Whitney Wickesberg still remembers the distinct smell of her dad’s bright orange Super Beetle Volkswagen. In her teens, she used to sneak out to her parents’ garage, lie in the backseat of the Beetle and dream of the day when she would get her shot in the driver’s seat. “I really fell in love with it,” Wickesberg says.
But before she was able to earn her learner’s permit, her parents sold it. Heartbroken, she channeled her disappointment into full-on Volkswagen fandom. “I kind of became obsessed,” Whitney admits. “I had a large Volkswagen Beetle poster in my room and owned all sorts of little model cars.”
Since then, owning a vintage Beetle had been at the top of Wickesberg’s bucket list. It remained a far-off dream until 2016 when she was diagnosed with lymphoma or cancer of the immune system. She was only 27 years old.
At first, she thought she had a common cold, but then noted a large and unfamiliar lump in her neck. Several weeks and doctors later, it was determined that she had lymphoma, required medical attention and would need to be housebound for nearly six months as she recuperated from chemotherapy treatment.
During her time indoors, she decided to track down her dream Beetle – a 1966 Volkswagen Beetle – online. She found one in Wisconsin and asked family members to travel there to assess it. After receiving their blessing, she purchased it and had it shipped to Texas.
“It gave me something to look forward to and I could start envisioning my future,” Wickesberg explains.
As soon as the Beetle arrived, however, Wickesberg discovered that Barkley – her nickname for her new ride –needed some TLC. The seats needed new upholstery, the engine was faulty, and the headlights had to be replaced.
She began watching Volkswagen and car repair YouTube videos and buying old official Volkswagen service manuals to learn more about car mechanics to help restore Barkley to his best state. “My husband, a self-proclaimed Volkswagen nut, offered to help me, but I really wanted to learn – and fail – on my own,” Wickesberg says.
She even went as far as to order a hazmat suit on Amazon so she could safely work on the car in her off-weeks from chemotherapy. “I started off learning how to do simpler things, like oil changes, and then graduated to interior work,” Wickesberg says. “I was having the time of my life looking at, and learning about, all its components.”
“A lot of people say, ‘I could never learn that [or] I could never do that,’ but it just goes to show that if you want to learn something bad enough, you can,” Wickesberg added. “It may not be easy at first … but in the end, I can promise you, it is so rewarding.”
With determination and hard work, she was slowly able to transform Barkley into the Beetle she had imagined, her dream ride. “It sounds crazy, but even though I had on this ridiculous hazmat suit, in that moment I felt completely normal, like I wasn’t going through cancer,” Wickesberg noted. “I only had the future to look forward to.”
On the day she found out she was cancer-free, Wickesberg also received a positive Volkswagen omen. While on the way to her one year-and-a-half check-up at her oncologist’s office, she spotted a Bahama blue 1966 VW Beetle. “I looked over to my mom and said, ‘This is a sign. I know it’s going to be okay,’” says Wickesberg.
She was right. Years later, she is still cancer-free, loving life and planning future adventures for her and Barkley. “Driving [him] for me is one of the best feelings in the world,” Wickesberg, now 30, says ecstatically. “Even though he doesn’t go very fast, and sometimes he’s fussy, he has a new lease on life – like I do – and that makes me so happy.”