Born : December 16 1921
Deceased : December 24 2003

Biography John von Neumann

John von Neumann was born in Vienna just a few years after World War I. Viena is the capital of Austria and at that time, where Max Hoffman, later becoming Porsche importer in the USA, had an automotive showroom. John von Neumann had a strong interest in cars from his childhood and he spend many hours in the Max Hoffman’s showrooms.

In 1939 the von Neumann family moved to the USA to escape from the growing political tension in Europe, tension that finally would set the world in fire with the World War II. The von Neuman family migrated first to Canada and later to New York City where they set up a shop. Just 2 years later,  December 7th 1941, John von Neumann was obliged to join the US Army in order to keep his American citizenship. It was during his army years that John von Neumann learned to know German cars, especially the ones manufactured by Volkswgen.

After the war, John von Neumann completed college in New York City to continue his education at the Los Angeles University. At that time, the car culture was exploding in southern California. John von Neumann met Roger Barlow, the owner of “International Motors” and they seen became close friends. Together with Taylor Lucas, they founded the Californian Sports Car Club for the purpose of organising competitive driving events. 

John von Neumann in Porsche 550
John von Neumann in Porsche 550

In 1948 John von Neumann starts his own business : Competition Motors

After having worked as a salesman for a year at International Motors, John von Neumann left the company and started his own business in 1948. Competition Motors was born and would write an important part of the southern Californian car history, especially when it comes to Porsche and Ferrari.

In the beginning of Competition Motors, John von Neumann sold mainly British cars at Competition Motors. His way of advertising was to bring the cars to races, drive them home and sell them. No better way to express the slogan : “Race on Sunday and sell on Monday”. Despite the succeses John von Neumann had both in racing and selling British cars, he never forget how much he was impressed with the German cars he used to drive while he was in the US Army.

1953 New York Car Show. Porsches on display at John von Neumann’ Competition Motors stand.

Max Hoffman was importing Porsche’s in the USA since 1951. John von Neumann decided to travel to New York and visited Max Hoffman’s showroom in Park Avenue. After a short test drive in a 1100cc Porsche 356 Coupe, John von Neumann bought the car and drove it cross-country to his shop in California. Shortly after the car was sold, with many more travels to New York as a consequence. Soon John von Neumann’s wife Eleanor would join him on his trips to New York, so they could bring home 2 cars.

John von Neumann and the Porsche 356 Gmünd SL (356/02-063)

Max Hoffman imported some of the eleven Porsche 356 Gmünd SL‘s to the USA. One of these cars was sold to John von Neumann. The car had competed in the 1951 Le Mans 24H with Auguste Veuillet and Edmond Mouche at the wheel and took a class win. Later that same car was used in the Monthléry speed records. John von Neumann immediately started racing the cars. and made some substantial changes to the car. The brakes were changed to the more actual hydraulic brakes, close ratio gears were installed in the transaxle. And  then John von Neumann did something that was the most drastic.

John Von Neumann in his 356SL Porsche won the under-1,500cc main event at Torrey Pines on December 14, 1952. John had cut the top off of what had originally been a coupe. Bill Pringle is following him in a 1951 Barlow Simca Special.
Photo: Pelipe Turlich, the Warren Olson collection

He cut of the roof of the Porsche 356 Gmünd SL. Rumors are that Max Hoffman took pictures of the “roadster” and sent them to the Porsche factory mentioning he wanted a Porsche like that leaving the factory. Maybe that’s the beginning of the Porsche 356 or the Porsche 550 Spyder.

In 1953 John Von Neumann was awarded an official Porsche and VW distributorship. He continued racing and bought one of the first Porsche 550 Spyders, the pushrod-engine Porsche 550-003.  Soon after John von Neumann started racing Ferrari’s himself, even though he still ran the Porsche dealership. 

He offered seats to other talented racers to compete in Porsches of his own “competition motors” racing team to assure the marketing campaign that was racing for him. Ken Miles, Richie Ginther, Phil Hill and Jack McAfee, all of them defended the honours of John von Neumann in a Porsche. 

In 1971, John von Neumann sold Competition Motors  to Porsche and Volkswagen, but never lost his love for the automobile. He moved to Europe where he spent most of his time on his yacht at the Mediteranean. Xmas eve 2002, John von Neumann died after an extremely succesful and interesting life. And he will always be remembered as the one who introduced Porsche in California and help to build up Porsche in USA to what it is nowadays.