I'm pretty sure nobody's going to be shocked that I picked The Love Bug as my favorite car movie. But I think what might be surprising is why. I picked the movie not because it's about a sentient '63 VW Beetle — it's really not about that. Fundamentally, The Love Bug is a movie about people who love cars, and love to race them.
I didn't take my decision here lightly — there's a lot of really fantastic car movies out there, and I considered many. Like the original Italian Job, or Bullitt or It's A Mad, Mad, Mad World, or Ronin, or many others. But so many of those were heist movies or cop movies or madcap comedies that happened to feature cars prominently. The Love Bug is a movie that is about cars and people's relationships with cars, and that's it. Oh, and some really fantastic vintage racing scenes, too.
Hell, the first 5 minutes of the 1968 movie is all stock demolition derby footage from another old movie, Fireball 500. The main (human) character, Jim Douglas, is a down-on-his-luck racer who would be an archetypical Jalop if he were alive today and/or not fictitious. He describes himself as a "piston-happy, lead-foot punk," and it's clear his main passion in life is cars and racing.
In fact, even if you were able to remove all of the sentient, self-aware supernatural-car parts of the movie, and rework it as something other than a kid's movie, it would still work. If Jim Douglas had found himself coerced into ownership of a VW that was just a bit faster than normal as opposed to fully alive, the movie could still play out essentially the same. It would be the story of a determined driver with a special affinity for an underdog car who managed to have success despite the odds.
Of course, you can't really get rid of the autonomous VW. Unlike the many inferior sequels that tarnished the series' image later, the first movie somehow manages to handle the car's sentience in, while not exactly a subtle way, an engaging way. There's no goofy CG to distort the car into becoming a cartoon, of course, and the amount of character the movie manages to wring out of an inert piece of machinery is remarkable.
In fact, how they decided to use a VW Beetle in the first place is pretty fascinating as well. It's so hard to think about Herbie as anything but a Beetle, but he could have been an MG or a Volvo or a TVR or a number of other cars. The Beetle was chosen because out of all the cars, it was the only one that made the crew want to walk up to it and touch it.
What's also remarkable are the rather severe character flaws Herbie as a sentient entity has. These are flaws dark enough that there's no way they would end up in a kid's movie today. Herbie is jealous, impulsive, and exhibits behavior that we would likely diagnose as bipolar today. He's prone to intense highs on the racetrack (even to self-destructive levels), but when he feels slighted, he reacts in disturbing ways, such as smashing another car (probably not sentient, but who knows) to bits and then attempting suicide.
Think about that for a second. Think about a Disney movie with a cute main non-human character attempting to throw themselves off the Golden Gate Bridge like Herbie does in The Love Bug. It's never gonna happen again.
What's also interesting is that unlike modern movies, the sentience is never really explained. If this movie were made today, some inane backstory involving wizards or a special high-tech Awareness Chip or some other bullshit would be worked into the script. But the closest we get to an explanation comes from Buddy Hackett's character, Tennessee Steinmetz, a mechanic and sculptor:
TENNESSEE: Well then, if everything you say about this car is true, it's already starting to happen.
JIM: What's starting to happen?
TENNESSEE: Us human beings. We had a chance to make something out of this world.We blew it. Okay. Another kind of civilization is gonna take a turn.
JIM: Give me an 11-mil wrench.
TENNESSEE: I'm sitting up on top of this mountain, right? I'm surrounded by these gurus and swamis and monks, right?
TENNESSEE: I'm lookin' at my stomach. I'm knockin' back a little rice wine. Got some contemplation goin'; I see things like they are. I coulda told you all this was comin'.
JIM: What's coming?
TENNESSEE: Jim, it's happening right under our noses and we can't see it. We take machines and 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.
That's as far as it ever gets explained, and as far as explanations go, it's a pretty thoughtful one. In fact, what Tennessee is describing is basically Kurzweil's Singularity, just much more fun.
Buddy Hackett is pretty great as Steinmetz in a sloppy, over-the top kind of way, as is the main antagonist of the film, a man seemingly genetically engineered to play the sort of snobby, privileged Disney villain, David Tomlinson. Tomlinson plays Peter Thorndyke, owner of an exclusive imported car dealership, inventor of the concept of "fine print" on an automobile sales contract, and an accomplished gentleman racer.
Thorndyke also manages to have one of the finest bear gag scenes in all of Western letters, and for you true connoisseurs of visual comedy involving bears, the last quarter of the movie is simply not to be missed.
Delightfully over-the-top performances and soulful Beetles and genuine gearhead ideals aside, the movie is full of amazing period racing scenes. The action all takes place around California tracks we all know and love — Thunderhill, Riverside, Laguna Seca — and on those tracks is an incredible assortment of cars to take on the famous Beetle.
There's Triumphs and Bizzarinis and Corvette SCCA racers and Ferraris and Devins and Jaguars and OSCAs and Sunbeams and Minis — it's a gold mine of beautiful '60s iron. Or an iron mine of beautiful '60s gold. Either way.
The jewel of the other cars in the movie — aside from a Lamborghini 400 GT that magically turns into a smashed-up E-Type when impacted by a VW — is an Apollo 3500 GT that plays the role of the Thorndyke Special. It's a rarely seen and genuinely lovely car, and is also crucial to the bear gag mentioned earlier.
Plus, the racing is real driving (well, aside from the archaic green-screening). They used Beetles with Porsche 356 engines for many of the racing scenes so the Beetle could keep up with the more purebred racers, and there's some genuinely exciting driving to watch. This is largely thanks to all the drivers that were listed in the opening credits, including such heavyweights as Bud Ekins, who drove in other car-lovers' movies like Bullitt.
The Love Bug knew real racing fans would be watching the movie, with or without their kids, and even threw in some really obscure inside jokes just for them. Like this one:
... Andy Granatelli, president of STP, plays the race official, and the newspaper article saying Herbie wouldn't run at Indy because his intake was too small was an inside joke, because the year before Granatelli was disqualified from Indy because his intake was too big.
That's pretty hardcore.
So here's my plea to you: rewatch The Love Bug. Try and look past the goofy title (a product of its era), the casual stereotyping/borderline racism of San Francisco's Chinese population (also a product of the era), the tacked-on romantic subplot, the worst fake grey hair in all of cinema, the goofy oil-squirting sight gags (except maybe the very end of the movie ones), and all the insipid sequels, and just try and enjoy the movie as a tribute to cars, car racing, and the people who are smitten, incurably, with both.
Dammit, I want to go watch it again right now.