The Story of Herbie No. 2
The little car that could
Today, March 13, marks the 50th anniversary of the release of The Love Bug. Though perhaps not as universally beloved by car enthusiasts other films such as Le Mans and Bullitt, there is much for the petrolhead to love in The Love Bug. And not just the plot of the movie itself, with a car as the protagonist and racing action with a fleet of delectable vintage cars. Like most car-themed movies, some of the behind-the-scenes details of The Love Bug are of interest to the car enthusiast. Not the least of these details is how Disney made a 1963 Volkswagen, ostensibly fitted with a 1200cc 40hp engine (a fact referenced in the movie), capable of trouncing Ferraris, E-Types, and Cobras.
Of course, fancy camerawork was used to help create the illusion of speed, but the end result wasn’t entirely an illusion. When production of The Love Bug began in 1967, Disney contracted the building of the cars to EMPI in Riverside, California. EMPI was a pioneer in Volkswagen performance, and is most famous for the Inch Pincher, a 1956 VW that could run 12s in the 1/4 mile. It is no wonder, then, that the job of making a convincing race car out of a VW Beetle was given to EMPI. The result was Herbie No. 2*.
Not unlike many iconic automobiles, Herbie No. 2, or H2 for short, is really a bit of a Frankenstein-esque creation. To save on the costs of building the cars, EMPI pieced them together from junkyard wrecks. H2’s body consists of the rear 2/3s of a 1960 sunroof Beetle, and the front clip and chassis of a 1963 Beetle. Thanks to a sympathetic restoration, the welds joining the two cars are still in evidence today on the A-pillar and on the door sills.
But the pieced-together body is only the beginning. Though the Inch Pincher attests that EMPI could clearly do wonders with an air-cooled flat-four, the VW engine’s performance potential at the time was still somewhat limited. So, to simplify the matter, the stock VW engine was dispensed with and a 1600cc Porsche engine was substituted. Though still not a powerhouse by today’s standards, the Porsche engine was powerful enough to do the trick. Actor Dean Jones reported taking co-star Buddy Hackett for a white-knuckle ride around Riverside - a Beetle can be a bit scary at 100-plus mph.
H2 still has a Porsche 1600, though not the original one from filming
The squirrelly high-speed handling was no doubt due to the Beetle’s less-than-ideal aerodynamics, for EMPI also made sure that the chassis was up to the task of handling the over 100% increase in power. Porsche 356 brakes, widened wheels, and Koni shocks were fitted, and Superior control arms and EMPI’s camber compensator were given the task of keeping H2’s swing axles in line.
The end result of this eclectic package proved quite effective. In the capable hands of veteran stunt driver Carey Loftin, H2 could mix it up with some of the finest sports and racing cars of the 1960s. EMPI provided Disney with a bona-fide race car, not just one that could play one on film.
Special thanks to former owner, Greg Carr, who restored H2 to his former glory, and to H2’s current caretaker, Luke Theochari of Terry’s Beetle Services in Hanwell, London, UK, who not only provides a good home for H2, but has also cheerfully indulged countless admiring fans, including yours truly.
*Disney assigned each car built for the movie a number to simplify production.