Based on the 1961 book Car, Boy, Girl by Gordon Buford, this was the first of many movies that woud feature Herbie the Love Bug, who is driven by Jim Douglas (Dean Jones) and worked on by Tennessee Steinmetz (Buddy Hackett), a mechanic who transforms used car parts into art.
Jones claimed that this film was so good with the fact that it was made when Walt Disney was still invovled with his films. It was released just two years after Walt’s death. I would also say that having Robert Stevenson as director — he also made Mary Poppins, That Darn Cat! and Old Yeller — helped.
Douglas has big dreams of racing, but all he getsto do is compete in demoltion derbies. After racing and crashing another car — an Edsel, no less — our protagonist comes across a car dealer named Peter Thorndyke (David Tomlinson, Mary Poppins) abusing a Volkswagen Beetle. The next morning, the car just so happens to show up at Douglas’ house and he’s nearly arrested until Thorndyke’s sales assistant and mechanic Carole Bennett (Michele Lee) convinces her boss to sell the car.
Herbie — so named by Tennessee — seems to have a mind of his own, but he’s able to help Douglas win several big races, to the continual chagrin of his former owner. Much like nearly every Dean Jones character, Douglas is a jerk and just wants a Lamborghini 400GT instead of the heroic little VW Bug. Herbie responds by running away, damaging big stretches of Chinatown and nearly driving himself off the Golden Gate Bridge in his depression. Yes, back in the day, live action Disney got dark.
Of course, not so dark that a small Volkswagen can’t win a race against cars with much more horsepower, like Thorndike’s Apollo GT (the avergae VW bug had 40 hp while the Apollo GT had 225 hp).