On this day in 1969, “The Love Bug,” a Walt Disney movie about the adventures of a Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie, opens in theaters across the United States. The film, which was based on a 1961 book called “Car, Boy, Girl” by Gordon Buford, centered around down-on-his-luck auto racer Jim (played by Dean Jones) who goes on a winning streak after teaming up with Herbie. Other characters in the film include the evil Peter Thorndyke (David Tomlinson), Jim’s rival on the racetrack; Tennessee Steinmetz (Buddy Hackett), Jim’s friend who makes art from used auto parts and Jim’s girlfriend Carole (Michele Lee). “The Love Bug” was a box-office success and spawned the cinematic spinoffs “Herbie Rides Again” (1974), “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo” (1977), “Herbie Goes Bananas” (1980) and “Herbie: Fully Loaded” (2005), starring Lindsay Lohan.
According to “Bug” by Phil Patton, the movie was a hit “due in large part to its PG rating and the fact that the great baby boom had peaked in 1960, providing Disney with a bumper crop of nine-year-olds.” Patton also notes that the “The Love Bug” offered an escape: “The day the film opened, the news was full of the costs of Vietnam: 432 Americans had died in the most recent Vietcong offensive and Defense Secretary Melvin Laird was asking for increased spending on the war.”
“The Love Bug” was released just as VW Beetles, whose history dates back to 1930s Germany, were gaining widespread popularity in the United States. In 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany and announced he wanted to build new roads and cars for the German people. At that time, Austrian-born engineer Ferdinand Porsche (1875-1951) was already working on creating a small car for the masses; thus, he was charged with designing the inexpensive, mass-produced “people’s car.” Work began in 1938 on the Volkswagenwerk factory, located in present-day Wolfsburg, Germany; however, car making halted during World War II.
After the war, production eventually resumed and by the 1950s Volkswagen was exporting Beetles (as the car, with its sloped nose and curved rear body, became widely known) to the U.S. After an initial tepid reception, sales took off and on February 17, 1972, the VW Beetle surpassed the Ford Model T to become the world’s biggest selling car of all time, with more than 15 million sold.