Herbie ’The Love Bug’ Returns To Race In The 2019 24 Hours of Spa-Francorcamps
A Porsche dressed like the famous racing Beetle will contest the grueling race on the 50th anniversary of the orginial movieby Michael Fira, on
The annual 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps is, arguably, the world’s biggest professional endurance race for GT cars and, this year, the entry list reached a new high: 72 cars are set to take the start on July the 27th. Or that’s what we thought before a strange-looking Bug appeared out of a pit box during the official Spa Test Days.
Racing to raise awareness about a certain disease or in order to collect money for a charity is a noble thing but, up until now, we’ve seen no project go as far as this. The brainchild of Pascal Witmeur, long-time Belgian racing driver, this project aims to both celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original Herbie motion picture (’The Love Bug’, released in cinemas in the U.S. in March of 1969) and to gather funds for the VivaCité (RTBF) ’Viva for Life’ project and ’Kinderarmoedefonds.be’ charities. The car was created with the help of Belgian luxury car dealer Deman Brussels and is, at its core, a Porsche 911 (991) Cup MR - the Manthey Racing-modified version of Porsche’s 911 Cup car.
This uniquely modified Porsche will run in the Invitational class
Those that are not fans of Porsche’s legendary 911 will often joke that, at its origins, the 911 was nothing more than a souped-up Volkswagen Beetle since Ferdinand Porsche, the creator of both of these legendary vehicles, designed the prototype for what would become the Porsche 356, the 911’s precursor, around the time he was working on the Beetle project for the Third Reich. Of course, nowadays, a Porsche is no longer the tepid machine that the early 356s were and, although the engine is still in the back, you can’t deny that anything with two doors that comes from Zuffenhausen is a darn good sports car, to say the least.
Still, someone thought that it would be fun to turn evolution on its head and make a Porsche look like a Bettle from the '60s, a hippie's favorite means of transportation.
The whole thing has nothing to do with the fact that Volkswagen puts the modern Beetle out of its misery this year, thus ending the eight-decade-long story of the world’s best-selling car, but it’s a nice coincidence nonetheless.
The actual purpose is a celebratory one, as mentioned. Called ’53 Tribute Goes To Total 24 Hours of Spa, the project will see a 73rd car added to the already impressive 72-strong grid that sees works-backed efforts from a number of top-end manufacturers like Audi, BMW, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, Bentley, and Honda. This special Porsche, nicknamed ’Juliet,’ won’t receive any help from Zuffenhausen (or Wolfsburg, for that matter) and it isn’t even a full-blown GT3 car.
According to endurance-info.com, the idea to turn a Porsche into a Volkswagen and race it in one of the world’s most prestigious 24-hour races came to Pascal Witmeur late last year. The 64-year-old Belgian had previously been part of the ’Racing Against Cancer’ initiative that saw four well-known Belgian racing drivers take turns at the wheel of a MarcVDS Racing-entered BMW Z4 GT4 in the 2015 edition of the 24 Hours of Spa Francorchamps. Each member of the quartet (that comprised past winners Marc Duez, Jean-Michel Martin, and Eric van de Poele besides Witmeur himself) drove 24 minutes during the race, the rest of the funds raised during the campaign going straight to the Belgian Foundation Against Cancer.
Witmeur has been a fan of the Beetle for decades, and he's one of the founders of the Volkswagen Fun Cup series that features silhouette-style race cars that resemble old-school Beetles.
The series debuted in 1997 and is still going strong with its marquee event being the 25-hour endurance race held at Spa-Francorchamps every year. Even five-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Jacky Ickx raced aboard one of these diminutive cars alongside his children in the not so distant past. Witmeur said, in an interview with endurance-info.com, that, having launched the Fun Cup, he’d always dreamed about building a ’Super Bug.’
Initially, the plan was to have an LMP3-spec Adess prototype to the cosplay game and appear at the Road To Le Mans race that acts as a support race before the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Although a crew had been gathered and he even had a sponsor, Witmeur would never see his dream turn into reality as ACO refused his request to enter the race as a non-scoring entity that would just run for a good cause. However, this setback and the loss of his main sponsor didn’t stop the Belgian who’s known for his outlandish projects - he once brought Jermaine Jackson to Le Mans in the middle of winter to see a Rondeau prototype racing car.
Witmeur turned to Stephane Ratel, the Head of the Stephane Ratel Organization that organizes the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps and all of the Blancpain-sponsored GT series around the world. Ratel was interested, but the timeline was very tight - barely two months before the Test Days at Spa.
In this time, Witmeur had to find a suitable car and a tuner that was able to make the body modifications that would transform that car into a Beetle lookalike.
Of course, the closest thing to a Beetle in the world of GT racing has always been a Porsche and, indeed, Witmeur got hold of a Porsche 911 (991) GT3 Cup MR with help from Michel Deman, the Boss of Deman Brussels, a luxury car dealer.
The 911 Cup MR is a modified version of Porsche’s standard Cup racer that features the front end of the Porsche 911 GT3.R (991.1 version) as well as flared arches all around and a bigger diffuser topped off by a wider wing. The car’s 4.0-liter flat-six engine puts out 485 horsepower which is about as much as any other GT3 racer as the Balance of Performance (BoP) limits outputs of any car in this class to about 500 horsepower (an unlimited R8 GT3, for instance, cranks out 585 horsepower without the mandated air restrictor). Currently, you can race the Cup MR in the VLN series (Germany’s Endurance Racing Championship that stages all of its rounds on the Nordschleife) as well as the 24H Series organized by Creventic (in the SPX category alongside such cars as the Lamborghini Huracan Super Trofeo).
Manthey Racing builds these cars at its shop starting from standard 911 Cup cars as provided by Porsche and the end result is a car that will obliterate almost anything at your average track day without breaking the bank. You can also buy the MR update kit and put it to your 911 GT3 Cup if you happen to already own one. You’ll get, beyond what’s visible to the naked eye, stuff like specialized three-way adjustable KW suspension and a 12-way adjustable ABS that’s helpful if you’re not a pro. Manthey reckons this 2,645-pound beast is about 15 seconds slower around the Nurburgring-Nordschleife than the 911 (991.1) GT3.R and 10 seconds quicker than an unmodified Porsche 911 (991.2) GT3 Cup. The latter will set you back about $214,000 while a Cup MR bought directly from Manthey costs $337,780. While you are paying the price of two Cup cars, you’re still $180,175 away from the European list price of a 2019-spec Porsche 911 GT3.R so, if you look at it from this perspective, the Cup MR is actually a bargain. For the record, a road-going GT3 RS starts at $188,550 before adding the $18,000 Weissach Package.
Going back to the Herbie on steroids, Witmeur characterized the people at SRO as "courageous" for allowing the car to even take part in the race since the Groupe National class for single-make series models (like the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, the Maserati MC Trofeo, or the Lamborghini Huracan Super Trofeo) was abolished after last year’s race. The reason wasn’t only that the class never really garnered much interest with only a couple of Porsche Cup cars showing up in 2016 and 2017, but it also had to do with the significant speed differential between these less aero-efficient cars and the GT3 machinery.
The Cup MR, however, with its GT3-esque front end is faster than any Groupe National car and, in the fourth and final test session during the official Test Days, Aston Martin Racing driver Maxime Martin, who drove the car during its first track outings, managed a 2:27.925, faster than two other cars that took to the track in that session and, more importantly, less than nine seconds off the fastest lap of the session, a 2:19.316 by the works-entered No. 107 Bentley Continental GT GT3.
While Martin drove the No. 53 car, the driver roaster for the big race is not yet determined, and Witmeur said that "Juliet [the car] will pick its handlers."
Most likely, though, at least two of the drivers will be veteran Belgian racer Fred Bouvy and Loic Deman, experienced driver in historic racing and the son of Michel Deman. What’s certain is that, just like the No. 240 MarcVDS Racing-entered ’Racing Against Cancer’ BMW Z4 GT3 that Witmeur himself co-drove in 2015, the Herbie Porsche will not tackle the whole race.
The Herbie craze
Herbie may be one of the most famous Volkswagens in movie history. It or, should I say, he (as Herbie is depicted as a sentient car that can drive itself, communicate, and show emotions) first appeared in 1969’s ’The Love Bug’, the first in a series of Herbie movies released by Walt Disney Productions. Based on Gordon Buford’s 1961 book ’Car, Boy, Girl’, the movie features a white 1963 Volkswagen Beetle adorned with a trifecta of racing stripes (one white, one red, and one blue) and the number 53 inside a white roundel positioned on the front trunk lid, the doors, and the engine lid. Herbie is never referred to as a Volkswagen in the first movie, and the Volkswagen badges were taken off the cars used during filming when the car is referenced using terms such as "The Douglas Special," "the little car," and "the compact car."
As 'The Love Bug' proved to be successful (grossing over $312 million domestically as of 2017) and Herbie's story - and its ability to humiliate on the race track cars that were clearly more powerful and nimbler (various Ferrari and Jaguar models, for instance) - was found to be endearing by the public, other movies were made in the following years.
In 1974, the second installment appeared called ’Herbie Rides Again.’ Thereafter, moviegoers were treated with Herbie’s adventures in Monaco in ’Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo’ and further shenanigans in ’Herbie Goes Bananas.’ 17 years after the release of this third movie (and 15 years after the ill-fated ’Herbie, The Love Bug’ television series was aired), a made-for-TV motion picture was released. Herbie looked different in this reboot but the movie at least added something to the backstory of Herbie by explaining its origins as the creation of a German engineer named Dr. Gustav Stumpfel (I won’t give away more since I don’t want to spoil the whole thing for you if you want to watch the movies and haven’t already).
The final Herbie-themed movie was released in 2005 starring Jeremy Roberts and Lindsay Lohan. In this movie, Herbie ends up at a scrapyard only to be bought by Lohan’s character and modified a number of times for a number of different races - including a grand finale at a NASCAR venue. Given the popularity of the movie, Volkswagen started endorsing Herbie, and VW badges started appearing on the cars used during filming from the second film onwards. Nowadays, there are countless Herbie replicas out there, but none looks quite like Juliet, and that’s for a good reason: Juliet is not Herbie, it’s Herbie’s biggest fan!
Let's see if Juliet can mimic Herbie's on-screen achievements and become a giant killer in real life.
Like in the movie, however, the skill of the drivers will play a part in how this real-life story will end up being written. What’s clear already is that this car is already a fan favorite and it will go down in the history of the race - whether you like the Beetle-ized Porsche or not. Sure, it may not be that kind to the eyes (the chromed faux bumper in the front is particularly tacky as is the Panoz Abruzzi-looking tail section), but it’s all for a good cause, and that’s what matters in the end.
"Stéphane Ratel understood that we had to go beyond the borders of motorsport [with this project]," said Pascal Witmeur. "We need that. We have to make motorsport fun."
Read our full review on the 2013 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup.