Hollywood Flashback: In 1968, the World Fell for 'The Love Bug' and Volkswagen

The Love Bug - H 2015
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The German car company allowed its Beetle to be used for Disney's 'Herbie,' but it was only when the family comedy became a megahit (starring Dean Jones) that VW crafted an ad campaign around it: "Our car the movie star."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

As much as its current emissions cheating scandal has given Volkswagen a public relations black-eye, 1968's The Love Bug put a smile on the German carmaker's corporate face.

The comedy — about an unlucky race car driver (Dean Jones, then 37, who died Sept. 1) whose fortunes turn because "Herbie," his 1963 Beetle, has a mind of its own — was a megahit. THR predicted Disney would have its "strongest runner since The Jungle Book two years ago." (The $5 million comedy earned $51.3 million domestically — $350 million today.)

At first, VW kept its distance from the film: It allowed a Beetle to be used but not the company name or logo. But when Bug became a hit, VW's Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency crafted an "Our car the movie star" campaign featuring a Beetle sporting huge sunglasses. ("You are looking at the romantic lead of a big new Hollywood picture," read the copy.)

Love Bug spawned the sequels Herbie Rides Again, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, Herbie Goes Bananas and, after a 25-year hiatus, 2005's Herbie: Fully Loaded, starring Lindsay Lohan. The original was among the last live-action films Walt Disney himself worked on. At the time of his death in 1966, a screenplay for Love Bug (then called Car, Boy, Girl) sat in his office.