• Words by Mr Philip Delves Broughton

A side view of the 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing
Photo Mertyn Goddard/ Corbis

The early 1950s was no time for selling German cars to America, let alone a low-slung rocket with doors rising from its sides like a bird taking flight. Detroit was in its heyday, rolling out one chrome-tipped puffball after another: the Cadillac Eldorado, the Chrysler La Comtesse, the Buick Roadmaster Riviera, the Hudson Hornet and the Mercury Monterey. Ms Rosemary Clooney and Mr Dean Martin played on their radios.

Volkswagen, however you spun it, was still a car of the Third Reich. It would be another decade before its Beetles became the cars of counter culture. Daimler-Benz had been a key part of the Nazi industrial war effort. And English cars? A joke reserved for cads, bounders and anyone willing to spend their weekends broken down by the side of the road splattered with oil.

A portrait of Mr Hoffman
Photo Mercedes-Benz

But in those fat and happy Eisenhower years, a sliver of an entrepreneurial chance appeared for anyone ready to believe that European aesthetics had a future as well as a past. In 1951, Mr Leo Castelli, an Italian-American art dealer who had come to New York from Trieste by way of Paris, gathered up artists including Messrs Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Hans Hoffman for his 9th Street Art Exhibition, which would launch the New York School. It was an American art movement with European roots.

And up at Park Avenue and 59th Street, another sharp-eyed European immigrant was hustling his tastes. Mr Max Hoffman looked the part, with his hair slicked back, wide lapels, heavy cufflinks and blooming pocket square. His profession was that most denigrated of all: car salesman. But that would be like calling Mr Enzo Ferrari a mechanic. His influence and persuasion not only led to the creation of the 300SL Gullwing and the BMW 507, but also stimulated the passion for European cars in America that still thrives today.

Mr Hoffman had lived several business lives before setting himself up in 1947 in a showroom displaying a single French Delahaye coupé, a stroke of elegant minimalism.

He was born in Austria in 1904 and grew up working in his father's bicycle business, and then raced motorcycles and cars before becoming the exclusive Austrian importer for Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Alfa Romeo, and Volvo's first agent outside Sweden. His timing was unfortunate. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Mr Hoffman moved to Paris and from there to New York, arriving in 1941.

His first business in America was making costume jewellery out of plastic coated in metal. By the end of the war he had made enough to get back into cars. He offered his services to European manufacturers desperate to access the booming US market. He signed up the venerable British makers HRG, Lea-Francis, Lagonda, Lanchester and Jaguar.

In 1950 he met Mr Ferdinand Porsche at the Paris Motor Show and agreed to import 15 Porsches into the US. According to Porsche lore, over lunch in New York he convinced Mr Porsche that Americans liked brands and that he should create an emblem for his imported cars. So was born the company's black, red and gold shield, inspired by the seal of Stuttgart, its home town.

To promote his cars, Mr Hoffman entered races in Palm Beach, Bridgehampton and across New England, winning trophies and raising the profile of his marques. It was through these links to racing that he learnt of a low-slung Mercedes rocket, the unromantically named W194 300SL. It had been designed by Mr Rudolf Uhlenhaut, an Anglo-German engineer said to drive faster than Mr Juan Manuel Fangio, the five-time Formula One world champion driver of the 1950s. Mr Uhlenhaut built the W194 to minimise aerodynamic drag. The frame was made of thin tubes welded into triangles. To make the car more stable, the frame rose high up its sides. Normal doors would not fit. Mr Uhlenhaut's solution was doors hinged at the roof. Those gullwings were elegant in form following the pure function of speed. It more than justified its label SL (Sport Leicht - sporty and light), and still makes later gullwing efforts, such as the DeLorean DMC-12, look clunky.

The car came out of nowhere in 1952 to win the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Carrera Panamericana, despite a vulture smashing into the windscreen at 120mph during the latter

The car came out of nowhere in 1952 to win the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Carrera Panamericana, despite a vulture smashing into the windscreen at 120mph during the latter. Mr Hoffman was smitten and pressed the board at Mercedes-Benz to build a road version for his American clients.

In February 1954, the 300SL Gullwing coupé was unveiled at the New York International Auto Show. The following year, Mr Hoffman began to sell them from his Mr Frank Lloyd Wright-designed showroom. This featured a revolving display for the cars and a circular ramp that anticipated Mr Wright's design for the Guggenheim Museum. (The showroom was demolished by developers in 2013.) Mr Wright also designed Mr Hoffman's home in Rye, New York, overlooking Long Island Sound. The L-shaped house is built of stone and plaster with an overhanging slate roof, and has a Japanese garden. As part of his compensation for working for Mr Hoffman, Mr Wright received two Mercedes.

Of the 1,400 300SL Gullwings ever made, 80% were sold in the US. One of the first buyers was Mr Clark Gable. He would flip down the steering wheel so he could squeeze his tall frame into the low cockpit and race across the desert flats of Nevada. He was also one of the few to take up the option of custom leather luggage to fit behind the driver's seat.

Mr Clark Gable on the set of The
Misfits
, Nevada, 1960
Photo © Eve Arnold/ Magnum Photos

Later in the 1950s, Mr Hoffman urged BMW to build a sports car to fill the gap between the 300SL and the cheaper Triumphs and MGs from Britain. He influenced the design of the the BMW 507, a roadster which, like the Gullwing, has a reputation far greater than its sales.

Mr Hoffman made his fortune importing BMWs. In the late 1970s he claimed he was the highest individual taxpayer in America. But when he died in 1981 it was not so much as a businessman that he was remembered. He had shown there was more to selling cars than the handshake and the haggle. Sixty years on, the price of Gullwings continues to rise and its influence on design endures, a tribute to one salesman's genius.