The Love Bug Story

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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The Love Bug (1969) was the biggest American box office hit for the year it came out (because it appealed to all ages, unlike the X-rated Midnight Cowboy that won the Oscar for Best Picture for that year), and was the second-highest grossing film in Disney history after Mary Poppins (1964). Director Robert Stevenson and Producer/Writer Bill Walsh were responsible for both Disney films.

The film was made for roughly $4.2 million dollars and grossed more than $51.2 million in its first months, putting it in the top-ten highest grossing films of all time. It no longer holds that position.

In late 1962, Walt approved the development of the story, but this was a busy time for Walt Disney Productions with Mary Poppins, the New York World's Fair, New Orleans Square, the New Tomorrowland, the Florida Project, Mineral King, and so many other things in some stage of production, which pushed this film to near the bottom of the priority list.

However, this early approval is one of the reasons Herbie is a 1963 model, because it was the newest model at the time serious development started on the film.

The huge success of the film inspired the theatrical sequels Herbie Rides Again (1974), Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977), Herbie Goes Bananas (1980) and Herbie Fully Loaded (2005). None of them matched the financial or critical success of the original.

There were five episodes of a Herbie, the Love Bug television series on CBS from April-May 1982, where Dean Jones returned as the character of Jim Douglas from the original film who ran a driving school and falls in love and marries a woman with three children.


A poster from The Love Bug movie introduced the world to Herbie.

In addition, there was a television re-imaging of the original film in 1997, with actor Bruce Campbell playing Herbie's new owner. The film also included an all-black Horace the Hate Bug Volkswagen, Herbie's evil twin. Dean Jones made a cameo as Jim Douglas.

In 2000, the trade newspaper Variety reported that Disney was working on a script for a new Herbie film to be titled Herbie & Millie.

From 1971-1978, in an attempt to take advantage of the popularity of the original Love Bug movie, there were five West German theatrical films made about "Superbug", a Volkswagen Bug with artificial intelligence and tons of gadgets and nicknamed "Dudu" (the Swahilli word for "beetle"). Believe it or not, the idea of the computer-controlled car in this series helped inspire Glen Larson to create Knight Rider.

Walsh had found an original unpublished story by writer Gordon Buford, a schoolteacher in the San Francisco area (which is why the story is set in San Francisco), in 1961, titled Car-Boy-Girl. In fact, that was the working title for the script, at first.

During development, various titles were considered, including The Magic Volksy, Beetlebomb, Wonderbeetle and Thunderbug before settling on The Love Bug, after early preview audiences responded so positively to it since this was the era of "Make Love Not War" and the word was prominent everywhere.

The car was called Der Käfer, or "beetle" in German, because of its outer appearance. When it was translated in America, it became the more informal "bug." The term was first used around 1958, but did not become officially recognized by the car company in publications until around 1967.

In addition, there were indeed actual love bugs (Plecia nearctica) plaguing the property planned for Walt Disney World. The bugs originated from Central America and slowly spread over many southern states, including Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. With their abundance, they annoy WDW guests twice a year in the spring and late summer.

Another unpublished Buford story, My Dog, The Thief (about a St. Bernard who swipes a necklace from jewel smugglers), was adapted as a two-part episode for the Wonderful World of Color in September 1969. Buford, writing in the Volkswagen owners' magazine Small World (Spring 1970) said the initial concept of a "living" automobile came from his years as a teen.

"Growing up on a Colorado farm gives one a sense of insecurity about his transportation that never quite leaves," he said. "I was either wondering if I was going to catch a horse and get a bridle on him or if we were going to coax our old car into life and get it to town and back.

"Sometimes neither my mother's gentle persuasion nor my father's cussing could coax our automobile out of its quiet, stubborn rebellion," Buford said. "My mother's anxiety (the holding of her breath at the moment of truth when her foot pushed the starter) subtly drew me to the conclusion that cars, like horses, have personalities, that they wield incredible power over us mere humans."

Walsh expanded the story, along with co-writer Don DaGradi who he had worked with on Mary Poppins. While Buford's original story specifically had a Volkswagen as the hero, the Disney Company wasn't quite sure about using the German-made car as the star.

They parked several different vehicles, including Toyotas, Volvos, a Fiat, and a MG, among others, inside the employee entrance at Disneyland to watch the cast members' reactions to the various cars as they came to and from work. Disney did a similar test at the Disney Studios parking lot at lunchtime. The results were the same.

With the other cars, people would kick the car's tires, twist the steering wheel and other traditional maneuvers used when buying a car in those days. However the reaction to the VW bug always brought a smile to people's faces with some even pausing to pat the car or talk to it.

Walsh was the one responsible for coming up with the number "53". In an interview, he stated that he "was seeing lots of 53s of television. It was [Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher] Don Drysdale's number among other things."

Walsh also was responsible for the red, white and blue color scheme, which he felt would be patriotic and garner immediate empathy from U.S. audiences. An early discussion was to have Herbie painted bright red to catch attention and signify speed. Herbie was painted Pearlweiss (Pearl White), an original 1963 VW color, color code L87, that is more of an "off white" than pearl colored.

Normally, the interior would also have been white, as well, but was painted a non-reflective grey color, except for the knobs and inside grill so that camera lights would not cause reflections during filming.

According to comedian Buddy Hackett, who performed in the film as the best friend of Jones' character, the name "Herbie" (the VW was unnamed in the original story) came from a bit in his Las Vegas stand-up comedy routine.

In it, he talked about a German-accented ski instructor and his team of fellow Germans, and the Jewish Hackett responding with the punchline that he wasn't going down the slopes unless there was at least one Jewish "Herbie" (pronounced "Hoy-Bee") among the instructors: "I only ski with Herbies."

Walsh had gone to Las Vegas to see Hackett's act and loved the name.

In the movie Hackett's character, Tennessee Steinmetz names the car after his uncle Herb, a professional boxer with a broken nose that resembled the hood of a VW Beetle. Steinmetz claims that he has a feeling for the "metal-physical" after spending some time in Tibet "knocking back rice wine" with some monks. He believes that machines can have mental abilities and feelings.

When Steinmetz and businessman Tang Wu are arguing, several places have indicated that it was typical fake Chinese. Actually, actor Benson Fong who played the part of Wu taught Hackett how to speak certain Chinese phrases phonetically.

"That really broke me up. Whoever heard the Mandarin dialect with a Jewish accent?" stated Fong.

Fong was the owner of Hollywood's Ah Fong's Restaurants in Hollywood, so when the script called for bird's nest soup, Fong had steaming tureens of it delivered from one of his restaurants.

Director Robert Stevenson first worked with Walt Disney in 1957, so Herbie's license plate OFP 857 represents an inside joke referencing quot;Our First Production, 8-57" which would have been Johnny Tremain.

Actually, the film had Los Angeles and New York openings in June, but did not go into a wide release until August. The Love Bug premiered in December 1968, but is considered a 1969 film by many Disney fans because it went into general release in March of that year.

The Volkswagen brand name, logos or shield do not appear anywhere in the film (except briefly on the brake pedal and key probably as an oversight), as the automaker did not want Disney to use the name for fear the film might damage its brand. So there are smooth hubcaps and blanked out hood emblems.

Eventually, VW relented and did a big promotional campaign of billboards and full page ads in Life, Look, Time and Sunset magazines proclaiming "Our Car the Movie Star."

"Incredible as it sounds, you are looking at the romantic lead of a big new Hollywood picture. Please, no autographs. The picture is Walt Disney Studio's The Love Bug. And our VW appears in all its real life splendor as Herbie, the main character.

"Why would a big film studio want to make a movie star out of the bug? Why not? Once signed up, the bug won't suddenly start making crazy demands. (A gallon of gas for ever 27 miles or so is all.) No studio could ask for a less temperamental star. (It'll work any time, anywhere and in any weather.) Or one with fewer bad habits. (It doesn't even drink water.)

"Or one that ages so gracefully. And, of course, there isn't a performer around that's better known to the public. Who else makes three million personal appearances on the road every day?

"See our car in Walt Disney Studio's The Love Bug."

The story is simple but charming.

Jim Douglas (Dean Jones) is a racing car driver who has fallen on hard times and can only find work competing in demolition derbies. He lives in an old firehouse overlooking San Francisco Bay with his friend Tennessee Steinmetz (Buddy Hackett) who builds art out of wrecked car parts and believes mechanical things, like cars, have a mind and heart.

Jim needs a car and finds a white Volkswagen being abused by an upscale imported automobile showroom owner Peter Thorndyke (David Tomlinson). Thorndyke is a snob but also a top race car driver and takes inordinate pride in that accomplishment. The car has been returned for being unreliable by San Francisco socialite Mrs. Van Luit who had purchased it for her upstairs maid.

The attractive sales assistant and mechanic Carole Bennett (Michele Lee) arranges for Jim to buy the car in installments. Jim discovers that the car has unusual speed and they win their first race together but Jim believes it is because of his skill.

Thorndyke challenges Jim to a race and, despite Thorndyke's dirty tricks, Jim and Herbie win the race and become the hits of the California racing circuit. Thorndyke sets Jim and Carole up on a date while he gets Tennessee drunk and pours the rest of the strong Irish coffee into Herbie's tank. The next day, a hungover Herbie backfires and stops while Thorndyke wins the race.

Jim agrees to sell Herbie back to Thorndyke, but relents when he finally realizes that Herbie really is alive. Hijinks ensue including an escapade during Chinese New Year where Herbie ends up the property of Tang Wu (Benson Fong) a Chinese businessman who allows Douglas to race Herbie in the El Dorado race.

Thorndyke is also in the race and uses dirty tricks to disable Herbie by the end of the first half of the race. In the second half, Herbie makes up for lost time and as he approaches the finish line, he splits in two, taking both first and third place honors.

Wu takes over Thorndyke's car dealership, making Tennessee his assistant. Herbie chauffeurs Jim and Carole off on their honeymoon.

Producer Walsh stated at the film's release, "The important thing in casting is that they must fit the part. [Michele Lee] has great warmth, is very believable and different looking from the average Hollywood actress.

"I wanted Dean Jones because he's a personality actor who understands comedy and he reacts well," he said. "In addition, he has an all-American look about him that makes the nutty shenanigans all the more convincing. Buddy Hackett was also signed for the film because he's a good actor. I always try to implement what Walt had been doing and that is to entertain."

Herbie receives billing in the cast closing credits, the only time this was done in the entire series of films. Many different cars were used for different purposes but even in later films they were altered to look like a '63 ragtop sunroof model. Some cars were destroyed in stunts during filming or simply sold off and are in private collections today.

The second unit director, Art Vitarelli, was the one who gathered together the drivers, including Andy Granatelli, Max Blachowsky, Bob Bondurant and Joe Playan.

Vitarelli cast Granatelli as a race starter. Vitarelli said, "It was kind of an inside joke. You know, Andy's cars were banned at Indianapolis because their intake was too large. We have a thing in the film where the VW won't run at Indianapolis because the intake is too small."

The primary stunt driver was Carey Loftin who had "doubled" as a driver in many films and did so for Jones in this film. Loftin and Vitarelli put together a folding blackboard with a complete set of miniature cars to physically show each driver what they were expected to do.

Herbie had a bus engine in some scenes and, in others, a 356 Porsche engine that could do up to 115 miles per hour.

"Don't forget. You don't just start but you've got to stop safely," Vitrarelli stated. "So we also had Porsche brakes, Koney shocks, a stabilizer and wide-base wheels with Indianapolis race tires."

Vitarelli headed a 127-man crew for racing sequences that were shot at Riverside Grand Prix Raceway, Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Willow Springs Raceway, Big and Little Tujunga Canyons outside of Los Angeles, and Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills.

The opening scene of the demolition derby is stock footage from the film Fireball 500 (1966) from American International Pictures with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.

Volkswagen also supported Love Bug Day at Disneyland, held March 23, 1969. Park attendance, according to Disney publicity went "up 10,000 from the estimated attendance and our marketing at the Park feel certain that much the same kind of contest will become an annual event, including all makes of cars and involving the Southern California Automobile Dealers Association as sponsor."

That prediction never came true.

The cars were judged in four categories to simplify the judging: most psychedelic, toy-like, comical and best personality. There were 800 entries and 100 (25 finalists from each of the four categories) were selected to be paraded through Disneyland, led by Mickey Mouse and the Disneyland Band and costumed characters like the Big Bad Wolf, the Little Pigs and Alice in Wonderland scattered throughout the parade. Dean Jones sat on the curb in Town Square watching it all.

The decorating took place in the parking lot and then judged. The finalists then drove from the parking lot into Town Square and then up Main Street ending at "it's a small world." Most cars had faces, often with moving eyes (sometimes attached to the windshield wipers) and there were several rabbits because of Easter. One car was done up like Donald Duck, but didn't make it out of the parking lot.

Morton and Barbara Allen of Studio City, California, won the grand prize – a brand-new, fully-equipped 1969 Volkswagen Beetle (contributed by Volkswagen, along with $2,500 in gifts for the winners of the four categories and $25,000 in radio and newspaper advertising), with the keys presented by The Love Bug star Dean Jones. Jones joked he was going to keep the car and started to put the keys in his pocket. Nearby were Goofy and Pluto.

The Sweepstakes-winning car was painted completely yellow and done up with a female face (eyes with eyelashes, slender nose, bright red lips) and a paisley-flowered skirt along the length on either side of the car. A sign on the side read: "Hi, I'm Li'l Squirt. I love Herbie but he don't love me. (Sob! Sob!) 'Cause look at all those sexy VWs he's flirting with."

One of the finalists did up their car to look like Mickey Mouse with huge black mouse ears on top and the eyes on the windshield. Several cars were done up like mice, and many others had Mickey Mouse drawings on them.

Other prizes included color televisions, Kodak Super-8 movie cameras and projectors, and new Polaroid cameras. In 1974, there was another Herbie Day at Disneyland and that was an hour-long special on local television KTTV Channel 11.

In the weekly Wonderful World of Disney television show episode "Disneyland Showtime" (March 1970), singer E.J. Peaker drives up to Disneyland in her decorated VW bug to be in the Love Bug parade and actor Kurt Russell tells her it was last year.

With the film a huge hit in theaters, Herbie was included in parades at Disneyland, as well as part of the new traveling show, Disney on Parade, starting December 25, 1969. At one point Herbie actually "walked" across a high wire as part of the show.

Over the decades, Disney produced merchandise related to Herbie and continues to do so, but when the original film was released, some of the key items included a Gold Key one-shot comic book, dated June 1969, retelling the story; a free coloring book as part of a Hunt's Catsup promotion; The Story of the Love Bug, narrated by Buddy Hackett, album from Disneyland Records with a full-color illustrated storybook; and the film was adapted for eight Sundays (March 2-May 25, 1969) in the newspaper comic strip Walt Disney's Treasury of Classic Tales.

Several decades later, Herbie made appearances at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Two buildings at the All Star Movies Resort (No. 6 and No. 7) devoted to the character opened in March 1999. Herbie (used in Magic Kingdom parades up to 1990 when it was put in storage) was displayed on a racetrack-themed courtyard. It was later relocated to the Disney-MGM Studios backlot tour because people kept climbing on it. A vehicle from Herbie Fully Loaded also appeared on the tour, until the attraction shut down.

The gigantic front and rear Herbie sculptures (because Herbie can split in two) on the buildings are approximately five times the normal size of a VW Beetle. At night, they illuminate.

Both buildings are themed to a racing motif with oversized tools like a wrench, a screwdriver and wheel stating "Winner's Circle." The oversized movie clap boards reference "Love Bug" films.

A Herbie was originally on the Disney MGM Studio backlot tour in a driveway on Residential Street (the Burns house from Ernest Saves Christmas) when it opened in May 1989. It was designed to raise up like a wheelie, smoke its rotating back tires, open its doors and hood, squirt water from its washers and do a few other tricks. Unfortunately, it suffered a major electrical fire and was completely burned and Disney decided against replacing it.

Another Herbie that was used in Herbie Goes Bananas (1980) hung from the top of the ceiling of Planet Hollywood at Downtown Disney where his lights blinked and the headlights could turn to look down.

When Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show premiered at Disney-MGM Studios, Herbie also appeared in a cameo and as part of the show split in two. He also appeared in the original Paris version of the show. Herbie was later replaced by Lightning McQueen in July 2011. Just outside the stadium was Herbie's Drive-In, a counter serve snack stand that had hot dogs, chips, chili, drinks and more.

Although he first appeared in the late 1960s, Herbie still remains popular today because he is still a charming, innocent orphan child, needing affection and attention. Many Disney fans customize their cars to resemble this popular movie star.