For Chesterfield teen, his Corvette dream trip takes a little detour
BY: BILL LOHMANN Richmond Times-Dispatch, Aug 29, 2019
Justin Houck, 17, and his grandmother, Shirley Houck kneel between the 1974 Corvette he is restoring and the engine that must be replaced as they pose inside a barn on his other grandmother's property in Chesterfield County, VA Wednesday, August 21, 2019 (pictured on the left).
Justin and Shirley are driving to the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, KY in less than a week. The engine pictured had a flaw and the company that Justin purchased it from is replacing it with a larger one.
Justin Houck, 17, talks about the 1974 Corvette he is restoring and the engine that must be replaced and points to a checklist on his car’s roof. His uncle let him use his Corvette to take Grandma Shirley to Kentucky. He’s 17, he’s on a last-gasp-of-summer road trip before school starts, and he’s motoring through the countryside behind the wheel of a Corvette.
And yet Justin Houck set off on this adventure kind of disappointed?
“‘Kind of’ is not the word,” Houck said with a laugh. “Very, very disappointed.”
He’s feeling much better about it now, but he was let down when he first set off on Sunday because of this: He had been working for two years rebuilding a run-down 1974 Corvette that he bought with money saved from summer jobs — and before he even had a driver’s license — with a goal of having the thing road-ready so he and his grandmother could drive it to the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., for its 25th anniversary celebration this weekend.
Last week when we visited the barn behind his maternal grandmother’s home in Chesterfield County where he’s been working on the car, it looked as if he was going to make it. But he discovered an apparent defect in the new engine he had installed, and despite hours and hours of tinkering and experimenting and fine-tuning, he just couldn’t get it to run the way it should.
Late Saturday night, just a few hours before he and his grandmother Shirley Houck were scheduled to leave, he decided to call the whole thing off.
Then his uncle, Jon Houck, made available his 2005 Corvette, and the trip was on again, though not quite as originally planned.
“When he found out, he was gracious enough to offer to let us take it,” Justin said of his uncle in a phone call from a Tennessee hotel on Tuesday evening, where he and his grandmother had stopped en route to Bowling Green.
And the trip itself?
“I love it,” he said, as he described meeting up with more than 400 other Corvettes and their drivers in Charlotte, N.C., as they formed an impressive (and, I would imagine, noisy) caravan to head to Kentucky where thousands more would be assembling. His earlier disappointment was further diminished when he got to take his uncle’s car for a spin around the track at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I do feel a lot better just because I’m here,” he said. “It’s definitely a fun experience. Even though I’m not in mine, I still think about how cool it would be if I was in mine.”
It would have been very cool.
Now, I don’t know much about cars, but I do know what Houck did strikes me as amazing.
A rising senior at Millwood School, Houck has been fascinated by Corvettes ever since his maternal grandmother, Dale Couch, showed him pictures of a 1969 Corvette she’d driven in her younger days.
Then his paternal grandparents, Shirley and Willie Houck, took him to visit the National Corvette Museum a few years ago (which is how Shirley wound up riding shotgun on this trip, which she suggested they take together).
Given his natural tendency, on display from a young age, to take things apart and assemble them again — “Mom and Dad said I did that a lot, and I remember a little John Deere tractor with pedals and stuff that I’d take apart and put back together,” he says — it seemed only a matter of time before he did the same with a Corvette.
He saved money from working summers for his maternal grandfather Paul Couch’s construction business and started scouting around for Corvettes in disrepair that he could bring back to life.
In March 2017, when he was 15, he found one in North Carolina that was a little pricier than he’d hoped — the sale price wound up being $3,200, but Couch spotted him a few dollars that he would later work off the following summer and accompanied him to pick it up — and it was a ’74, a model he liked, because of the “big, swooping fenders.”
He brought it home and set to work, taking the car completely apart.
“Every nut and bolt has been off this thing,” he said.
He stripped the paint with a razor blade and blow-dryer, sandblasted the frame and installed new parts, including a new engine. Essentially what he did was build a new 1974 Corvette, though he’ll invest in a new paint job when he saves some more money. (“I’m not a body-work guy,” he says. “I like nuts and bolts.”)
He called on friends for help throughout the process, but pretty much did most of it himself.
How did he learn to do this?
“Just books and YouTube,” he said.
(He said he couldn’t have done any of this without his grandfather Couch, whom he called “Djeda,” and who died in May — the same day the car received its state inspection sticker. “He saw me drive it around,” Justin said.)
I’d say Houck has a pretty bright future in the field, if he wants to go in that direction, which he apparently does.
“I’d love to go into anything working on cars, really,” he said. “Restoration was fun, but where I really find the most enjoyment is building engines and making them go fast. Long-term, I’d like to be in a performance shop, but a restoration shop would be fun, too.”
Wouldn’t surprise his Grandma Shirley, who told me of an old photograph she has of Justin when he was young. He’s holding a screwdriver, standing near his Pawpaw Willie who was doing some work around the house.
“He’s standing right there,” she said of Justin, “with his little screwdriver wanting to help.”
Shirley Houck texted that they arrived safely in Bowling Green on Wednesday afternoon. They will participate in the museum’s anniversary celebration over the next few days, then head home Sunday. School starts for Houck on Tuesday.
Then it will be back to the barn after school and on weekends for Houck so he can finish working on his Corvette.
“My plans are to get it running and driving it as soon as possible,” he said, “and go to some car shows before the weather gets too cold.”