After years of restoration, why give a car away?

Posted at 1:17 AM, Jan 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-13 01:24:58-05

VERONA, Ky. -- It took Michael Verst more than nine years to restore a 1966 Volkswagen Cabriolet.

The car's beautiful now, with its Porsche mint green paint job and gleaming fenders. But Verst says it was more of a "basket case" when he found it for wife Karen's 40th birthday -- in other words, it was in horrible shape.

The Cabriolet prior to restoration. Photo courtesy Michael Verst.

Karen's midlife milestone was more poignant for her than it is for most: A year earlier, she'd had been diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. Over the course of 52 weeks, Karen underwent chemotherapy and some long hospital stays; most significantly, she lost her right leg just below her pelvis; it had to be amputated.

With the treatment done, Michael wanted to get her involved in a project. In March 1999, they went north across the river into Ohio and bought the VW, already being rebuilt but pretty much stuck in neutral.

"I wanted to do something special for her, and we found this old Volkswagen in the paper and brought it home as a basket case, totally stripped down to bare bones," he recalled.

Michael stripped it down and spent a decade restoring it to Karen's specifications. (That's where the mint green paint came in.) He even customized the transmission from a stick shift to an automatic because of her missing leg: The idea, he said, came from someone on Karen's wheelchair basketball league.

Karen with her beloved convertible. Photo courtesy Michael Verst

"I got it done in time for her cancer-free 10th year," Michael said, "and she just loved the car."

They had some good years in the convertible she nicknamed Gracie, and lots of memories. Then in 2012, the cancer came back. Karen fought, while family and friends rallied and raised enough money so Michael could stay home for his wife's final year, taking care of her.

Karen died in 2013. As for her beloved convertible, she had just one wish: "She wanted it to go to help people," Michael said.

He's decided to donate his labor of love to Camp Courageous, a nonprofit offering year-round care and recreation for people with disabilities in eastern Iowa.

The Cabriolet with the top down. Photo courtesy Michael Verst.

Michael first got to know the camp through his tinkering with cars, so Gracie -- whose value he pegs at about $11,000 -- is being auctioned off, with tickets available over the next year.

"It's not something that I can put a dollar value on, but putting a smile on a kids face at camp? That I can do," he said.