QDear Tom and Ray:

I have a 1997 Caravan, and the plastic covers for the headlights are becoming cloudy from the debris, salt and road dirt that get thrown up at them. To me, this is a safety problem, and the manufacturer should have known that this would happen with time. The lights are getting dimmer from the clouding of the plastic. Has there been some kind of complaint about this? I can't be the only one to notice this and be concerned. -- Cary

A RAY: In the old days, headlight bulbs looked like large floodlights. Their lenses were made of glass, which didn't get scratched and foggy. When you replaced them, you replaced the whole thing, including the lens.

TOM: But then aerodynamics and weight became more important, and carmakers switched to permanent plastic lenses that protect the headlight bulbs. When a bulb goes out, you just replace it from behind, and the lens stays put.

RAY: Over many thousands of miles, the lenses can get scratched up, cloudy or broken. And as you've probably discovered, Cary, they're expensive to replace!

TOM: New ones can cost hundreds of dollars -- each. Yeah, each!

RAY: So here are our suggestions. The cheapest approach is to try some very fine polishing compound. There's one, Mother's Plastic Polish, that's even sold specifically for this purpose at auto-parts stores. If you can't find it, other people we know have had success using a fine-grade polishing compound (like 3M Perfect-It II Rubbing Compound -- Fine Cut) and buffing the lens with a foam buffer or terry-cloth towel.

TOM: A second option is to try to find a set at a junkyard. You'll need to find a vehicle with fewer miles than your own, or at least with fewer high-speed miles.

RAY: And the third option is to go to a body shop and ask those guys about getting aftermarket lenses. The replacement lenses from the dealer are very expensive. But in a number of cases, our nearby body shop has been able to get us cheaper aftermarket versions for certain popular cars.

Dear Tom and Ray:

You recently told a reader to replace her Toyota's timing belt at 60,000 miles. The owner's manual for my 1989 Toyota Cressida (with 60,000 miles on it) does not require replacement under normal service, but when you call Toyota's 800 number, they inform you that the car must be inspected at 60,000 miles and every 10,000 miles thereafter. It doesn't faze them when you remind them that the belt is INSIDE the engine. Should I just change my timing belt at 60,000 and be done with it? -- George

TOM: I'd say yes, George. In our vast -- or half-vast -- experience, timing belts on engines of this vintage tend to break between 60,000 and 90,000 miles.

RAY: And when they break, one of two things happens. Either (A) the engine stops running and leaves you stranded and you have to get towed to a garage and have the timing belt replaced. . . .

TOM: . . . or (B) the engine stops running and leaves you stranded, and you have to get towed to a garage and have the whole engine replaced.

RAY: Fortunately, Toyota owners are in the first category. But still, getting stranded is no fun.

TOM: Besides, inspecting it isn't all that useful. It's very difficult to tell when the timing belt is going to break, even after you've looked at it. And each peek is going to cost you 50 bucks or so in labor.

RAY: So, if it were my car, I'd spend a couple of hundred bucks and just change it now. Changing the timing belt early is kind of like filling up your gas tank when you've got a quarter-tank left. You could wait until you've got only a thimbleful of gas, but why not do it now and forget about it for the next 60,000 miles?

Got a question about cars? Write to Click & Clack in care of The Post, or e-mail them by visiting the Car Talk Web site at www.cartalk.com.

(c)2004 by Tom and Ray Magliozzi

and Doug Berman