Herbie’s Love Bug co-star is back in the spotlight—and for sale


Mention The Love Bug and people immediately think of the spunky little Volkswagen Beetle that became a Hollywood legend. However, Herbie wasn’t the only star car in the 1968 Disney movie. A 1965 Apollo GT, known in the film as the Thorndyke Special, was definitely a scene stealer. And it may be once again.

Fifty-five years after the release of the Disney comedy that starred Dean Jones, Michele Lee, Buddy Hackett, and David Tomlinson, the yellow-and-black sports car with Italian-American roots is back in the spotlight. The Apollo, which will cross the block at Bonhams’ Quail Auction in Monterey on August 18, has quite a story to tell.

“The sports car history books are chock full of ambitious young folks dreaming big, pooling their cash, and setting up shop to take on the world,” Hagerty’s Andrew Newton once wrote. “Then they often run out of money, throw up their hands, and close their doors after just a few years and a few dozen examples are finished.”

That’s essentially the road taken by Apollo, which was the brainchild of Milt Brown, Ron Plescia, and Ned Davis. In the early 1960s, the California friends wanted to emulate the best of the large sports cars then coming out of Italy and Britain while taking advantage of more reliable American underpinnings. The idea kicked into high gear when Brown met Frank Reisner, of Carrozzeria Intermeccanica, while at the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix. Reisner agreed to provide finished bodies, so Plescia went to work on the design, sketching a European-influenced coupe body that Bertone designer Franco Scaglione refined.

Intermeccanica first Apollo Coupe framework and chassis black white

The finished product, the Apollo 3500 GT, was unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show in January 1963. It had styling elements reminiscent of both the Jaguar E-Type and Ferrari 250 GT, used a steel ladder frame with Buick front subframe and front suspension, and had four-link trailing arm rear suspension. Power was provided by Buick’s lightweight aluminum 3.5-liter V-8, which was mated to a Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed manual transmission. The car offered a claimed top speed of 130 mph.

The price tag of the new Apollo was about $7000 ($69,800 today), and the initial response was overwhelmingly positive. The automaker soon came out with a convertible model, and the demand for more power led to the 5000 GT, which was essentially the same car but with Buick’s new iron-block, aluminum-head 5.0-liter V-8. Apollo also planned a four-passenger car and a mid-engine sports car, but by 1965 the writing was on the wall. Although Apollo offered a solid product, the cost of shipping bodies from Italy to California was predictably huge, and cash flow problems meant the business was unsustainable. Apollo sold its assets after building a total of 88 cars.

1965 Apollo GT Thorndyke Special

Two of those 88 cars ended up in the hands of Disney filmmakers. Modified and prepped for The Love Bug by Max Balchowsky of Hollywood Motors, the Thorndyke Special actually appears on screen before Herbie does, when out-of-work racing driver Jim Douglas (Jones) spies it through the window of a European Imported Car dealership owned by villain Peter Thorndyke (Tomlinson).

When Thorndyke realizes Douglas doesn’t have the money to buy such an expensive car, he sends him on his way, but not before Herbie literally bumps into him. Thorndyke, angry that his employees have displayed the Volkswagen in his high-class showroom, demands that the car be thrown out too.

The fun begins when Herbie follows Douglas home.

After being accused of stealing the car, Douglas eventually buys it and learns that Herbie has the heart of a top-notch race car. Predictably, Thorndyke is infuriated by the duo’s success.

“There isn’t a driver in the world who can get that speed out of a car like that,” he says. “He’s done something to it.”

Thorndyke vows to defeat Douglas and Herbie, and he uses the Apollo to do it. Comedy ensues, of course.

While multiple VW Beetles were used to portray Herbie in The Love Bug, only two were used for The Thorndyke Special, and—as Bonhams tells us—“even then it is only careful and forensic viewing of the movie that reveals this, as there are plainly two different license plates among other details. It seems likely that one was more orientated towards the stunts and the other for the uncompromised, panning scenes.”

It was through those stunts that the owner of this car (chassis #1052) was able to establish its connection to the movie. Purchased in 2004, it was a project car that had already been started but was never completed; the rolling chassis and bodywork were in gray primer. The new owner, an Apollo enthusiast, grew curious about the car’s origins when he found a lot of yellow paint beneath the primer. Only two Apollos had been delivered in that color, and his research showed that those Apollos had been prepared and provided for Disney by Max Balchowsky.

Watching hours of slow-motion film footage from The Love Bug, he was able to match the body damage to scenes in the movie. Bonhams says that when a DVD documentary revealed that the other Apollo had been cut up for filming different angles, it was clear that #1052 was the only one that could have survived, and an exhaustive restoration began. Nine years later, the Thorndyke Special re-emerged at the Concorso Italiano in 2013, where its owner was introduced to Milt Brown, Ron Plescia, Frank Reisner’s widow, and original Apollo salesman George Finley.

Now the film star is back in the spotlight at Bonhams, which has set the presale estimate at $175,000–$250,000. Considering that a 1965 Apollo GT 5000 in #1 (Concours) condition has an average value of $240,000—and one in #2 (Excellent) is valued at $204,000—will the Apollo’s Hollywood provenance push it beyond the estimate? We’ll know in eight days.



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    I love these old movies for the cars they have.

    I saw a Rockford Files the other day with a real 250 GTO Ferrari.

    The Love Bug may be the first movie I remember seeing at the theater. I still have three small ‘Love Bug’ badges which were given to movie goers. My dad was a dealership mechanic at the time and operated his own VW repair shop for forty-four years. If I had deep pockets, this car would make appearances at VW shows!
    This Apollo appeals to the coachbuilt enthusiasts and fans of the film; especially the VW world. That truly makes this car a ‘special’.

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