The smell of tarnished gas fumigates under the propped hood of the CRX. Looking over the backside of the 4-cylinder motor, while climbed up and squeezed into the engine compartment like a jungle gym, the blonde headed woman balances herself with her knees on top the radiator core support while she tries to spot an issue behind the intake manifold. Getting an old Honda CRX to start up after it was completely dismantled and parked for nearly five years is no small task, but it’s one of the several car projects Gabby Downing is juggling.
For starters, a CRX was her first car. “When I went to buy my first car, I was determined to buy an older Honda because at the time I knew nothing about cars or tools — so I wanted something cheap and reliable.” She says. The Honda she found should have been a steal, it was a 1987 CRX Si, painted red with white flames on the hood and fenders, 17-inch wheels and a hodgepodge stereo system, a far cry from a modern sports car, but perfect for her.
“At the time, I had no idea how to drive stick shift so I learned while testing the CRX out — and it was the greatest moment ever!” She says. “Since then, I fell in love with driving and immediately I wanted to know everything about cars and be able to work on them myself.”
So with her ‘87 CRX the journey into learning mechanics began. “This was seriously the car that I learned everything on.” She says. “I did my first oil change, first alternator, first body panel replacement, engine pull, clutch replacement, transmission swap . . . all of it.” Although that’s usually the case when you have a thirty-year old car that needs to be driven on a daily basis — or maybe it’s because you love to do it. For Gabby, it was a mix of both.
One learning experience she recalls is with her brake system around the Christmas of 2014. “I had just gotten back from a family visit and I wanted to hangout with some friends, as I pulled out of my gravel driveway I pressed on the brakes a few times because they felt weird.” She says. “All of a sudden bang! And pssssffftttttt! Then a whistling. What had happened was the wheel cylinder in my drum brake exploded and at the same time my brake booster failed.”
After rehabbing the entire brake system, she knew it was time to get a more reliable car to drive as a daily, so in 2016 she fought for a personal loan and finally picked up something a bit different, a silver, 2004 Subaru WRX. But this time her purchase was already loaded with a ton of goodies starting with a 2.5 liter engine that was already fed by 1000cc ID fuel injectors backed up with a Walbro 255lph fuel pump, a Grimmspeed Electronic Boost Controller, STI Top mount intercooler, Mishimoto turbo inlet, Perrin headers, and SPT cat-back exhaust.
The WRX drivetrain and suspension was beefed up with upgraded 2006 version steering rack and pinion, JDM STi front differential, a Cusco rear differential and Moton adjustable coil over shocks with Cusco adjustable sway bars, Whiteline cross member bushings and more.
“When I purchased the Subaru it was definitely well taken care of.” She says. “But a lot of small things needed to be fixed . . . the exhaust was welded together horribly, so that had to go, and the fuel pump had been installed incorrectly, along with a lot of other issues.” Over the next few months she installed a new STi wing, rebuilt the suspension also installed a version 3 of the Cobb data access port.
But even though with a newer car, her love for the CRX never left, and a few years later she came across another CRX — this time it was a yellow, 1987 DX. The only downside is the car was completely dismantled then parked next to a pile of parts; needless to say, it was a project. At one time the previous owner had plans to build it as a racecar, but the little yellow hatchback was parked with a pot of gold inside, included a .040” over bored-out 1.5 liter engine block with a Mikuni dual carb set-up, Mugen LSD limited slip differential, Koni struts with Eibach spring, adjustable sleeves and sway bars, and aftermarket strut tower brace, lightweight axles and more.
“Despite my financial situation at the time, I knew I had to buy this car.” She says. “After I got it home, within the first two weeks I assembled and rebuilt the transmission and installed a new clutch, put the engine completely together.” Obviously there was no time to wasting with the ’87, and now with a hefty amount of mechanical experience under her belt, she was out to make this car her weekend warrior — an autocross racing competition car.
But having a multitude of car projects isn’t slowing her down; “Most of the time I do all the work myself, but if there is something I just can’t figure out I’ll take it to a shop.” She says. “For my Hondas, I just have to do the best I can with research the manual to figure out what’s wrong because most small shops don’t even know what to do with a car this old.” She says while laughing. “ . . . Like — who handles carburetors anymore?”
So with the amount of projects on her plate, one can only wonder what will be next for Gabby. So when we asked her, she commented that for the red CRX, she’d like to keep it clean while updating the bodywork, and eventually swapping out the motor for a B16 or K20 version. As for the Subaru, it’ll remain her daily with plans of a larger turbo swap. But as for the yellow CRX, that’s going to be a noisy car built for autocross racing. Needless to say, there’s a lot on her plate, but but it’s all for the love of her cars.