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

Jones, who was a Disney leading man throughout the '60s and '70s, in the studio's hit 'The Love Bug.'

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.