Becoming Best Friends with The Love Bug - Fulfilling a Childhood Dream
In March of 1969, "The Love Bug" opened in theaters nationwide and went on to be the 2nd highest grossing film of 1969. Just after "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid".
If readers have not seen the film, I highly suggest it. It can appeal to all members of the family. A sentient car, a relatable protagonist, a strong female character, a goofy sidekick, and one heck of a bad guy. It was a highlight of San Francisco in the late 60's. It covered the SCCA racing scene where Herbie shared the screen with some high dollar race cars and actually participated in legitimate races for the film.
It was this film that spawned the life choices of yours truly back in the late 80's. My mother recorded it on a recycled VHS from a television broadcast. That was how movies were pirated back in the day. I wore that tape out so much that is was nearly unwatchable. Thankfully, Disney re-released "The Love Bug" on VHS in 1991 and my grandparents snatched up a copy for me. Now I owed the legitimate movie and really saw it for the first time. Ever since I was old enough to say "Volkswagen" I knew I would have Herbie in my life one day.
In the late summer of 2007, I was determined to fulfill my greatest childhood dream.
My friend Kenneth moved out to Wyoming to attend WyoTech, a renowned technical school in Laramie, Wyoming. He came back to town during the Fourth of July for a visit, we had discussed a possible visit to what he calls, “Our hometown, just in Wyoming.” I had not seen much of my good friend since he left, so I anticipated spending a week with him in a place I had never been. I spent the next few weeks going over my finances for a possible trip. Then, one day while perusing eBay for a Volkswagen Beetle, I came across a white one from 1963. It was in fair shape, not too rusty but not too clean either. Perfect for the Volkswagen race car I had dreamed of. It was also the right price and located in Wheatland, Wyoming. “I wonder how close that is to Kenneth,” I thought to myself. Promptly, I called up my friend and asked “How far away is Wheatland from Laramie?” He told me it was a mere 30 minutes away. “SOLD,” I had said to myself. I began to map out my plan. I would be able to hang out with my good chum and bring back a car I had wanted for a long time.
My plan was to hop on a bus, head to Laramie, get my Beetle, spend a week with Kenneth, and drive home. To me it sounded simple enough. But I needed someone to accompany me on my journey so I would not die of boredom during the mind numbing hours on the road. I called everyone I knew, each saying, “That sounds cool; I have not seen Kenneth in a long time.” Then they would ask "How are we getting back home?" After telling them we were driving back in a crusty old Beetle, they quickly changed their minds. It would seem I would have to suck it up and go it alone.
My mother on the other hand thought different. She called my brother Nick, who was on the last leg of his two week vacation in Florida at the time. I was planning on departing the day after he came home. My mother took it upon herself to force him to go. She had the outlandish idea that I might like Laramie so much, I might stay. Nick's job was to make sure I came home. All well indeed. I purchased our bus tickets and packed up two backpacks with clothes, food, and all of my camera equipment. The bus ride ahead was something I was not anticipating.
After five miserable hours on the bus, I was low in morale. I just stared out the window at the acres of corn, the only sight there is in the Midwest. The trip was boring but it was not truly horrific until we got to Omaha, Nebraska. Nick and I had to change buses. It was about 10:00 at night and I was getting a bit tired. 12 busloads of people were forced into a bus station no bigger than my basement. People were packed shoulder to shoulder. The air was filled with B.O. and I felt slime every time someone bumped into me. It would seem these folks had been on the buses for a long time. We were not allowed to go outside for air either as the diesel fumes from the buses were far deadlier than the fumes from the people inside.
After that startling fiasco, we got back on the bus and I tried to sleep until we got to the next change over in Denver. However, when a bus has an out of balance tire and a bad transmission, all the jerks and shakes made it extremely hard to sleep. My head banged against the window each time I nodded toward slumber. The bus ride had made me all but hate the trip. Early the next morning, we made the switch in Denver and were on our way to Laramie. When we arrived at out last stop, Nick and I did not know that we were dropped all the way on the other side of town and Kenneth would still be in school when we arrived. We had to haul all our clothes and camera gear across town to his apartment and find something to do for 3 hours. It was not all bad though, Laramie happens to be home to the University of Wyoming so there was plenty to see and do in this college town.
Kenneth finally got out of school in the late afternoon and we grabbed a bite to to eat at a local Taco Bell. About 6:00 I asked, “Want to go get the bug now?” “Sure.” He replied. We then hopped on the computer and pulled up "Mapquest", the preferred way to print out travel directions in the era before GPS equipped phones, to see how to get there. It turned out Wheatland was about 80 miles away. “Thirty minutes away eh? What did you take a JET!?” I said to Kenneth with much sarcasm. “It seemed like a half hour.” He replied. Never the less, we soldiered on. Nick, Kenneth, and I squeezed into his Chevrolet S-10 pickup. Not much room in there considering it had bucket seats and a five speed. My brother and I had to share the passenger seat and he and I are strapping young lads. Fortunately for me, Kenneth was a bit groggy from a trip to Denver from the night before and was not up for another drive. He also happens to be a scrawny fellow. He let me take over captain duties while he shared the seat with my brother.
The roads in Wyoming were like the ones in the Wiley Coyote cartoons. There was a painted white line at the edge of the road then a sheer cliff face just past it . It is hard to go the speed limit around those turns in a truck with air bag suspension and no sway bars. Each left hand turn saw us peering down into the canyons as the truck leaned over. That was the scariest drive of my life. After two hours of white knuckle driving, we arrive in Wheatland, literally minutes before sunset. We pulled into the seller's drive and were greeted by the little car.
The bug had a few more dings than I expected. It was missing most of the floor and had only one seat. The passenger seat, which had been moved behind the wheel. Those concerns were overlooked as it did run very well for a 44 year-old car.
I drove it to the end of the previous owner’s long driveway and let it idle for a bit while he and I talked and finished the transaction. While the seller and I were talking, Nick then took it upon himself to steal the bug and drive it around the block. Minutes later he comes back giggling like a school girl and saying, “Now I know why these ugly little things were so popular.” I shook the seller's hand and we were on our way. That little car handled those turns way better than Kenneth’s truck. So much better in fact that I did not even notice where they were.
The bug nearly made the trip back to Laramie. We were 5 miles out when I started to lose power. My heart sank and I pulled to the side of the road to try and develop a plan. It was very late and we all decided that we could not fix it on the side of the road in the dark. Kenneth and I decided we would use his truck to push the little car back to his apartment. Our plan worked quite well and we arrived just before midnight. We were ready to turn in for the night and tackle the issue in the morning.
At day break, well rested and refreshed, Nick and I set out to discover the why we experienced a loss in power. On my first check, I popped off the valve covers and quickly discovered that the rocker shaft had come loose. I was elated at such an easy fix. I tightened them back down and I readjusted the valves. Nick turned the key and the old boy roared back to life with the strength of 40 horses!
Now that Nick and I had wheels, we began to explore the town while Ken was in school. He was right, just like our hometown in Illinois, but with red dirt. Once Kenneth returned from school, we went out to enjoy the Laramie nightlife. We cruised around U of W in the VW and hung out with some pretty wild individuals, including a kid from Mexico who made this astounding salsa. We ran back and forth all over town and hopped from house to dorm in my new ride. That little bug ran fantastic the whole time and barely used any gas. It was slow, really slow, but was fun to drive. Nick, Kenneth and I even got into a heated Rock, Paper, Scissors competition to see who got to drive it next.
The week went by really quick and after all the fun and 400 miles in the Beetle, we had to pack up to begin our journey homeward. I knew of the arduous task of driving a 44 year-old car with a non-functioning gas gauge, 900 miles back to Illinois. I thought I was well prepared and my confidence was a little higher than it should have been. Nick and I got up bright and early the day of the trek home. We told Kenneth bye and exchanged numbers with some new friends, including a Frenchman with the same love in Vee Dubs as I. Nick and I motored out and the first few hours of the road trip went well. Nick was curled up, snoozing in the back and I was enjoying the amazingly smooth ride through the mountains that my new acquisition was giving. As the sun rose high enough in the sky that it was no longer trying to pierce my retinas, I saw the road sign warning me of the oncoming Nebraska border. “Not bad.” I said to myself.
Just then the car seem to slow down just a little bit, Nick rises up from the back and says, “ Is there smoke in here?” “No,” I said. However, it was hard to see smoke through my sunglasses. I pulled them down and to my amazement there was a haze enveloping the passenger compartment. I pulled into the next off ramp and shut it down. I coasted the car into a truck stop that unknown to us, had closed down. Nick and I were stuck at a closed truck stop in the middle of nowhere. The closest town was Cheyenne some 50 miles back. I checked over the engine and started it back up. It started knocking. It seemed we spun a rod bearing. I guess I should not have been forcing the poor little car to do 70 mph on the interstate.
We then chose our nuclear option, call our grandparents to come get us. They had always been there to support us growing up, but we hated to burden them. We were able to get a tow back to Cheyenne where Nick and I checked into a motel room. We hunkered down until my grandparents could get to Cheyenne. They arrived at about three in the morning and to my amazement, my grandfather was not a ranting mess. He was more interested in the car. I guess he was just excited to see it. He used to own a few Volkswagens back in the day and still talks fondly of them.
The next day, grandpa and I rented a car dolly to tow my crippled Beetle back home. The trip back was much faster. We all took shifts driving back and covered the distance in 13 hours, despite my grandmother wishing to slow down and enjoy the scenery. The best part of the drive was looking over at a couple of kids on a family vacation. They looked exhausted from a long drive. One kid glanced at the beetle and his eyes lit up. He then turned and punched the other kid as hard as he could. I was so proud knowing that I would now be starting many games of "Punch Buggy."
In the end, the trials and tribulations of securing a dream have been well worth the torment. Since that arduous trip, I have completely rebuilt the old boy. From the chassis up, Herbie was rebuilt into the late 60's race car that the world grew to love. He got a new engine, new 4 point roll bar, stronger brakes and wider wheels and tires at all corners. I carefully studied one of the cars used for the racing scenes for "The Love Bug" and made sure that mine would be built as accurately as possible. I even cut the roof off and welded in a different one on so I could have Herbie's distinctive vinyl sunroof.
He was my daily driver for over 3 years. Driving a Beetle race car everyday certainly had it challenges. Especially on cold winter days. But we would go everywhere. Though sometimes not with out issue.
There would be some minor mishaps, such as having to replace the wire that connected the alternator to everything else while on our war to Vintage Torquefest. I was surprised that we were able to cover 130 miles on battery power. Other mishaps were more catastrophic. During a road rally, I was trying to keep up with a Porsche 944 turbo when one of Herbie's pistons exploded. As such, we had to go back to the drawing board and build a tougher engine. This one has proven to be much stronger and up to the task of all the antics.
Herbie is always a blast to drive and he always gets a free car wash.
The big hole in the roof makes it easy when Whitney and I decide to make some rather large roadside purchases.
And just like in the movie, Herbie is a real fan of dogs.
But these days, Herbie does a lot more of what I built him to do 12 years ago. Go racing.
Herbie gets entered in all of our local SCCA events. He is always the oldest car on the grid.
He is not terribly quick compared to most of the modern cars that show up. But he definitely looks the best and draws the most attention.
It is such a great feeling accomplishing a childhood goal. Especially when that goals seems so far out of reach. Growing up in a broken home and being homeless much of the time, I never lost sight of where I wanted to go. My dream of having Herbie kept me straight. I got a good education and created a decent life for myself. All because I was adamant about creating a friendship with this spunky little bug.