More of The Love Bug Story

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

MousePlanet readers seemed to enjoy my recent exploration of the history of Herbie, the Love Bug.

Here is a little more information that I hope will enhance your enjoyment of the original film. Film critics did not care for the film when it was first released but the movie proved itself critic proof as audiences embraced the funny little car and made him an authentic Disney star.

Disney Legend Bill Walsh was 61 years old when he died from a heart attack on January 27, 1975. He was the co-writer and producer of The Love Bug (1968) and a huge influence on the most popular of Disney's live-action feature films.

He once said he specialized in both writing and producing Disney fantasy movies like Mary Poppins (1964), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), and Herbie Rides Again (1974) because "fantasy is very much a part of the modern predicament and people fantasize a great deal. They're getting realism from everyone else; a little bit of realism goes a long way."

Walsh wrote the following monologue for Tennessee Steinmetz (Buddy Hackett's character) to explain how a Herbie could exist:

"Us human beings we had a chance to make something outta this world. We blew it. OK, another kind of a civilization is gonna take a turn. I'm sittin' up on top of this mountain, right? I'm surrounded by these gurus and swamis and monks, right? I'm lookin' at my stomach. I'm knockin' back a little rice wine. Got some contemplation goin'. I see things like they are.

"We take machines and we stuff 'em with information until they're smarter than we are! Take a car. Most guys spread more love and time and money on their car in a week than they do on their wife and kids in a year. Pretty soon, you know what? The machine starts to think it is somebody."

In Disney News (Spring 1974), Walsh shared the following story:

"We needed a small car to play the title role in The Love Bug and so we lined up all the different kinds of small cars that we could find next to the Studio commissary and watched the reactions of employees who passed them.

"Well, in almost all cases, they looked at the little cars, kicked the tires and reached inside and turned the steering wheels.

"But everybody who went by sort of patted the Volkswagen. They didn't pat the other cars, which was indicative. The VW had a personality of its own that reached out and embraced people. Thus we found our star."

In the 1960s, cars were very much a lifestyle statement and for most men, they were testosterone boosting muscles on wheels. Real men preferred cars that were fast, big, stylish and the ultimate lure to attract women.

The Volkswagen Beetle was the complete antithesis of that attitude. It was small, slow, ugly, and foreign. Not only was it foreign but it was known to be a "Nazi car" developed under the direction of dictator Adolf Hitler himself as the "people's car".

Hitler had approached car maker Ferdinand Porsche to make a car that would be capable of accommodating two adults and three children and be affordable to the general public, as well.

Volkswagen created an iconic advertising campaign in the 1960s known as "Think Small" and kept identifying the car as a "VW" which sounded less foreign. It emphasized that its slowness saved gas, wear and tear on the tires, was safer as a result and more.

So, one of the gags in the Disney feature film is a car recognized as one of the slowest on the market, barely able to get up to 70 mph, was the fastest race car on the track.

When researching information about Disney history, I have found that there are many hidden treasures in small obscure magazines from the time period a film was released.

The Walt Disney Studios released a coloring book tied to The Love Bug film, created for Hunt's.

Literally one of the smallest magazines was one produced by Volkswagen at 24 pages (covers included) in a 6-inch by 9-inch format. However, even at that size, the quality of the content, color, layout, and more was top notch.

From 1962-1984, Volkswagen car dealers put out a seasonal magazine (four times a year) called Small World: For Volkswagen Owners in the United States which detailed the adventures of Volkswagen owners around the country, fun facts, care and feeding of a VW, cartoons, and more—but no advertising.

In the spring 1970 issue, writer Gordon Buford wrote an essay titled "Where Do Herbies Come From?" detailing how he got the idea to write a short story about a sentient Volkswagen that Disney turned into a hit franchise. It even featured a photo of the young Buford with a white VW in the background.

Buford is something of a mystery man and finding information about him is nearly impossible. Walsh described him as a school teacher in San Francisco who did some writing in his spare time.

While several sites claim that Buford's story "Car-Boy-Girl" was published, there seems to be no physical proof that it was, even in the Library of Congress copyright catalog.

It was not unusual for the Disney Company to purchase unpublished stories for future projects. Is it possible that a copy of this original Buford manuscript still resides somewhere in the Disney Archives lost among other papers?

Here is Buford's essay (transcribed from my own personal battered copy of the magazine that is more than 45 years old) that most Disney and Herbie fans have never seen or even knew existed. It also gives a nice taste of what Buford's style of writing was like:

"What gave you the idea; I mean, a car that thinks for itself?"

"The usual question. As with all good ideas, it seems so simple that everyone wonders why he didn't think of it.

"At first analysis, ideas do seem to pop, full blown into one's consciousness. But I don't think it's that simple. There has to be a foundation. There has to be a set of experiences that prepares the mind to put two and two together.

"Growing up on a Colorado farm gives one a sense of insecurity about his transportation that never quite leaves. 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.

"The changing moods of horses and cars was totally inexplicable to me. Certainly, there were easy times with both those unpredictable creatures. Sometimes, though, neither my mother's gentle persuasion nor my father's cussing could coax our automobile out of its quiet, stubborn rebellion. 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.

"On more than one picnic I overhead with some apprehension the discussion, usually with hood up, of whether the car would 'make it home'. From my potato salad and fried chicken I would look at the car sitting in placid bovine silence, refusing to give a clue as to what its decision would be. It alone knew the secret of whether we would indeed 'make it home'.

"But my admiration, loyalty and gratitude were beyond measure as we later turned into our driveway, especially if the vehicle was wheezing, knocking, lurching, boiling or showing any other form of distress. Under these conditions, I was sure it felt it was doing us a personal favor by getting us back, especially during rain storms.

"In high school, I sat in the back seat and directed the driving of two friends who were out of sight in the front seat. One was on the floor operating the pedals and one was lying on the seat steering. It was dangerous and foolish; I do not recommend it. But it was one of the many things that my love of the ridiculous led me to do.

"I found something strange and delightful about how people react to the unbelievable. One would expect them to react openly with visible, animated shock, but they do not. The very subtlety, even concealment, of their bewilderment is what is delicious to watch. This reaction, I found, is the basis for much visual comedy. Perhaps this was the germinating seed of the 'Love Bug' story.

"But to go from a fairly simple premise of a car that drives itself to a feature-length story is a big step and I was not without some pangs of doubt as I was writing the script. Why was this car so special? How had it achieved such an exalted existence over its millions of brothers and cousins? And why a Volkswagen out of the hundred or so cars in the world?

"The original 'Love Bug' story was a satire on American megalomania and worship of technology. This passion for bigness manifests itself in a broad cultural sense in the automobile. By 1959, the tail-fin craze in body style had reached its nauseating zenith. Even some European cars tried to stick a little fin here and there.

"Volkswagens up to that time were owned by a type of person that was considered eccentric at best, suspected of all kinds of dark things at worst. In the age of tail fins, the Volkswagen just couldn't be for real. The car was the absolute pole, the very antithesis of American products and American tastes.

"It was OK for a joke, to put a fake wind-up handle on the back, to paint cross eyes and antenna feelers on the front, to call it a pregnant roller skate, but not for an honest-to-goodness car.

"But because it was so ugly, so bug-like, the VW began to have a special appeal. It gradually achieved an image of quiet and confident indifference to frivolous and shifting fashions. And because it didn't change, it seemed to remain aloof to all the phony falderal in the auto industry.

"Still, in 1961, when I wrote the story, the car was relatively rare and I saw in it the image I needed. The VW was an automobile that many Americans were not yet ready to buy, but they liked it.

"It had this certain delightful carefree indifference to American built-in obsolescence. It was an underdog trying to make it in the tough car racket – but like it didn't know the game!

"There were no other cars that had this exact image that evoked this same attitude toward it. It was immediately recognized. It had an absolute unique identity and was stubbornly loyal to it. I wanted to make a hero out of it."

Herbie not only became a hero but a sympathetic hero. Having a car come to life, control its own actions and have a personality was the basis for the horror story Christine by Stephen King. What keeps The Love Bug from being a horror film or being ridiculed is Herbie.

By the time the film reaches the point where Herbie attempts suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge in the original film, audiences have become so invested in the character that it is a genuinely moving experience.

However, on set, that was not necessarily the case, as actor Dean Jones who played Herbie's owner Jim Douglas recalled in an excerpt from his autobiography Under Running Laughter (Chosen Books 1982):

"In January we began shooting The Love Bug, a movie destined, until The Godfather and Jaws came along, to be among the top-grossing films of all time. What a chuckle to see it on the same list with Gone With The Wind.

"Pictures are not shot in sequence, of course, and the first thing filmed for The Love Bug was a close-up of me pleading with a Volkswagen named Herbie not to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Early on a Monday morning, it was difficult to keep from laughing.

"But director Robert Stevenson was very patient.

'Herbie loves you very much,' he explained with a wistful British accent. 'Being very hurt that you have fallen in love with Michelle Lee, he's trying to kill himself.'

'Got it, Robert,' I said and then broke up again."

Some Herbie, the Love Bug Fun Facts

One of the "Fun Facts" Disney fans love to cite about the film is the scene where the car is tipping to the right, running on just two wheels and Buddy Hackett's character (actually a stunt man in this scene) is hanging out the open door. It was such a distinctive shot that it was used frequently in publicity, books and more. Surprisingly, the door does not have the famous "53" logo on it. Many people don't look closely enough to see that the door was shaved along the bottom so that it wouldn't scrape along the road when it was hanging open. Putting a "53" logo on the door would have revealed this trickery since it would not have been able to have been properly positioned.

When the film opened at Radio City Music Hall on March 13, 1969, it was the Easter holiday season and the live stage show that accompanied the film included: the annual pageant "Glory of Easter", and a variety bill that includes a trained horse and a flock of pigeons, a pair of acrobats, the Rockettes and Judy Kassouf and her two flaming batons.

The Love Bug premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood on March 13th, 1969, offered valet parking as an exclusive to attendees in Volkswagens.

The police detective that investigates the disappearance of Herbie is gravelly-voiced vaudeville comedian Joe E. Ross. What made this role funny to original audiences is that he had just completed a few years earlier playing a bumbling policeman in the popular television series Car 54, Where Are You? (1961-63)

More than 50 different cars were used in the first four films to portray Herbie. In the original film at least six came from Greenwald's foreign car wrecking yard, known as Grand Prix Auto Parts in North Hollywood, California. This business is where the Herbie that split into two parts ended up after filming.