By anyone’s accounting, Max Hoffman – a seminal U.S. distributor of Volkswagen, Porsche, and other European auto marques – was a skilled salesman. Hoffman was also a brilliant entrepreneur who understood that employee knowledge and ongoing training were essential to long-term success. To ensure the Porsche mechanics at his Hoffman Motor Car Company in New York City were as proficient as possible, Hoffman arranged for the German automaker to provide a 1956 Porsche 356 A training chassis, which, now restored, will cross the auction block on October 27 in Atlanta, Georgia, part of RM Sotheby’s Porsche 70th Anniversary sale.
Hoffman may have requisitioned the 356 A training chassis from Zuffenhausen, but the story behind the rebirth of this functional sculpture has ties to another Porsche distributor, Bill Jones. In 1959, Jones – who resided in San Antonio, Texas – was a distributor for Volkswagen in five-plus states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, and part of Kansas. His success with Volkswagen earned him a similar distributorship from Porsche of America Corporation, a newly formed entity that had taken over sales of Porsche automobiles in the United States from Hoffman.
As B.J. Turner wrote in the November 1987 issue of Porsche Panorama, Jones’ new endeavor required a trip to Zuffenhausen, West Germany, for meetings with Porsche executives. Bad weather in the Eastern United States delayed his flight from New York to Stuttgart by 24 hours, allowing him the opportunity to visit Hoffman’s legendary Manhattan showroom. Manager Karl Grasso gave Jones a detailed behind-the-scenes tour, and in the technical training area he witnessed a score of mechanics huddled around the 356 A training chassis. To Jones, it seemed a brilliant way to instruct employees on procedures and techniques, and he made a mental note to request a training chassis of his own from Porsche.
Except Jones’s timing couldn’t have been worse. The 356 A was being phased out by Porsche, replaced by the 356 B. All of the remaining 356 A chassis had already been allocated, and demand for the model meant that Porsche couldn’t advise when – or even if – it would be able to provide a 356 B training chassis. Left only with the promise that Porsche would endeavor to ship him one, Jones returned to Texas.
The training chassis was never delivered, but Porsche did provide tools like cutaway engines and transmissions for Jones’s mechanics. Over time, the request for a 356 training chassis became increasingly less relevant, and Jones eventually gave up the distributorship, opting to open a Porsche dealership in San Antonio instead. Later, he sold this business to open a Porsche restoration shop, specializing in 356 models, with his son Bob.
In 1976, Jones learned that the Hoffman 356 A training chassis was still around, and potentially available for purchase. Following its time at Hoffman Motors, the training aid was sent to Porsche of America Corporation, and later, to a distributor in Boston. With the help of past Porsche Club of America National Secretary Ernie Groves, it was found in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where the owner once envisioned building a Devon-bodied sports racer from it. Living nearby, Groves volunteered to examine the chassis, which he deemed as “absolute junk” after years of storage in a backyard chicken coop.
Despite Groves’ words of caution, Jones flew to Massachusetts to examine the Hoffman chassis. Knowing its purpose, he suspected the rust, grime and corrosion were only skin-deep, and since the chassis was never put on the road or run for extended periods of time, the internal components would not be beyond salvation. A deal was struck, and Jones brought the chassis back to San Antonio, where he and his son worked on the restoration as time allowed between customer jobs.
During the teardown, Jones noted that the chassis often used different components from side to side. The left side, for example, used a VW stub axle with thrust ball bearings, while the right side received a reinforced stub axle with tapered roller bearings. The tie rods were different, as were the bushings, but Jones soon realized this was by design, with one side of the chassis representing early 356 A models, and the other representing later production. With a single chassis, Porsche attempted to simulate the variations mechanics could expect to find in the field.
Though Jones’ hunch about the condition of internal components was correct, the restoration project took over a decade to complete. Wherever possible, the original components were refurbished instead of being replaced, as some were unique to the build. Tolerances were generous on certain assemblies, which facilitated the removal and assembly process without the use of pullers and presses, but also meant that replacement parts would not simply bolt on.
While every effort was made to keep the Hoffman chassis original, Jones found that without the weight of a body, the suspension sat unnaturally high. This was corrected with revised torsion bars, but the original torsion bars were restored and set aside. Bumpers, not present on the original build, were added for safely, since the sharp angles on the front and rear of the chassis produced an ample quantity of bruised shins and cut legs.
Today, the restored chassis – which includes a working driveline – represents a unique piece of Porsche history, one that should prove appealing to collectors and restorers alike. Given the “where would you find another” nature of the lot, RM Sotheby’s predicts a selling price between $100,000 and $150,000 when the Hoffman chassis crosses the block in Georgia.
For additional details on the Porsche 70th Anniversary sale, visit RMSothebys.com.