits flying at the company from every state, chief executive Peter Schutz (Berlin-born but raised in Chicago and saviour of the about-to-be-axed 911) flew in to announce complete capitulation and that the status quo would be restored.
As if this volte face were not embarrassing enough, it was closely followed by a collapse in the dollar that saw Porsche sales dive, almost bringing the dollar- dependent company to the brink. For the first time in its history, it had to put the workforce on short time and the real prospect of a takeover loomed. By 1990 Porsche sales in the US had dipped below 10,000 units for the first time in many years and they continued a downward slide to 1960s levels: a mere 4400 in 1992.
Porsche’s brand image was further damaged by the debacle of its ultimately doomed attempt to compete in the American CART series with the goal of winning Indianapolis, the team’s hopeless deficiency led to a very public humiliation, there were even mutterings about pulling out of the American market altogether.
The corner was finally turned in the mid-90s with the success of the 993 and the introduction of the mid-engined Boxster, and, as the millennium approached, Porsche’s entry into the SUV arena. By 2002 Porsche was being heralded as ‘the world’s most profitable car maker’ – which led chief executive Wendelin Wiedeking, architect of the company’s success, to overplay his hand in a failed attempt to take over Volkswagen, plunging the company into crippling debt. Volkswagen eventually rescued Porsche in a reverse takeover, absorbing it into its portfolio of brands, where it has continued to prosper on an unprecedented scale.
From the first 32 cars imported in 1951, the US has held an unbroken run as Porsche’s largest export market, and it looks like continuing. In 2017 a record 55,000 Porsches were sold in the US out of a total production of 246,000 vehicles.
America, it’s clear, still wants Porsches.
Onwards to victory: Hans Herrmann takes a 550 Spyder to a class win in the 1954 Carrera Panamericana.
Left and below
Ferry and Butzi Porsche in New York with 356; Hoffman advertises its impressive sporting credentials.
‘Finally, by 1954, a Porsche could be yours for less than $3000 – albeit only $5 less’
Above and right. Max Hoffmann sold 70% of Porsche’s total output in the USA. Ferdinand and Ferry Porsche had hoped for five cars per year…