The Gordon A. Bailards of Santa Barbara, Calif., bought a 1982 Ford-built car this year and couldn't be happier. ''We've had more than 30 Ford products,'' they write in response to a questionnaire on Detroit quality which ran in the fall Automotive/Care Care section Oct. 19. Anyone who buys more than 30 cars from the same manufacturer has to be sold on the name.

Did you receive adequate warranty repair service on the car? the questionnaire asked.

''Yes,'' the Bailards reply.

Do you believe the claim of US carmakers that they are trying to upgrade the quality of the cars they build? ''Yes,'' they repeat.

Clearly, the Bailards are the kind of customer the domestic carmakers wish they had a lot more of.

In the last few years, especially since the Japanese found the fastest route to the American automotive purse, US carmakers have been pummeled, sued, and ignored by the millions who now are hanging on to their old car or buying an import. Not only have Chrysler and Ford Motor Company been hurt to the quick, but even the automotive giant itself, General Motors, has watched the red ink splash over its books ($468 million in the third quarter of this year alone.)

Loyd A. Salisbury of San Dimas, Calif., owner of a 1981 Cadillac Sedan de Ville with a V-6 engine, complains: ''There is an embarrassing vibration under the hood when the car is accelerated. Also, the car ''misses and hesitates when the transmission is shifting to overdrive,'' he adds. ''I would think Cadillac could build a $16,000 car without these things wrong. I have had the car to three dealers and all say that nothing can be done.''

In contrast, however, the Rev. Bob Stewart of Decatur, Ill., writing of his 1981 Dodge Aries, says: ''It is a beautiful little car. If I were not a preacher I would sell Dodge Aries, I think.''

Looking at Detroit as a whole, about 60 percent of the respondents agree with him - at least to some degree.

A Rio Rancho, N.M., motorist, who says he once worked for Ford on aircraft engines, blames the union for many of Detroit's quality-control problems. ''The union is the greatest deterrent to quality work known to man,'' he asserts.

Another respondent, after stating that ''Detroit makes junk,'' isn't so sure about the imports as well. Having bought an import within the last 12 months, he reports: ''I will not tell you the make of auto as I do not wish to help lower my resale value. I will say that my two previous new autos were VWs. I believe the dealer was incompetent, dishonest, and incredibly discourteous. No more VWs.''

The writer complains: ''Lots of advertisements but no good mechanics. All public-relations smoke.''

VW, in fact, is recalling almost a half million 1977-79 gasoline-engine Rabbits and Sciroccos because of emission problems.

Another reader reports that in 97,000 miles of operation, the repair bills on his 99GL Saab already have cost him more than $4,000. ''I love the vehicle, the ride, the appointments, the basic durability of it, but I am being driven to the poorhouse with the cost of compensating for poor quality control in the manufacturing process,'' he concludes.

And so it goes with the tens of millions of Americans who buy and drive cars. As late as 1978, Detroit was selling almost every car it could produce.

Today, the US automobile industry is in a tailspin as the result of a devastated economy and the deep inroads of the imports.

The domestic car manufacturers have long contended that they gave the public what it wants. When the public demanded chrome, they got it by the mineful. A cradle-soft ride; and they got it. Tail fins that made a mockery of the design studios; and they got them. Bigger and bigger engines; and they got them.

Too, there wasn't the import competition in the old days.

But when the price and availability of fuel became a purse-snapping issue, the public bolted and the domestics failed to keep up.

George Butts, vice-president of Chrysler quality, productivity, and reliability, candidly admits: ''Motorists' values have definitely shifted.''

Simply, the US car buyer was beginning to think more and more like a European - and even a Japanese. He was becoming more sophisticated and a lot less emotional about the car he drove.

To respond, the US auto industry is spending tens of billions of dollars to upgrade facilities, simplify and automate production, and fan the flames of enthusiasm among the workers on the line - money that has to come from somewhere. Consumers are balking at the higher and higher prices even though the average car buyer pays a smaller proportion of his annual wage to buy a car these days than he did 10 years ago.

To woo back the buyers, the US auto industry affirms over and over again that it is trying desperately to improve the quality of the products it builds. Quality-control circles, for example, are being set up in many of the plants.

Indeed, the quality of US-built cars is generally believed to be on the way up.

Asked if they believed the claim of US carmakers that they are trying to upgrade the quality of the cars they build, 289 of the respondents said they did; and 194 said no.

Nor is the domestic-car warranty repair service as poor as is often charged, according to the survey. Among the respondents, 285 said, yes, they were satisfied with the service at their local auto dealership. Others - 59 in the survey - lambasted the service, claiming the dealers were inconsiderate, dishonest, and worse.

What is quality in an automobile?A smooth-running car that doesn't break down , a good ride, a quality paint job, doors that fit, no water leaks, and no recalls?''The oft-vaunted quality of Japanese cars is made up of a good deal of public-relations myth,'' charges Rod van Uchelen of Hollywood, Calif.That may be , but almost all of the quiz respondents who own Japanese-built cars were on the side of the boosters, not the detractors. For example, of the 26 readers who said they had bought Toyotas in the past 12 months, only one rated his car as less than excellent. That lone dissenter reported only that his car was ''good.''For Datsun, the figure was 18 ''excellent,'' 2 ''good,'' and 1 ''poor.''Twenty-seven readers said they had bought Hondas in the past year. Among them, 21 said their car was ''excellent,'' and 6 reported ''good.'' Honda, which enjoys an extremely high standing among its owners, nonetheless is recalling all cars sold in the US from 1973 to 1979 to check out underbody rust. The recall involves 930,000 cars.Fourteen Mazda buyers gave kudus to the maker, while two said only ''good.''Five Mercedes owners rated their new cars ''excellent,'' as did two BMW buyers as well. Peugeot chalked up four ''excellent'' grades and one ''poor.'' Fiat had four ''excellent,'' Saab had one , and BL Ltd., one.Quality, a dictionary declares, is conformance to specifications.''I'd like to change that definition a little bit and say that quality is conformance to requirements that result in a satisfied customer,'' asserts Robert Decker, General Motors vice-president for quality and liability.''We feel strongly that quality and customer satisfaction are synonymous.''It could mean long trouble-free operation of the vehicle,'' he adds. ''It could mean fuel economy. It could mean visual appeal, whether it be in the paint or the fix of the panels. It could be the styling; It could mean the handling and comfort of a car.''In short, quality is whatever the customer perceives it to be.Ford Motor Company asserts that its efforts are beginning to pay off. Warranty claims were off 25 percent on its 1981-model cars, compared with 1980; and the company expects an even better showing on the '82s.''I think we've closed the quality gap considerably in the past year,'' insists John A. Manoogian, director of quality assurance for Ford, yet he admits: ''We still have to make more improvements - obviously.''Indeed, in the survey 16 Ford buyers rated their cars as ''excellent'' and 7 said ''poor.''Even so, in a survey earlier this year, J.D. Power & Associates of Los Angeles reported that 64 percent of US car buyers ran into mechanical difficulties in the first six months of 1980 compared with 35 percent for buyers of Japanese cars.Meanwhile, the domestic auto industry remains in tough shape. Current plans call for industry-wide production to reach 6,291,000 cars for the year, down from 6,372, 000 in 1980, and the lowest level since 5,516,000 in 1961. Projected car output for the first six months of the 1982-model year - in other words, through March - is down 7 percent from the first two quarters of the 1981-model year.Here's what some of our readers have to say as US carmakers search for the road back:

* Gordon and Anne Wright of Palo Alto, Calif.: ''We have always up to now supported US carmakers, but recent experience has not been good.''

* J. Maney of Des Plaines, Ill.: ''I live very close to Des Plaines Chrysler-Plymouth where I can have my Horizon serviced by an excellent mechanic.''

* E.C. Rohr of Oakland, Calif.: ''Both labor and management must learn to do better.''

* Lyle Johnson of Austin, Texas: ''Detroit has never, in my opinion, built good cars. After all, the disc brake, front-wheel drive, swing axle, radial tire , etc., all came from Europe.''

* W.E. Schroeder of Monument, Colo.: ''Poor workmanship of American cars year after year made me switch.''

* Peter J. Crocker of South Hero, Vt.: ''I have owned several foreign cars and have found them very expensive and difficult to service. Domestic cars, for me, are safer, more comfortable, and cheaper to maintain.''

* Charles Palenz of Camp Hill, Pa.: ''I've been very satisfied with my Mustang.''

* Miss Ellen Morin of Fulton, N.Y.: ''Detroit must prove itself first. The smugness of the auto industry has been unbelievable for many years. I really believe they have gotten what they asked for by treating consumers as suckers.''

* David B. Enbody of Kittery Point, Maine: ''I think they are trying but don't believe they have arrived yet.''

* Judy Alger of Schenectady, N.Y.: ''As Americans we're sad that we have four foreign-made cars in our family . . . I'm not sure I could be lured back to buying an American-made car. I believe the car manufacturers have a credibility problem with many of us.''

* Richard B. Simkalo of San Francisco: ''With the huge salaries paid to car executives you would think that 20 years would be enough to learn some bare facts. But they keep on going down the same road.''

* Robert L. Edman of Lompoc, Calif.: ''Dealer service used to be so-so, but since the early '60's I've nothing but praise. The only way Ford could improve is fit, and they have on my latest cars.''

* Keith Pharis of Carbondale, Ill.: ''A dealer told me that much of the problem with American cars is due to poor dealer prep, and I believe him.''

* Vera G. Ricci of Los Angeles: ''I do not understand this business of rebates. Why not just sell the cars reduced according to the rebates. I don't understand this wheeling and dealing. It makes me uneasy with a lack of trust and confidence.''

* E. Merritt Weidner of Sun City Center, Fla.: ''We dom plan to hold on to our 1976 Ford LTD for some time yet, partly because of the reason indicated in your questionaire.''

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