The Story of Houghton Rust Control
Vern Houghton was born in Stratford, Ontario to Russell and Jean Houghton. Russ was a licensed bodyman and licensed auto mechanic. He and Jean operated Houghton Motors in Tavistock from 1947 until 1970.
In 1970, Russell Houghton closed his auto repair business in Tavistock to manage a rustproofing business in Kitchener. Within the year Russ and Jean took over the business and started Houghton Rust Control. Russ was the salesperson, going to dealerships, etc. He also built most of the rustproofing wands, some of which are still in use today. Jean picked up and delivered cars from dealerships, answered the phones, did the bookkeeping, and kept everything at the shop running smoothly. (In her 91st year, she still drops into the shop and is still very interested in the business.)
Vern Houghton joined his dad in 1972. (Since that time Houghton has treated about a quarter million cars.)
In 1973, Vern married Diane Scriver from Woodstock. Diane’s parents, (Alvin and Nancy) at over 80 years of age, play important roles in the hectic season between Sept and December).
From 1970 until 1979, the main focus of Houghton Rust Control was rustproofing automobiles. In 1979, Russ and Vern diversified. Jean and Diane had received more and more calls for oil spraying, so Vern bought a drum of hydraulic oil. They could now offer oil spraying as well as rustproofing. Rustproofing is good for new vehicles, because of its adhering qualities and its sturdiness. The oil was thinner and could get into the seams better.
Also, in 1979, Vern convinced Russ to get back into the auto body repair business and started Houghton Auto Body.
In 1980 Vern bought Houghton Rust Control Inc. from Russell Houghton. From 1979 until 1984, Vern sprayed thin oil in all areas of the car. By 1984, Diane was getting calls for dripless oil spraying. This was when Vern’s experience of rustproofing and oil spraying 50,000 new and used vehicles for 12 years came in handy. He experimented with spraying dripless oil in the doors, under the hood, and in the trunk lid, as well as on the bottom of the vehicle. The dripless oil seemed to work well on the bottom of the car, but there were issues with spraying the rest of the vehicle with the dripless type of oil. First of all, Vern did not see it running out of the drain holes of the bottom of the doors. He always believed if he could see the oil coming out of the drain holes at least a little bit, it meant that the entire seam was sprayed. Also, the dripless oil was very messy around the engine. The next summer, the dripless oil started oozing out of the drain holes. Since the dripless seemed very efficient on the bottom of the car, Vern decided he would like to continue with that procedure. The 2- step process came to him one night. He could still spray the doors, in the hood, around the engine, and in the trunk lid with the thin oil. He called it less drip, and as Russell used to say “there is no better way to save your nice car”.
In 1984, James Russell Houghton was born. From a very young age, James was mechanical. He has been around Houghton Rust Control all his life and knows both the sales and service of the business. James plans on taking over the 3rd generation Houghton legacy when Vern and Diane retire.
Vern once said if all the cars he had ever sprayed were in a line, it would almost reach Florida.
Published: January 17, 2007
By: Chuck Howitt, Record Staff
When Vern Houghton thinks back on the key moments in his company’s past, he often pauses at the year 1985.The Kitchener firm’s business is spraying oil beneath the frames, inside the doors and under the hoods of automobiles to control rust — the scourge of vehicle owners in cold climates.Houghton’s issue in 1985 was finding the right kind of oil.Too thick and it couldn’t penetrate narrow cracks between doors and panels. Too thin and it dripped off the vehicles, creating an annoying mess.Since buying the business from his father, Russell, in 1980, Houghton had witnessed steady growth in the number of cars coming to the garage at 1420 Victoria St. N. There were 50 a day in 1983 and more than 100 a day only two years later.He was a common-sense kind of guy who learned the business from his father and was used to relying on his instincts rather than drawing up a business plan.
“I’m Grade 12 educated and go with my gut feelings,” he says today.
So in 1985, business was picking up and life was good, except for the nagging oil problem. There had to be a better way.
Then one night when he was unable to sleep, something dawned on Houghton. Why not use two mixtures of oil, a thinner one for the upper body of the vehicle and a thicker one for the undercarriage.
While it now sounds almost too simple, it was a breakthrough for the company, recalls Diane Houghton, Vern’s wife and a co-owner of Vern Houghton Rust Control.
“To my knowledge, nobody was doing it that way before Vern.”
Since then, Houghton hasn’t looked back and cars continue to roll up to the door.
Houghton sprays a fine penetrating oil into the cracks and seams around doors, panels, trunks and hoods and a thicker solution, almost like a sprayable petroleum jelly, for the frames underneath.
“One is a sealant, the other is a penetrant,” Vern says.
The company purchases its made-to-order oil products from LSI (Lubrication Specialties Inc.) of Kitchener, located on Strasburg Road.
“We tell them what we want in the oil,” Diane says. “We don’t want to feel any grit. All that plugs up his (Vern’s) tools.”
The company wants as fine a spray as possible, so fine it’s more like a fog, she adds.
Houghton Rust Control was born in 1970, when Russell Houghton, then running a Tavistock garage selling Volkswagens and repairing cars, was presented with a business opportunity.
One of his customers owned a rust-control franchise in Kitchener called Cortrol and was looking for someone to run it. The popularity of Volkswagen Beetles was beginning to wane and years of doing body work to treat the ravages of rust convinced Russell he should get in on the prevention side of the business.
When the Pittsburgh-based franchisor folded less than a year later, Houghton believed in the business enough to strike out on his own.
In the early years, the company would pick up new cars at local auto dealerships and bring them to the Victoria Street garage for rustproofing. Unlike oil-spraying, rustproofing applies a thicker sealant, one that can last for several years.
By the mid-1970s, Houghton was doing rustproofing for 90 per cent of the dealers in Kitchener, Waterloo and an area stretching west to Stratford and Mitchell, estimates Vern, who joined the business in 1972.
Diane, who also started at Houghton with a summer job in the early 1970s, remembers going to Forbes Motors five times a day to pick up vehicles.
By the early 1980s, most car dealerships were doing their own rustproofing, and oil spraying became Houghton’s primary business, although it still does some rustproofing today.
“Vern knew we needed to get into the seams where the rust started,” Diane says.
It’s a business that’s at the mercy of the weather and the seasons and Diane, who works in the office and schedules appointments while Vern wields his spray gun in the shop, keeps a close eye on weather reports and the calendar.
She can tell you that in the fall of 1999, this area had only 1.5 days of rain. Yet last autumn it rained every second or third day. Dry days are crucial for sales because oil won’t stick to a vehicle when it’s wet.
The busiest time of year is autumn, when people are anxious to oil their vehicles before winter. The slowest months are June and July, but Houghton is ready to spray on any day of the year, as long as it’s dry. Preventive medicine is never a bad idea, the Houghtons say.
The firm’s three full-time employees are Vern, 58, Diane, 52, and their son Jim, 22. They hire five more people for the busy fall season.
Their shop is a car-lover’s dream. Photos of Vern, Russell and family friends from their stock car and rallying days line walls in the reception area. In the inner office and lunchroom, there are licence plates on display from every province and nearly every U.S. state. Most were collected by Russell, who died in 1993.
Oil-stained carpets cover the floors and a long coat rack is filled with coveralls. Doing the laundry every day is not feasible, so Houghton keeps extra work clothes close at hand.
Inside the 2,800-square-foot garage, Houghton plans to install a new hoist in February, that will be flush to the floor. The current hoist, in use since 1994, requires motorists to drive onto a ramp.
To catch dripping oil from treated cars, the company has placed 30 metres of plastic outside the rear door, topped with carpet.
The Houghtons rented their Victoria Street space until 2002, when the previous owner offered it for sale.
“We decided it was better to own than rent,” Diane says.
They currently have six tenants, a mix of auto body, roofing and computer businesses.
Houghton sprays about 8,000 cars a year, but the number can go up and down. In the last five years, automakers have sold record numbers of new cars, says Vern, but that trend is tailing off so he expects to see more used cars on the road — and more demand for rust-control.
Houghton’s record for one day is 242 cars sprayed. The family estimates the business has sprayed more than 225,000 vehicles over the years.
The company advertises in the local print media and offers discount coupons. Diane also drops off coupons at garages and service centres.
Houghton doesn’t have a website. It would be hard to handle appointments online when so much is dependent on the weather, Diane says. “We’re a hands-on company,” she says.
The Houghtons have done well financially, but not any better than a couple working full-time at Toyota, Vern says.
“We’re not about cash-registers ringing and pockets jingling,” Diane stresses. “We want to keep cars from rusting.”
We asked Vern Houghton of Vern Houghton Rust Control:
Q. What major challenges has your company faced over the years?
A. “At one time the car companies were putting a lot of fibreglass and plastic on cars. I thought, ‘Oh boy, what’s that going to do to us?’ But they keep going back to using a lot of steel.”