Herbie: One of the Special Ones
Photography by Domi Hocher and Zainab Hocher
In September 2009, Domi Hocher and his then-girlfriend, Zainab, took off on what can only be described as the trip of a lifetime. Since setting out from their hometown of Vienna, Austria, six years ago, this couple has crossed 115 international borders, covered 118,000 miles while visiting 80 countries (including all 48 “lower” states in the United States), and set foot on six of the globe’s seven continents. All of which would be adventurous enough on its own, but Domi and Zainab get extra credit for their choice of transportation: a pair of Herbie-replica 1963 Volkswagen Beetles.
At first glance, this level of commitment to a movie car from a film that debuted before either Domi or Zainab were born might seem a bit…peculiar, especially when planning travels of this sort. What about this car could have possibly captured their imagination to such a degree? As it turns out, they are hardly alone.
Certain films are remembered more for the cars they featured than for the stories themselves. Usually, these memories are of cars that served as platform to tell the characters’ stories (think American Graffiti or Bullitt) but once in while, a car manages to become so iconic that it completely erases the public’s memory that any other character existed in that film. Any conversation about such car characters must begin–and perhaps even end–with an ananthropomorphic 1963 Volkswagen Beetle that sported racing stripes and a funny name.
As you already know, we’re referring here to the one and only “Jim Douglas Special” or, as he’s known to millions around the world and across generations, “Herbie.”
Long before being formally introduced to the world in the The Love Bug (1968), this pearl white, air-cooled Volkswagen began melting hearts during his ‘audition’ in a Walt Disney Studios parking lot. In what must have been one of the most bizarre ‘casting calls’ ever conceived (even by Hollywood standards), Herbie was lined up next to several Toyotas, Volvos, TVRs, MGs, and Fiats and had to vie for the attention of studio employees as they broke for lunch. Despite the tough competition, Herbie won the role of a lifetime because the passersby couldn’t help but affectionately pat and stroke the parked Bug. Rather than looking at Herbie and seeing a “little bucket of bolts,” these employees saw a 1500-pound pet.
The studio had found its star.
As the star of The Love Bug, Herbie came alive and began to spark the imaginations of countless children across the globe. Throughout the film, Herbie demonstrates that he can not only drive and shift on his own, but can honk his horn, open his doors, and pop wheelies all by himself as well. And it was through these self-propelled actions that we started to appreciate the very real possibility that this little Bug didn’t just have a mind of his own, but also had a heart. Whether it was through his shaking in anticipation of the green flag; his refusal to race at full-speed for an ungrateful Jim Douglas; his jealous rampage that destroyed Jim’s shiny and new “big, strong car…that can cut it” (a 1966 Lamborghini 400GT that, through the magic of cinema, turned into a previously destroyed 1961 Jaguar E-Type as this scene progressed); his squirting oil on the underhanded Peter Thorndyke; or even his attempts to get Jim and Carole Bennett together by locking his doors, changing the radio station, and faking a breakdown; we realize that, much like a beloved and playful pet, Herbie has feelings and a larger-than-life personality.
While it’s not hard to see how a movie about a car that can drive itself, pop a few wheelies, and win thrilling endurance road races (even when split into two pieces) could ignite a passion and enthusiasm in wide-eyed children, it’s a bit harder to explain how The Love Bug has been able to maintain such an enduring cultural presence with so many adults or why so many grown-ups have decided to spend their hard-earned money building their own “Herbies.” For what it’s worth, I have a theory: Herbie is the quintessential embodiment of our community’s love of all things automotive and of our adoration for classic cars, in particular.
Talk to any Petrolisti about their car for long enough and you will undoubtedly come to the realization that, to their mind at least, their classic is one-of-a-kind. Within minutes, our fellow Petrolisti will wind up rattling off a long list of their car’s quirks and idiosyncrasies, her likes and dislikes, and maybe even her temperament under certain conditions. Without realizing it, we start talking about the car as if it’s a living breathing thing. (I mean, you didn’t even bat an eyelash when I called this hypothetical car, “her,” in that last sentence, did you?) Put simply, we love our cars because they are unique, because they have their own personalities, because it’s possible for us to believe that our machine has a soul. And what car had a more charismatic personality or a more vibrant soul than Herbie? I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind if my car was a bit more like that like little ragtop racer, Number 53.
If you’re still not totally buying into my theory that the The Love Bug eloquently captures what we love most about our treasured possessions or that this observation is what underlies/supports Herbie’s cult-following, there is no arguing that Herbie has become an adored and worldwide icon.
Most tangibly, there are the sheer numbers. By earning over $51 million at the domestic (US) box office (approximately $300 million in modern terms), The Love Bug beat Steve McQueen, his 1968 Ford Mustang GT fastback, and Bullitt on its way to becoming 1968’s third most successful film. Additionally, Herbie and The Love Bug proved popular enough to warrant four theatrical sequels (Herbie Rides Again, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, Herbie Goes Bananas, and Herbie: Fully Loaded), a TV series (Herbie, the Love Bug), and a made-for-TV sequel (also called, The Love Bug) over the span of nearly 40 years. And these numbers don’t even account for the numerous popular culture references that have been made over the years or the fact that Volkswagen dealerships across the world continue to evoke the image of the over forty-five year old Bug to advertise and sell brand-new vehicles.
While this commercial success and these financial figures are, no doubt, impressive, the countless tributes, recreations, and replicas of Herbie on the streets and in garages all over the world is a far more accurate reflection of Herbie’s status as an icon. The fact that it is nearly impossible to reach the legal driving age without having seen at least one Volkswagen with red, white, and blue racing stripes or a number fifty-three decal on its door speaks volumes.
Yet, in spite of the fact that each one of these recreations shares a common muse, there are a few Herbies out there that capture just a bit more of the magic of the original Love Bug than the rest. And two of these Herbies belong to Domi and Zainab Hocher.
Yes, after spending nearly four years exploring the world together in a Love Bug, it was hardly a surprise to find that Domi and Zainab decided to get married last May while in California. And it was even less surprising to hear that Herbie was not only present for the ceremony, but also taken along for the honeymoon as the newlyweds revisited some of their favorite places in the American Southwest.
“They make ten thousand cars,” a self-described “piston-happy, lead-footed” race car driver once said.”They make them exactly the same way. And one or two of ’em turn out to be something special. Nobody knows why.”
While this sage is right in most instances, I think it’s safe to say that we all know why Domi and Zainab’s cars turned out to be something special.
Huge thanks to Domi for being so generous with his time and in sending us pictures from Herbie’s World Tour. If you would like to find out more about Domi, Zainab, and their journeys with Herbie No. I and Herbie No. II, check out their website.