QDear Tom and Ray:

When do you put money into a high-mileage car? I have a 1991 Toyota Previa that has 401,000 miles. The car is still in fairly good shape, provided you don't need an air conditioner or working front struts. My question is, How do you decide whether to put repair dollars into such a vehicle?

I am considering replacing the front struts and then giving the car to my daughter, who is about to start driving. I figure if I don't fix the air conditioner, it will reduce her desire to drive so much, at least during the Mississippi summers. -- Bill

ARAY: Well, Bill, my standard answer for when you should stop putting money into a car is: when you fall out of love with it. Because that's when you stop taking good care of it and subconsciously let it turn into a junk box.

TOM: And my standard answer is: when your feet go through the floorboards and the buzzards start circling.

RAY: Economically speaking, you're almost always better off fixing an old car than buying a new one. Think about it. If the car is otherwise in good shape, even if you spend $5,000 on a new engine and transmission, that's still a lot less than $20,000 for a new car, right?

TOM: So, if your need is simply for basic transportation, and your ego doesn't care, then fix the old heap and keep driving it.

RAY: But when a car has this many miles on it -- or even a quarter of this many miles, Bill -- the key issue becomes: Is it safe? So, before you give it to your daughter -- or even drive it yourself -- take it to a mechanic and have him check it out as if you were going to buy it now, as a used car.

TOM: You want to know everything that's wrong with it. For instance, make sure the frame isn't rusted out. Make sure the steering components are solid, and that the parts that hold the wheels on are not worn out.

RAY: If it passes the basic safety test, and the engine and transmission are okay, then you can feel free to dump some money into it and give it to your daughter.

TOM: By the way, the front struts are safety items. They're not just for comfort. They're crucial to the car's handling and braking. So you're absolutely right to replace them.

RAY: And you're also right to forget about the air conditioner. Teenagers don't need air conditioning. In fact, it's good for them to suffer a little in an old heap. That way, they'll have something to aspire to when they get older -- like my brother's '87 Dodge Colt Vista!

Dear Tom and Ray:

Hi, guys! As you've probably heard, Cuba is full of classic American cars from the 1950s (imported before the Castro revolution of '59) -- and they are still being driven! A recent article in National Geographic Traveler states: "In fact, they are everywhere, in various stages of repair, some hidden in falling shacks, most driven proudly around town -- every town." This same article mentions that the average Cuban worker's wage is $13 per month, and that the article's photographer "brought spark plugs from the U.S. and gave them as tips to my drivers" (who seemed very appreciative).

I will be (legally) traveling to Havana soon, to present at an international education conference. I would love to bring along some small automotive parts for gifts and tips, but I know nothing about classic American cars and the things that keep them running. What sorts of spark plugs should I buy? Where can I get such things inexpensively? What other small auto parts might be needed or appreciated? Thanks for any suggestions. -- Kathleen

TOM: I'd toss a few transmissions in your Samsonite, Kathleen. And then stuff a differential or two into your carry-on bag. You'll be a big hit down there.

RAY: Actually, spark plugs are cheap, desirable and easy to carry -- which, I'm sure, is why the photographer chose them. You want plugs for, say, 1955-1959 GM, Ford and Chrysler six-cylinder engines. If you have to pick one, concentrate on GM. Any local auto-parts store ought to be able to get that stuff for you for short money -- about a dollar a plug.

TOM: If you want to make some people really happy, pick up some ignition points, condensers, distributor caps and rotors. Those are still relatively cheap (though more than spark plugs), and cars won't run without them. You can fit a whole fleet's worth of those into a carry-on bag.

RAY: Keep in mind, though, that the U.S. government frowns upon taking anything into Cuba that augments its economy. So you'll want to check first, and make sure your gifts of auto parts are legally allowed.

TOM: And if not, start wearing those pantaloon underpants, and practice walking around the house with a case of spark plugs in there. Good luck, Kathleen.

Got a question about cars? Write to Click and 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