In October of 1970, a mere three days before she died, Janis Joplin famously sang, “Oh, Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz.” But don’t be fooled. Years earlier she demonstrated where her automotive allegiances were by letting rock-and-roll fame buy her a Porsche.
Joplin’s iconic and wildly psychedelic 1964 Porsche 356C 1600 SC Cabriolet, which for the last 20 years has greeted visitors to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, is ready to head to a new home.
The blues singer’s younger brother and sister, Michael and Laura, have put the car on the block as part of RM Sotheby’s December 10 auction in New York, one of 30 not-the-norm automobiles—including a rakish 2006 Lamborghini Concept S—that meet the event’s “Driven by Disruption” theme.
“This Porsche fits in perfectly with the auction because of its tremendous impact on popular culture,” says RM Sotheby’s Ian Kelleher, who recalls first seeing the car while a college student, shortly after it arrived at the rock shrine in Ohio. “The paint job on that car really describes the time and place it lived in.”
One of the most famous photos of the Porsche and its diminutive driver was taken by the still-existing Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, the city Joplin called home after her upbringing in Port Arthur, Texas.
In it, Joplin is cloaked in classic ‘60s finery, including a fur coat and purple pants, and is sitting cross-legged on the hood of the 356C Cab, arms outstretched. The world truly was Joplin’s oyster at the time she purchased the used Porsche in 1968, with her unique and soulful croon having taken her from singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company to a star in her own right.
What’s most distinctive about the photograph is the Porsche’s paint. Joplin felt the car’s original white was a too demure for her tastes, and asked a Big Brother roadie, Dave Richards, to create a mural on the vehicle. Richards has described the result—which features butterflies, jellyfish and Joplin with her band—as “The History of the Universe.”
Kelleher says the auction house is anticipating a sale price of $400,000 for the little roadster. Air-cooled Porsches in general have been skyrocketing in value, with even some late-model 911s (993) doubling over the past year.
That said, this particular 356 model is more typically a modest six-figure car, with online hunts and a Hagerty Insurance estimate finding prices closer to $150,000. This nearly triple-the-norm sum for Joplin’s baby speaks to a number of factors.
“First of all, we are seeing tremendous interest in this car from people who have maybe one or two cars, but are very big into collecting things from the art and music worlds, people who have literally said to me, ‘I can’t believe this car is for sale,’” says Kelleher.
Another lure is the rare fact that the car was owned and driven by a legendary woman.
“So often, amazing cars that have been driven by women were bought by men for their mistresses or muses,” says Kelleher, one example of many being the famous Pebble Beach-winning 1954 Ferrari 375MM Scaglietti Coupe that Italian director Roberto Rossellini bought for his actress wife, Ingrid Bergman, which ultimately gave rise to a special Ferrari grey paint color that still exists, Grigio Ingrid.
“The fact that this car was bought by and driven by this female icon really gives it a unique story,” says Kelleher. “It just doesn’t happen often.”
After Joplin’s untimely death at age 27 - part of a rash of rock legend passings in 1970 and 1971 that included Jimi Hendrix and Doors frontman Jim Morrison - the Porsche went to her siblings, who treated it as welcome transportation.
“Michael and Laura (the latter wrote the book turned play, “Love, Janis”) shared many stories with me of driving it,” says Kelleher. “It was a used car, and not something they anticipated would rise to cult status.”
The car was often seen spotted on grocery store runs and other errands, and given the small-town nature of where the Joplin kids lived - Kelleher wouldn’t say where, other than out West - no one made a big fuss over the Porsche.
Time gradually took its toll, and when, in the early ‘90s, paint started flaking off in chunks, the car underwent a largely cosmetic restoration to restore its wild paint scheme. In 1995, it was handed over to the rock museum, drained of fluids and parked.
As for why the Joplins have opted to sell the car now, Kelleher says “they’re two fairly normal people, not billionaires,” although they do control Janis’ presumably lucrative estate.
“This car, frankly, has reached the point where it’s truly an asset whose value forces you to think about selling it,” he says. “They thought the timing was right, given the new documentary” called “Janis,” which recently premiered at the Venice Film Festival.
Kelleher says that this Porsche 356 comes in second only to one car the auction house sold previously when it comes to causing a global stir: the classic 1964 Aston Martin DB5 driven by Sean Connery in the James Bond film “Goldfinger,” which fetched $4.6 million in 2010.
What makes the Joplin Porsche perhaps even more of a buzz-generating machine is that “a perfect match between the demographic of people who loved and appreciated her music, and the demographic of our buyers”—in other words, boomers with some disposable income.
“This may not be the most valuable Porsche ever to come to auction,” says Kelleher, “but it is certainly among the most significant and interesting ever.”
All photos: Darin Schnabel © 2015 courtesy RM Sotheby’s