But, in more ways than just a name, his son James Hoffa jnr is seeking to turn back the clock at America's largest and most notorious labour union.
The Teamsters convention, which opened in Philadelphia yesterday, is the first since 1991, when the then obscure Ron Carey was elected president with the backing of the federal government - and a mandate to clean out a union whose mob links and corruption were a national and international byword.
Mr Carey has been as good as his word. He has purged hundreds of officials, closed suspect local branches, and created a strong central office in Washington. Now one of the most influential figures in US labour, he was a prime mover behind last year's coup that installed the reformer John Sweeney at the head of a reinvigorated AFL-CIO, the umbrella organisation of the US union movement.
But all is not well in Teamster ranks. A defiant old guard still resents Mr Carey's very presence, and accuses him of caving in to employers in several recent contract agreements. Few defend the corruption presided over by Hoffa senior, who was last seen alive at a suburban Detroit restaurant in July 1975
Many, however, miss the power he and the union, then 2 million strong, wielded.
Hence the opportunity for his son, a Detroit lawyer and Teamsters member for only three years, and referred to simply as "Junior" by the Carey camp. Junior claims to be a better manager and tougher negotiator, and vows to return power to the state and local branches.
Mr Carey says he has the support to win, and a secret ballot of the 1,900 delegates on Thursday may prove it. But the final result will not be known until November, after a federally supervised postal vote of the 1.4 million rank-and-file members.
Measured against their extravagant past, today's Teamsters are a sober bunch. Aformer president, Jackie Presser, entered a convention in Las Vegas borne on a golden chariot and clad as a Roman senator, to chants of "Hail Caesar". Mr Carey has cut his own salary by one-third to $150,000 (pounds 100,000) and sold the union's two private jets and limousine.
Today, only one Teamster in 10 drives one of the trucking behemoths that rule America's interstate highways, and fully one-third of the union's members are women.