The movie follows the adventures of Herbie, Herbie's driver, Jim Douglas (Dean Jones), and Jim's love interest, Carole Bennett (Michele Lee). It also features Buddy Hackett as Jim's enlightened, kind-hearted friend, Tennessee Steinmetz, a character who creates "art" from used car parts. English actor David Tomlinson portrays the villainous Peter Thorndyke, owner of an auto showroom and an SCCA national champion who sells Herbie to Jim and eventually becomes Jim's racing rival.
In 1968, Jim Douglas is a down-on-his luck racing driver, reduced to competing in demolition derby races against drivers half his age. Jim lives in an old fire house overlooking San Francisco Bay with his friend and mechanic, Tennessee Steinmetz, a jolly Brooklynite who constantly extols the virtues of spiritual enlightenment, having spent time amongst Buddhist monks in Tibet, and builds "art" from car parts. After yet another race ends in a crash (and Tennessee turns his Edsel into a sculpture), Jim finds himself without a car and heads into town in search of some cheap wheels. He is enticed into an upmarket European car showroom after setting eyes on an attractive sales assistant and mechanic, Carole Bennett. Jim witnesses the dealership's British owner, Peter Thorndyke, being unnecessarily abusive towards a white Volkswagen Beetle that rolls into the showroom, and defends the car's honor, much to Thorndyke's displeasure. The following morning Jim is shocked to find that the car is parked outside his house and that Thorndyke is pressing charges for grand theft. A heated argument between Jim and Thorndyke is settled when Carole persuades Thorndyke to drop the charges if Jim buys the car on a system of monthly payments.
Jim soon finds the car is prone to going completely out of his control and believes Thorndyke has conned him. Tennessee, however, believes certain inanimate objects to have hearts and minds of their own and tries to befriend the car, naming it Herbie. Jim's feelings about his new acquisition soon improve when it appears Herbie is intent on bringing him and Carole together. He also discovers Herbie to have an incredible turn of speed for a car of his size and decides to take him racing. After watching Jim and Herbie win their first race together, Thorndyke, himself a major force on the local racing scene, offers to cancel the remaining payments Jim owes on Herbie if Jim can win a race that they will both be competing in at Riverside later that month. Jim accepts, and despite Thorndyke's underhanded tactics, he and Herbie take victory. Over the next few months they go on to become the toast of the Californian racing circuit, while Thorndyke suffers increasingly humiliating defeats. Thorndyke finally snaps, and persuades Carole to take Jim out on a date while he sneaks round to Jim's house. After getting Tennessee drunk on his own Irish coffee recipe, Thorndyke proceeds to tip the remainder of the alcoholic coffee and whipped cream into Herbie's gas tank. At the following day's race, an apparently hungover Herbie shudders to a halt and backfires while Thorndyke blasts to victory. However, as the crowd admires Thorndyke's victory, Herbie blows some whipped cream out of his exhaust pipe, covering Thorndyke.
That evening, Jim returns home in a brand new Lamborghini 400GT, having agreed to sell Herbie to Thorndyke to pay the remaining installments he owes on it. Jim states he needs a "real car" for the upcoming El Dorado road race, but finds no sympathy from Tennessee, Carole, or Herbie, who jealously proceeds to damage the sleek sports car, proving to Jim once and for all he has a mind of his own. By the time Thorndyke arrives to collect Herbie, he is nowhere to be found, and Jim sets off into the night hoping to find Herbie and make amends before the car is seized by Thorndyke's goons. After narrowly escaping being torn apart in Thorndyke's workshop, and a destructive spree through Chinatown, during the Chinese New Year's parade, Herbie is about to launch himself off the Golden Gate Bridge when Jim reaches him. In his attempt to stop Herbie from driving off the bridge, Jim nearly falls into the water. Herbie pulls Jim back to safety, but then is impounded by the San Francisco Police Department. There, Tang Wu, (Benson Fong) a Chinese businessman whose store was damaged during Herbie's rampage, demands compensation that Jim can no longer afford. Using the Chinese he learned while in Tibet, Tennessee tries to reason with Wu, and learns that he is a huge racing fan who knows all about Jim and Herbie's exploits. Wu is willing to drop the charges in exchange for becoming Herbie's new owner. Jim agrees to this, as long as Wu allows him to race the car in the El Dorado. If Jim wins, Wu will be able to keep the prize money, but has to sell Herbie back for a dollar. Wu replies to this proposal in clear English: "Now you speak my language!"
The El Dorado runs through the Sierra Nevada mountains from Yosemite Valley to Virginia City and back. Before the start of the race, Thorndyke persuades Wu to make a wager with him on its outcome. Thorndyke (with his assistant Havershaw acting as co-driver) pulls every trick in the book to ensure he and his Thorndyke Special are leading at end of the first leg of the race. As a result of Thorndyke's shenanigans, Jim (with Carole and Tennessee as co-drivers) limps home last with Herbie missing two wheels and having to use a wagon wheel to get to the finish line. Despite Tennessee's best efforts, it looks as if Herbie will be unable to start the return leg of the race the following morning. Thorndyke then arrives and claims that this makes him the new owner of the car. Wu regretfully tells Jim of the wager and that in accordance with its terms this is true. Thorndyke, thinking he is Herbie's new owner, gloats to Jim about what he's going to do to Herbie and kicks Herbie's front fender, and punches Jim, but Herbie then unexpectedly lurches into life and chases Thorndyke from the scene, showing he is more than willing to race on. Thanks to some ingenious shortcuts, Jim is able to make up for lost time in the second leg and is neck and neck with Thorndyke as they approach the finish line. In the ensuing dogfight, Herbie's hastily welded-together body splits in two. The back half (carrying Tennessee and the engine) crosses the line just ahead of Thorndyke, while the front (carrying Jim and Carole) rolls over the line just behind, meaning Herbie takes both first and third place.
In accordance with the terms of the wager, Wu takes over Thorndyke's car dealership (hiring Tennessee as his assistant), while Thorndyke and Havershaw are relegated to lowly mechanics. Meanwhile, a fully repaired Herbie chauffeurs the newlywed Jim and Carole away on their honeymoon.Dean Jones as Jim Douglas, a racing driver
Michele Lee as Carole Bennet, Jim's love interest
David Tomlinson as Peter Thorndyke, the owner of the car shop
Buddy Hackett as Tennessee Steinmetz, Jim's friend and room mate and partner in racing
Joe Flynn as Havershaw, Thorndyke's right hand man
Benson Fong as Tang Wu, Jim's friend and team supporter
Joe E. Ross as Detective
Barry Kelley as Police sergeant
Iris Adrian as Carhop
Gary Owens as Announcer
The film was the third highest-grossing film of 1968, earning over $51.2 million at the domestic box office. It received mostly positive reviews from critics, earning a 75% "Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.Gold Key: The Love Bug (June 1969)
Four theatrical sequels followed: Herbie Rides Again, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, Herbie Goes Bananas, and Herbie: Fully Loaded. Some parts of the racing sequences from the film were later reused for Herbie's dream sequence in Herbie Rides Again, responding to Grandma Steinmetz's telling Willoughby Whitfield that Herbie used to be a famous racecar.
A five-episode TV series, Herbie the Love Bug, aired on CBS in the United States in spring 1982. In 1997, there was a made-for-television sequel which included a Dean Jones cameo, tying it to the previous films. The latest entry Herbie: Fully Loaded, was released on June 22, 2005, by Walt Disney Pictures.
At Disney's All-Star Movies Resort at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, Herbie has been immortalized in the "Love Bug" buildings 6 and 7.
A West German film series of five films featuring a similar Volkswagen, called Dudu or Superbug were written and directed by as well as starring Rudolf Zehetgruber.
The film was released on VHS on March 4, 1980. It was re-released on November 6, 1985, September 11, 1991 and on October 28, 1994 with Herbie Rides Again. It was soon re-released again on September 16, 1997 along with the entire Herbie the Love Bug film series. It was released on DVD for the first time on May 20, 2003. It was released again with its sequels in a four movie collection in 2012. A 45th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Disc was released on December 16, 2014 as a Disney Movie Club exclusive title.
In the scene in which Herbie competes at Laguna Seca, the banner over the start/finish line reads "Monterey Grand Prix". The 1968 Monterey Grand Prix was a Can Am Series race, and did not feature production cars.