Herbie 'The Love Bug' Behind-The-Scenes And How A Volkswagen Beetle Won The World's Heart

Herbie, the Love Bug. Source: IMDB
In 1969, Herbie the "Love Bug" became Hollywood's first four-wheeled movie star, and the Volkswagen Beetle's popularity persisted through three sequels and two reboots. Herbie was a beloved Disney character, and kids of the late '60s and '70s flocked to theaters to watch his antics in Herbie Rides Again (1974), Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo (1977), and Herbie Goes Bananas (1980). Sure, a VW bug is a cute car -- but how did this one manage to become a celebrity?
The iconic car. Source: (wikipedia)
The Love Bug opened nationally in March 1969, after a premiere in New York City in December '68. It was one of the last live-action films Walt Disney personally approved and featured some Disney regulars, including Dean Jones and director Robert Stevenson, who also directed Mary Poppins. Dean Jones originally pitched a serious story about the first sports car brought to America. Walt Disney had other ideas though, instead suggesting that they create a movie adaptation of Gordon Buford’s story Car, Boy, Girl. However, there was no actual book by that title, although Disney does own the rights to the story. Buford explained that his inspiration for the story came from his parents who treated their cars like horses.

The Beginnings Of A Hit

Source: IMDB)
The film was not always called The Love Bug; its working titles included Car, Boy, GirlThe Magic VolksyThe Runaway Wagen,  BeetlebombWonderbeetleBugboom, and Thunderbug. The star of the film was also not definitively a VW. Before filming began, other cars auditioned for the role, including Toyotas, Volvos, and an MG. The pearl white 1963 Volkswagen Beetle Model 117 Deluxe Sunroof Sedan got the part because it was the only one that people saw as having a personality. As Bill Walsh, the producer/writer explained, when “employees walk past the auditioning cars, they only patted the VW, and “the VW had a personality of its own that reached out and embraced people. This trait was necessary as the car had to take on human characteristics and become a character. In one scene, in fact, Jim Douglas (played by Dean Jones) had to rescue the car from a suicide jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.

Different Cars For Different Purposes

One of the many cars used as Herbie. Source: (IMDB).
While the look of the VW helped to win people over, the car was an underdog that everyone can cheer for (except Peter Thorndyke, the villain played by David Tomlinson). The VW, however, had to be adjusted for the speedy scenes. It was given a bus engine for some scenes, while in others, it had a Porsche engine that could hit 115 mph. Herbie also had Porsche brakes, Koni shocks, and wide-base wheels with Indianapolis 500-type race tires. Twenty-one VWs were used for the filming, each one outfitted for the different race sequences. Only a few of the Herbies used in the film still exist, and #10 still has its original paint. The Herbie that plunged into the ocean in Herbie Goes Bananas was never recovered.

Giving Herbie Some Personality

Michelle Lee, Buddy Hackett, and Dean Jones. Source: (IMDB)
In addition to outfitting the car for the race sequences, they had to create the qualities that really gave the car its personality. Bill Walsh chose the chose the number “53” as Herbie’s racing number because he was a fan of LA Dodgers’ player Don Drysdale, whose jersey number was 53. Walsh chose the colors of the racing stripes on the car because of their patriotic nature and Walsh also developed some of the gags that gave the car personality, including squirting oil on Peter Thorndyke’s shoes and opening its own doors. The car’s name, Herbie, came from a Buddy Hackett skit.

They Couldn't Mention The Brand

Buddy Hackett, the first to see the car's spirit. Source: (IMDB).
Before the film came out, the VW’s nickname “Bug” was not trademarked, so Disney was able to use it. The VW name and logo were not used anywhere in the film as VW did not give permission and the car is referred to as “the compact car,” “the little car” and “the Douglas special.” However, the name and logo were used in subsequent films because VW sales were down, a good decision on their part because the car had become a star.

After Herbie's Success

Dean Jones also played the hippie in the film. Source: (IMDB)
As Dean Jones, who also played a hippie with a single line, pointed out, Herbie had all the qualities that make a hero. Herbie was so well-loved that it spawned a franchise: four follow-up films, a made-for-television film, and a short-lived television series.

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