The Wonder of Wonderbug

The 70’s & 80’s were filled with visions of sentient vehicles. It was an easy go-to for films and TV shows. They can all trace their origins back to Herbie, the Love Bug or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (or maybe even My Mother, the Car), but each had a different spin. Much like the early 90’s cinema was filled with “Die Hard on a ______” variations, we saw all sorts of permutations about cars.

For example:

Herbie, but the car is a Trans Am – Knight Rider

Michael Knight & KITT
Michael Knight & KITT

Herbie, but the cars are really Robots – Transformers

Autobots.... Roll Out
Autobots…. Roll Out

Herbie, but the car is trying to kill people – The Car or Christine

1977's demonic thriller, The Car
1977’s demonic thriller, The Car

Herbie, but chased by evil motorcycles – Wheelie & the Chopper Bunch

Wheelie & the Chopper Bunch

Herbie, but the car is really a teenager – Turbo Teen

This intro still gives me the creeps

And the trend continues today. Pixar’s Cars franchise grossed over a billion dollars.

Pixar's Cars

However, when I think of those shows, my favorite would have to be Wonderbug.

For anyone who has never seen this, you are in for a treat. Let’s set the scene: Three adults portraying teenagers solve crimes with the help of their anthropomorphic dune buggy.

Wait… wasn’t that Speed Buggy?

Common mistake, but this car had eyes and a mouth.

Still sounds like Speed Buggy

This was live action, however. And one of the guys (C.C.) was black, so it’s totally different. In fact, David Levy, who played Barry on the show, likened them to a “teenage” Mod Squad.

Susan, C.C. & Barry
Susan, C.C. & Barry

And “teenage” seems a bit of a stretch. Unless they attended the same high school for 20-somethings as these guys.

As the theme song tells us, they went to a junkyard “lookin’ for an old car / found a funny ‘Schlepcar’” and decided to take it home. When they attached the new “magic horn” they also picked up, the jalopy transformed into WONDERBUG!

Wonderbug Before & After
Before & After

Wonderbug aired as part of The Kroft Supershow, splitting screen time with Dr. Shrinker and Electra Woman & DynaGirl. Of the three, this was the only one to make it to a second season, after completing a total of 22 episodes.

It’s amazing to me how many of the shows from this era were implanted in our minds through reruns. I feel like I spent years watching HR Pufnstuf, but there were only 17 episodes made. Scooby Doo’s Laff-a-Lympics were a regular part of my Saturday morning, but there were only 24 of those. At least Sigmund & the Sea Monsters got two full seasons for a massive 29 episodes.

But back to Schlepcar – I mean, Wonderbug. The “teens” dealt with evil fur traders, evil magicians, evil bikers, and even aliens (who were, no doubt, evil). They wrangled with horse thieves and androids and helped find a pirate’s treasure.

Wonderbug ‘s powers were somewhat limited – he could fly, grapple things with his antenna and drive automatically. But that didn’t matter when he looked like the coolest thing on the beach. Forget that his headlights blinked like eyes and his bumpers turned into a mouth. He was a glittery cherry-red dune buggy!

I’ve often wondered why he had to keep changing back to Schlepcar – why not just live as Wonderbug? Spiderman had to protect Aunt May and Superman needed to be Clark Kent to learn about humans, but what was Schlepcar’s excuse? Maybe that would have been addressed in Season 3.

Like many of the Kroft shows, this was created by Joe Ruby and Ken Spears. Saturday morning cartoon fans should recognize those names as they were plastered over any number of shows during the 70’s and 80’s.

Right after ending their association with the folks at Kroft, they branched out and created their own production company. At the time, Hanna-Barbera owned a huge chunk of the animation market and the head of ABC assigned Ruby-Spears to create some competition. During their prime, they were responsible for such classics as Fangface, Alvin & the Chipmunks, Plastic Man, Thundarr the Barbarian, Pac-Man, and The Saturday Supercade.

With a second season, you got a lunchbox
With a second season, you got a lunchbox

For 2/3 of the cast, Wonderbug was the peak of their careers. David Levy (Barry) went on to become at psychologist and Professor at Pepperdine. Interestingly, his first role was on One Day at a Time playing a character named Herbie (presumably not the Love Bug). His final credited role? A psychology colleague of Frasier Crane on Cheers.

David Levy, Carol Anne Seflinger & John Anthony Bailey on Wonderbug

Carole Anne Seflinger (Susan) had a number of series appearances prior to Wonderbug, but has only had a few credited roles since its departure.

The most interesting post-Wonderbug career has to belong to John Anthony Bailey (C.C.). Like Susan, he had a budding career prior to Wonderbug, popping up in shows like MASH, Mission Impossible & Good Times. He even gained some notoriety as one of the only non-white folks in all of Wisconsin playing “Sticks”, the drummer in Richie’s band on Happy Days.

However, a few years after Schlepcar was put to pasture, Bailey decided to alter his career path slightly. Starting in 1984, under the pseudonym Jack Baker, he began a career in adult films that endured over 140 titles, including Let Me Tell You About White Chicks and The Devil in Miss Jones 3. Sadly, he died of bladder cancer in 1994 at the age of 47.

One of my favorite things about returning to these shows now is seeing early roles for some established actors. And this was no exception. We had Gordon Jump (WKRP‘s Mr. Carlson), Casey Kasem, horror icon Sid Haig (who also played an evil Genie on Electra Woman & Dyna Girl), & Witchie-Poo herself, Billie Hayes. They even got Dodger legends Don Sutton & Steve Yeager for the season two premiere. Not bad for only 22 episodes.

Check out the show’s opening. And while you enjoy the groovy special effects, keep this in mind: Star Wars was less than a year away.

As with many of the Kroft shows, Wonderbug wasn’t great by traditional standards. Sometimes, by those same standards, it’s not even good. But it was always entertaining and that’s all I needed for my Saturday viewing.

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