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Volkswagen Enthusiast Zoe Carmichael is Following her Dream Career

Some people are just born with the knack of taking things apart and putting them back together…mostly correctly. They might succeed in returning the item back to its original state at first, or they might fail. The goal is to continue to improve, learn from one’s mistakes, pursue the knowledge, get it mostly right, and make a lifelong commitment to turn that knack into a profession.

Zoe Carmichael, 27, is on the verge of doing just that, as a non-traditional student at McPherson College and one of the inaugural recipients of the Piston Fund Scholarships in 2022 for students who wish to pursue hands-on careers in the collector car industry.

By Judy Stropus

April 11, 2023

From Fountain Pens to a Volkswagen Beetle

What started out as a fascination at the age of 3 with taking apart her mother’s “fancy” collection of ball-point and fountain pens in an attempt to “restore” them later turned into a stronger desire to fix bigger things. And a Volkswagen Beetle took center stage in Carmichael’s journey.

“My mom loved pens, really fancy ones,” said Carmichael. “I would take them apart and break them completely, and she was so distraught, she never collected pens again. But I learned how the inner workings of a pen function, and that was really enjoyable.”

It wasn’t until she turned 21 that the Volkswagen Beetle, the only car Carmichael has owned to this day, entered her life, and brought her closer to her desire to “fix bigger things.”

“I saved up my money, did my research and spent months combing through online ads contacting one seller after another, but every lead was a dead end,” she wrote in her application for the Piston Scholarship. “Then one day there was an ad posted at a dealer four hours away (from her home in Raleigh, N.C.) in Virginia. I went to take a test drive, and the second I saw it in person, I knew my search was over. I had found my dream car, a 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle.

“I’ve always liked Volkswagens. I liked the ones from the ‘90s and 2000s, but the classic ones, the air-cooled ones, are kind of charming. They’re simple and practical, and pretty efficient. I mean, what more could you want?”

Old Volkswagen, Brand New Challenge

But, the car needed work and Carmichael’s first inclination was to bring it to a specialist to manage the repairs. “I knew that the Beetle was designed to be easily maintained and repaired, yet I never imagined I would be the person to do it,” she said. “I believed the work was best left to someone with experience, and luckily there was an air-cooled VW specialist in Raleigh that had been in business for decades. 

“The first repair led to another, and I was trapped in a cycle of endless repairs with countless breakdowns in between. For two years, every breakdown became a lesson in itself. I learned how to diagnose a bad solenoid, how to tell if a fuel pump is failing and, one night, after breaking down at a friend’s party, how to push start a car in high heels. The more I learned, the more I noticed the repairs made by the specialist were never quite right. I decided it was time to find new mechanic.”

When You Want it Done Right…

That mechanic became Zoe herself. “I fell in love with it. It felt really good to take something that was broken and make it better. There’s no feeling like it. I like figuring out how things work and taking things apart and putting them back together. But, I hadn’t really started working on cars until I actually had a car to work on.”

“I feel like most people probably would’ve just sold the car and got another one, but I love my car so much. It’s like an extension of myself. It’s really interesting how cars have become a part of our lives.”

The Road to Restoration Education

But Carmichael knew she needed to learn more about how to correctly repair and restore older cars. While driving home from her job in customer service one day, she heard an ad on the radio advertising an automotive technology degree at the local community college. “The gears began to turn, the idea had been planted, and I was determined.”

She enrolled in the automotive program at Wake Tech in Raleigh. “I knew nothing, not even how to change a tire. I went to class, paid attention, asked questions and, each day, I learned a little more. Now, I do all my own repairs, I can hold my own in a conversation with fellow gear heads, and my friends call me for automotive advice,” she said.

Carmichael completed her Associate’s degree at Wake Tech and gained experience working on modern cars, but “I didn’t know as much about vintage and classic cars as I wanted to.”

She soon discovered there was an Automotive Restoration program at McPherson College, specializing in cars made before 1972. She applied and was accepted. The day she graduated from Wake Tech she packed up her belongings and drove more than 1400 miles to Kansas in her Beetle.

“The teachers at McPherson are awesome. They are with you every step of the way.”

“I anticipate graduating in July 2024 with a degree in Automotive Restoration History,” she said. “As a first-generation college student, I’m going to be the first person in my family to have a Bachelor’s degree.”

Preserving Works of Art

When not in class, Carmichael is working at The Garage Automotive Museum in Salina, Kansas. “After graduation, I’d like to work for a car museum or work as an appraiser, because it combines my love of history with my love of automobiles,” she said. “I believe that automobiles are works of art and that preservation is important so they can continue to educate and inspire people.”

A Big “Thank You” to Piston

The Piston Foundation scholarship has opened doors for this aspiring technician. “The Piston Foundation has given me a lot of good connections. It’s been an amazing career opportunity and it’s given me more pathways that I could go down in the future,” she said. “It’s really nice to have the support of people who have such a great mission.

“I never thought I would end up here. I found an opportunity and it led to another opportunity, and another one, and it’s just been so great. My advice to anyone who’s looking for a career in car restoration is, ‘Don’t turn down something you think might be fun. Just find anything you’d love to do and find opportunities and take them.’

“There are so many different paths one can take in the automotive field. It could be with paint or trim or sheet metal. It can be history or design. If you find what you like, stick with it.”

Support skilled trade education for future auto restoration technicians.


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