Web Accessibility Support

Dream Cars and Weddings

How a restoration project taught alumnus Kaleab Debebe about cars, marriage, and the triumph of DIY.

by Janelle Harris Dixon
Debebe sitting on restored white VW beetle

Kaleab Debebe rests on the light of his DIY restored VW Beetle on Howard's campus.

The process of restoring a vintage car is almost never romantic, but it became sort of a love story in a love story for Kaleab Debebe (MBA ’22).  

“My wife and I never threw a wedding and she really wanted one. I was like, let’s get a house first, trying to get my priorities right,” he recalls, laughing. “But eventually, she said, ‘it’s time. I’ve been waiting 10 years.’ I told her, okay, you get your dream wedding if I get my dream car.”

Their deal made and his deadline set to have the restoration done in time for the big day, the father of three started shopping for a 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle, a car he admired as a kid in his native Ethiopia, where they’re still popular. His dad had come to America on political asylum when Debebe was six months old and his uncle Magaru, the proud owner of a Volkswagen Beetle, stepped in as a father figure until Debebe moved to the States when he was 11.

the VW beetle in fix-up mode
Debebe's car stripped down to just the body as he began restoration.

“Whenever we’d go anywhere, it would be in that car,” remembers Debebe, a newly hired assistant director of alumni relations at Howard. “Every time I see one, I think of childhood memories.”

The search for the dream car didn’t start out dreamy at all, however. In 2020, he purchased a 1971 VW Super Beetle from a seller who had rebuilt the engine but mangled the bodywork, making it fundamentally useless. Debebe sold it off for parts and six months later, purchased another car – same year, same model – for $900, this time calling every body shop he could find before a mechanic agreed to take on the project.

Whenever we’d go anywhere, it would be in that car.”

On his own, Debebe stripped down the frame, sandblasted the rust and paint, and removed the engine, then helped staff at Naz Auto Body & Paint in Accokeek, Md., add a convertible top and put it back together. It took the self-taught mechanic an entire year to rebuild his new-but-not-new vehicle.

“The process was tough but doable. It was a feeling of not giving up. I’ve learned to make sure I do my homework before I jump into anything,” he said. “It looks easy in videos. You’re like, oh yeah, I can do this. But it takes a lot of experience and time.”

bride and groom in vintage VW Beetle
Something old, something new: Debebe with his new wife and new car on their wedding day

On July 17, 2021, in the bustling morning hours before his wife’s dream wedding, Debebe was at the body shop, still pushing staff to finish details on his dream car. It still needs a wiring harness and a fuel line, which makes it undrivable, and the groom had to pivot from his plan to pull up with his bride in his newly restored car. Instead, he rented a Rolls Royce and had his almost-finished restoration towed to the venue to be featured in their wedding pictures.

From white wall tires to monogrammed upholstery, Debebe’s Super Beetle is a meticulous trophy car. Next up, he plans to earn his PhD from Howard and restore another vintage car – possibly a VW bus – because, challenges aside, he loved the experience. And the car.

This story appears in the Fall 2023 issue.
Article ID: 1506

More In...