It was the summer of 2014, and Darren S. Witte M’96, H’00, was facing the stress of migrating eight years of patient data into a new electronic medical record.
He’d merged his internal medicine and pediatrics practice with the VCU Health System and was getting to know the system’s Cerner EMR. After long nights of sweating the details, he got a suggestion from his clinical coordinator: find a distraction and blow off some steam.
Darren Witte, M’96, H’00, behind the wheel of his 1970 Karmann Ghia.
Good thing there was a Vintage Volkswagen show coming up that weekend.
“I have this memory from when I was about 7,” Witte says, “of this gorgeous green car. It was frequently parked at a store where I went with my parents.”
Back then, he wasn’t yet a Volkswagen fan and didn’t know what the car was. But 35 years later, he spotted the same compelling curves that were a vivid reminder of his childhood love. It was a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia.
He started frequenting car shows hoping to catch another glimpse, but sightings were rare. That weekend’s show was no different. When he recounted his disappointment to his clinical coordinator, Lesli Davis, she made another suggestion, “Maybe you just need to find one of your own?”
Witte began doing some research. After work or before bedtime he’d snatch a few minutes, but the car proved elusive, especially on the east coast where either harsh winters plus road salt or high heat and humidity take a toll on paint and cause body panels to rust out.
An aerial view of Bug Out, the all-Volkswagen car show based in Virginia that’s one of the largest in the country.
“They made about 445,000 Karmann Ghias between 1954 and 1974,” says Witte. “It is estimated that maybe only about 10 percent of those remain on the planet today, and many are getting consumed two-for-one as donors for restorations. I found a few really rusty ones that would have taken more work and money than I was willing to put in. I didn’t need more stresses.”
Then one night, he spotted a pastel blue 1970 Karmann Ghia for sale online that looked to be in great shape. Originally from California, the car was owned by a surgeon who’d moved the car with him to South Dakota and kept it garaged. The seller sent him some high quality photos and answered his questions.
“I’m surrounded by neighbors who are car guys so I showed them the pictures, and we talked it all over. … Then I told my wife! I decided to take a calculated risk.”
A few weeks later, an enclosed auto trailer brought it from South Dakota to his practice’s parking lot. “My clinical coordinator, Lesli, was right there snapping pictures in the early morning hours when it was delivered.”
Darren Witte, M’96, H’00, with his wife and daughters at the May 2015 Bug Out where his Karmann Ghia took first place in her class.
Forty-four years spent in western climes had left Witte’s vintage car in near perfect condition, but he and his neighbor enjoyed tinkering with it, nonetheless. “I’m pretty good at paint and body work, and my neighbor, Wally, has been great to teach me a lot of mechanical skills. We decided to get it in tip top shape in time for Bug Out the next spring.”
The aptly named all-Volkswagen car show is based in Virginia and is one of the largest in the country. Volkswagen enthusiasts race their cars, enter them in competitions for best of show and swap stories about their passion.
Witte and his neighbor were rewarded when the car took first place in her class. More blue ribbons followed at other local shows. “I’ve maintained a long-distance friendship with the surgeon who owned the car before me and tell him about the shows we go to and what we win. He’s happy to see that it went to a good home and is being enjoyed.
“I like meeting others who have stories about their own connections to Karmann Ghias,” he says of the car events he now frequents. “It’s fun to drive, but I also really love just sitting back and admiring its shape. There’s just something about the shape of that car.”
Witte is a regular at the local Cars and Coffee event that’s held every other Saturday in Richmond. He often takes his 8- and 12-year-old daughters along. “There’s a big car culture in Richmond, and it’s important that we expose our youth to it so that we can continue to preserve the interest in and value of vintage vehicles as time goes on.”
He says that Karmann Ghias are great starter collector cars. In the past few years they have been starting to see an uptick in popularity and value. “I feel like I got in on the ground floor.”
By Erin Lucero