It seems that most car guys have a defining moment when they “caught the bug,” so to speak, or at least maintain a memory of the first time they fell in love with the car world and often a specific model or brand of car.
This love for cars can manifest itself in a number of ways. Some love the newest, most technologically advanced performance, some like the classics, or even cars from the early 1900s. For some it’s performance in a form of on or off-road racing, for others it’s the desire to have it not only occupy their free time, but also have it help them earn a living through their love for the automobile.
Let us take a look at one such family who proudly continues to operate their own Corvette-centric performance shop based out of sunny San Diego, California, Top Flight Corvette.
A Family of Gear Heads
We drove down for a visit in December of 2014, and were met with several kind smiles. The front of the shop houses a customer waiting area which is absolutely filled with racing and Corvette memorabilia collected over the years by owner and president Lawton Ferreira. Ranging from drag racing trophies and pictures of his own Corvettes as a young man to a case of Hot Wheels and speed or oil-related collectibles, it’s quite a sight. The room is also brought together by the custom flooring tiles sporting the “TFC” rider above Corvette and Chevrolet emblems.
Getting back to how a love for automobiles starts, we asked Ferreira about his oldest memory. He was happy to share, “Well my love for the cars started as a kid, around 13 or 14 years old. I was exposed to Corvettes through my family. I was intrigued by the Corvette since it was the only true American Sports car in existence, beginning back in the ’50s.”
“Starting at a young age, my family was all somehow involved with speed in one form or another; my immediate family with motorcycles, one brother drag raced, and my other brother built custom street cars, so growing up among a group of gear heads led me to where I am today.”
It sometimes only takes a small initial moment or two for somebody to really adopt a lifelong passion. However Ferreira wasn’t able to start off in the Corvette, as it wasn’t in his budget as a young man in Hawaii.
Ferreira said, “Ironically, when I started drag racing, I actually had a 1965 Mustang for my first race car. I did very well with it, but I never lost the desire to have a Corvette race car, since that’s where my passion truly lied. Eventually I was able to get my first Corvette, and have been with them ever since.”
Some folks do begin and conclude their lifelong automotive passion within the same genre or loyalty to a particular car manufacturer. Though the majority of us will venture off into uncharted territory, whether that simply means trying a MOPAR for a year, or moving into off-road when previously involved in drag racing. No matter the start, we have to be thankful that something at some point truly harnessed our attention and was able to connect so many people with a genuine passion for the automobile.
Island Roots Take Flight
In speaking with Ferreira, we could detect a very slight accent, and so we asked him where he was from and how he ultimately ended up in San Diego. Ferreira said, “I was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii.”
This is where the love for Corvette began and manifested itself, as he began drag racing and eventually working on other people’s cars. He made it known he has been very fortunate in meeting the right people along the way, making great connections, and even finding a few who helped to develop and shape him into the person he is today. He then drew a smile as you could see him reflecting on his past and was happy to share another short story with us.
Ferreira excitedly explained, “Believe it or not, back in Honolulu I worked for one of the ten richest men in the world at the time. I fulfilled all of my duties in the office upstairs, but my boss was so cool that he allowed me to basically run my own Corvette business out of the shop downstairs while still working for him.”
He continued, “I was drag racing back then and he would often fly in from Seattle on a Thursday only to find me working on my race car, in preparation for the weekend. He understood that I had a real passion for it, and told me that ‘so long as you do a great job and keep the books looking the way they have, I won’t interfere in your other business.’ He eventually was pleased enough with my performance that he made me the vice president of the company. I did that for twelve years until I moved to San Diego.”
Ferreira made the decision to move to the mainland for a couple of reasons. For one, he really wanted his future to involve a Corvette shop, but being on an island, there are a limited number of Corvettes. Despite the tiny supply, Honolulu already had three separate Corvette shops in operation during this time. Secondly, Ferreira had since married and had a son, so in an effort to be closer to the his wife’s family they packed up and relocated to San Diego in December 1991.
Once they were settled in San Diego, a new career was in order, but initially Ferreira did not go back into the business of building Corvettes due to concerns about where the economy was at the time. He explained, “I went to work at Home Depot for about three years, but I was still working on Vettes out of my home garage. Eventually I saw an ad at a local Corvette shop, so I went and applied for the job. After working for him for eight months, I bought the business from the owner, and the rest is history. This is how Top Flight Corvette came to exist in San Diego.”
One of the first things we noticed when driving up to Top Flight, was that the front didn’t exactly look like your traditional auto shop, nor the surrounding buildings in regards to vegetation. Well, we quickly understood the reasoning after learning of Ferreira’s roots, and we have to say, it made us all long for that warm Hawaiian sun!
Business is Business
CO: What keeps you motivated to continue Top Flight?
LF: “The automotive business is certainly a tough business to run, and stay consistent, but my passion for what we do still continues to excite me. Being in the specialty business like mine it is never the same thing, there are so many different aspects between building high horsepower engines, installing power adders, fabrication, and custom modifications.”
CO: You appear to mostly be a speed shop, what else does Top Flight do?
LF: “We also restore Corvettes, as you may have noticed the frame sitting just outside the shop door, that is the frame for a 1966 Corvette, which we are going to be restoring from the frame up to completion. We also work on other muscle cars, like Camaros, Chevelles, and trucks… along with the occasional Mustang.”
Coincidentally enough, as Corvette Online was packing up, a gentlemen was unloading a (and yes it pains us to admit it) stunningly gorgeous 60’s Mustang awaiting some attention from Ferreira. As much as Ferreira is surrounded by and loves the Corvette, he does seem to have a genuine appreciation for all things automotive, but mostly for GM!
CO: Aside from your own hard work, what do you attribute your success to?
LF: “Good sponsors, good vendors, and great customers for over 15-years, some of which have owned three or four different Corvettes, and allowed me to build every one of them. Along with a good steady customer base that has allowed us to develop a great reputation.”
At one point we noticed a particularly nice C3 body sitting high up on a lift rack. There was a significant amount of dust on it, but you could tell it had painted in a beautiful midnight blue and placed high up for protection. Upon Ferreira catching us eyeing it, he mentioned that it belongs to him, and mentioned, “the owner rarely, if ever has time to work on his own car!”
It’s a Family Affair
We were shown around the shop a bit more, talking about old cars and future builds as any group of car guys would. We discussed a little politics, where we thought the general future of cars and hot rods was headed, and he shared a great story about his son’s participation in drag racing.
“My son owns and drives a blown-alcohol altered car, which we will shortly be installing a LSX motor into along with a vintage-type blower in order to race in the nostalgic drag racing series. We are hoping to stir things up, and are really excited about it!”
Ferreira’s son, who was working in the shop throughout the tour, is also named Lawton but goes by “Lawt” for short. Once Ferreira began talking about his son, you could see the pride written on his face watching Lawt work away, fabricating a section of fuel line for a customer’s custom C6.
Ferreira then said with a smile, “My son could drive when he was only 18-months old, when I bought him one of those Sears mini dune buggies. My mom and my wife both thought I was crazy, but he was able to do it, kids are more capable then people think. From then on, my son has always been around cars and now he does all of our engine builds, custom exhaust systems, and all of the fabrication.”
While speaking to Ferreira, we noticed Lawt take the hard-line over to the polishing table and work it to a mirror-like finish before cleaning it and installing it between the fuel rails. All the while, he portrayed the type of quality and attention to detail that one can expect from Top Flight Corvette.
The shop definitely was not built for show, and nothing was pulled or added knowing Corvette Online would be taking photos of the shop. It was not sterile, nor extremely well lit, this was the kind of garage that builds customer impressions when they pick their car up, not drop it off. While the shops that resemble hospital operating rooms have their place, usually housing well-funded racing teams, the family garage atmosphere was just as inviting to us, and we were happy to relish within it.
Before moving on, Ferreira kindly shared with us one last thought regarding his son, Lawt. “To be perfectly honest, I would like to leave the business in about three to four years, and I am hopeful that he will take the business over for me.” While this may not seem like a huge idea to some folks, we got an understanding of how important this is to Ferreira and how proud he must feel knowing he has helped to groom his son to one day manage the business.
Whether or not Lawt takes over in years to come, we wish Top Flight Corvette the best of luck!