What kind of auto parts might I take with me to Cuba?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Dec 01, 2004

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.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One