The success of Porsche sports cars in the United States seemed fairly unlikely 70 years ago, when New York City import-car dealer Max Hoffman introduced the small, simple yet expensive 356 to these shores.
This was, after all, the land of large cars with big power, and unless you had Hoffman’s vision, it was hard to see how these little oddballs from Germany would endure.
Yet within just a few years, the US had become the Porsche 356’s strongest market and a hotbed of enthusiasts who had discovered the cars’ agility and durability.
This year, Porsche celebrates the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the first two 1.1-liter 356 coupes to the New York dealer in the fall of 1950. They were imported two years after the innovative engineer Ferdinand Porsche rolled out the first models from the Gmund, Austria, workshop where the original 50 cars were built before the fledgling company relocated in 1950 to Zuffenhausen, Germany.
Just a year before, US motorists had been introduced to another one of Ferdinand Porsche’s air-cooled, rear-engine automobiles, the Volkswagen Beetle, that after a slow start eventually became one of the most popular cars ever sold in America.
The 356 targeted a different market, that of the new legion of drivers who had brought back their enthusiasm for little British sports cars after being stationed in the UK during World War II. That soon expanded to sporty roadsters from other European nations, and where Hoffman hoped to insert the decidedly different 356.
Hoffman, who had known Ferdinand Porsche years earlier, was reintroduced to him by an Austrian journalist, Max Troesch, who had shown Hoffman photos of the small, rounded 356, stating, “I am sure this car will make a name for itself,” according to a Porsche news release.
After meeting with Porsche, Hoffman signed a contract to receive 15 of the cars per year, and then he set out to sell them.
“Max Hoffman had not committed himself to an easy task,” the release says. “Compared to its rivals by the numbers alone, the German newcomer was considerably more expensive and had a smaller engine, but Hoffman knew that anyone who drove a car from Zuffenhausen would understand it offered a blend of durability, track-bred agility and everyday usability that was unique to the automotive landscape.”
Since the Porsche company had no advertising budget, Hoffman worked to market the new product himself, describing the 356 as “One of the World’s Most Exciting Cars” with “A new conception in handling, roadholding, suspension and safety never known before.”
“The strategy gained traction, and by 1954, 11 cars per week were sold through Hoffman, equaling 30 percent of the annual Porsche production,” the release says. “In 1965, the final year of the 356 model, the U.S. share of Porsche sales had risen to a massive 74.6 percent.”
Hoffman also was instrumental in Porsche creating a lower-cost roadster, the 356 Speedster, in the mid-1950s that became enormously popular among drivers and racers, who found the simple lightweight Speedster to be competitive against bigger, more-powerful sports cars. The car’s “bathtub” styling was also a huge hit that boosted sales.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, import-car dealer John von Neumann, also an Austrian native, was selling European cars at his Competition Motors in North Hollywood. In 1951, Neumann visited Hoffman to test drive the 356. He was impressed, bought one, and took it to California. He was soon dealing in Porsches.
“An avid racer himself, Neumann played an important role in introducing the Porsche brand to the growing motorsports scene in the Golden State,” the release says. “In particular, the nimble new Speedster model would prove popular with its lower price starting at just $2,995.
“Neumann was also well-connected in Hollywood, and his list of celebrity customers, including actor James Dean, helped build a strong image as the cars were used for weekend racing and weekday commuting alike.”
In 1955, the success of the 356 spawned the Porsche of America Corporation. In 1964, the Porsche 911 arrived at showrooms, where it was sold along with the final 356C models.
Starting in 1969, the company formed part of the Porsche Audi division of Volkswagen of America, Inc. On September 1, 1984, Porsche Cars North America was established in Reno, Nevada. In March 1998, the Porsche headquarters relocated to Atlanta, where it remains.
Porsche continues to build on its success, bolstered by its lineup of luxury SUVs, while still building sports cars – the 911, 718, Cayman and Boxster – and competing in international motorsports at the highest level. And the Porsche Club of America, nearly as old as the company itself, reigns as the largest single-marque car club in the world.