After the taxi had run two red lights, a recent visitor to Rangoon cleared his throat and asked the driver, "How come?"

"No brakes," the driver replied, shifting into low gear and bringing his 1947 Chevrolet to a screeching halt against the curb.

This experience says a good deal about the transportation system in this country of 35 million people and 26,800 cars, many of them more than 30 years old.

A combination of Burmese know-how and desperation has kept these antiques going long past their prime. An old-car buff would find Burma a delight. But for the Burmese, after 18 years of an official ban on all luxury imports, keeping the cars going is a matter of necessity.

A visitor arriving at Rangoon Airport might have a choice of taxis: a 35-year-old British Vauxhall, a 1946 Nash or a 1940 Chevy.

There are, to be sure, some new cars about, mostly Japanese Mazdas. All the Western-made cars, like Rangoon itself, are relics of another era.

The Burmese are inordinately proud of their old cars. According to one story, a member of Italy's illustrious Agnelli family was so enchanted with a 1936 Fiat roadster that he offered the owner 10 times the purchase price. The Agnellis make Fiats.

The owner refused to sell. He not only loved the car, he said, but would never be able to get another car to replace it.

World War II surplus jeeps and trucks are common. Even the Burmese Army uses them. A tourist guide at the ancient city of Pagan is still driving a 1944 Jeep for which he paid $660 25 years ago.

Sometimes the gears freeze on this Jeep. When that happens, the owner unscrews the lid to the gear box, pokes around inside with his screwdriver and, presto! -- the Jeep surges forward.

Just how the Burmese keep their ancient vehicles going is a mystery. Good maintenance is one answer. But what about spare parts?

The driver of a 1947 Chevrolet pickup truck that has been converted to a minibus laughed at the question. ""No spare parts," he said merrily. Then after reflecting a moment, he added. "We use Japanese spare parts."

How Japanese spare parts fit into a 1947 Chevrolet was not made clear.

For car owners who have the money, and newer autos, there is no problem. They simply drive across the border into Thailand and have a new transmission installed -- or whatever is needed.