Many European brands owe their very existence in North America to the “baron of Park Avenue” - East Valley Tribune: Business

Many European brands owe their very existence in North America to the “baron of Park Avenue”

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Posted: Monday, August 13, 2007 12:00 am | Updated: 7:32 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Look around the streets of North America’s wealthiest neighborhoods, and in the garages of its most prosperous towns, and Max Hoffman is there. Look at the posh dealerships that house the makes he made famous. Look at more than one exotic manufacturer that owes its North American beginning to his persistence.

Look around the streets of North America’s wealthiest neighborhoods, and in the garages of its most prosperous towns, and Max Hoffman is there. Look at the posh dealerships that house the makes he made famous. Look at more than one exotic manufacturer that owes its North American beginning to his persistence.

Who was Max “Maxie” Hoffman? He’s credited with creating the import-car business in the United States, the first major distributor of imported automobiles on this side of the ocean.

Hoffman marketed such brands as Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, BMW, Alfa Romeo, Fiat and Jaguar when no one else was willing to take the gamble. Of course, he won.

Affectionately known as the “baron of Park Avenue” in the 1950s, Hoffman worked from his New York office with a passion. As one of the first importers of European cars, he fell in love with the job of introducing the domestic market to a new form of luxury.

Hoffman’s ideas were grand and his execution based on a simple philosophy: Cars in the North American market had to be different, if only because the audience was different.

BMW got its start in North America thanks to Hoffman. Porsche received its prancing-horse logo thanks to his marketing idea. And Hoffman would encourage Mercedes-Benz to change the way it did business in the United States. He would forever change the market.

For proof, look no further than the Porsche Speedster, BMW 507 and Mercedes 300SL, all cars exclusively marketed for the North American buyer. Look no further than the Volkswagen Beetle.

It wasn’t until Hoffman agreed to purchase a few VWs in 1950 that a corporate presence for Volkswagen was formed in America.

Corporate lore has it that VW was introduced to the U.S. market in 1949. Just two cars were sold that year and both were samples that had been shipped in an attempt to drum up interest with an American sales agent. Unable to attract any takers, VW did not make an official entry into the U.S. market until a year later, after Hoffman saw the opportunity. He was already a dealer in exotic foreign cars, such as Lagonda and Aston-Martin and VW was all-too happy to accept him as its agent.

Hoffman was granted the eastern half of the U.S. as his territory and Volkswagen with its Beetle never looked back, expanding its reach with Hoffman’s persistent method of establishing dealerships.

Hoffman’s style was different. He introduced cars at cocktail parties and staged events in New York,N.Y., and Chicago, Ill., to woo journalists. He was a dealer but also a distributor who was sharp enough to understand the value of selling wholesale and eventually establishing networks.

Hoffman was influential in other areas as well. A lover of fast, exotic cars, he had a close relationship with BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, convincing them they could make inroads in a changing American market.

Hoffman, a Benz importer in 1952, convinced the company that a gull-wing-door coupe would sell to influential U.S. customers. Hoffman’s suggestion prompted the release of the 300 SL at the International Motor Show in New York. Benz would never be better. Neither would Porsche.

To many Americans in the 1950s, Porsche’s vehicles were inexplicably plain-looking. Getting a prospective buyer to see past the intimidating sticker price was sometimes the biggest challenge. In response to this, Hoffman argued for changes to the Porsche 356 to make it faster, less expensive and more stylish. He also strongly felt that North Americans would better respond to a car having a real name and not a numeric designation.

Porsche was swayed by Hoffman’s marketing suggestions. Production was streamlined, models were dropped and designs altered. Porsche provided fewer standard paint choices, while

upholstery and trim offerings were simplified. These quicker, less-expensive cars sold as fast as the factory could crank them out. Hoffman’s understanding of American tastes appeared to be right on the money. The addition of the Porsche Speedster, another of Hoffman’s wish-list items, helped develop Porsche into a world player.

BMW would also benefit.

Upon his insistence, Hoffman helped sell BMW’s first mid-range sedan. When the 507 went on sale in the United States., Hoffman packaged as many desirable features as he could into the vehicle, mounted a distinctive badge on the deck lid, priced the car at less than $5,000 and began raking in the money.

Hoffman also persuaded BMW to squeeze a two-liter engine into its agile little 1600 two-door sedan. The resulting BMW 2002 put the once-struggling Munich firm squarely on the North American map, a map that was steadily remaking itself, however.

As such, the U.S. market was becoming increasingly important and foreign manufacturers wanted to set up their own distribution networks.

By 1954, after Hoffman’s VW empire building was complete, Volkswagen of America incorporated.

Before slipping out of the car market as an importer and dealer, Hoffman helped sponsor amateur sports-car racing and encourage more European manufacturers to respond to booming North American needs.

At the time of his death in 1981, VW would pass an historic milestone, producing the 20 millionth Beetle at its plant in Puebla, Mexico. American buyers had more than a little to do with that. So did Hoffman.

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