Books on Transportation; American Cars, From Harrah's Automobile Collection, by Leon Mandel. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang. $48.50 till Dec. 31; then $60.

The automobile, with all its posies and warts, is perhaps the most pervasive element of American culture.

Few can escape its presence. The car has been reviled for polluting the air, taking its toll on the highway, despoiling the landscape, and raiding the wallets of people who could ill afford the cost.

As the author writes in the foreword, ''Love it or hate it, the car is the central artifact of most lives.''

Auto writer and historian Leon Mandel traces the history of the US car - the early days of the Duryea brothers in Springfield, Mass., to Henry Ford and his peers in the Midwest, to all those other places where the tire print of the motor vehicle was laid.

The writer takes you with him into the seat of a 1902 curved dash Oldsmobile, a fine old Model T Ford (black, of course) - even a Packard, Peerless, Marmon, or Duesenberg of yesteryear. Yet he does not dwell on the past alone, but also takes a penetrating look at the present.

The domestic auto industry's struggle to remain alive in the face of consumer attacks; its stormy relationship with the federal government over controls; the Arabs and their oil; a fickle US public; its own technical hibernation and pell-mell drive to catch up; and the foreign challenge, especially from Japan - all this has torn the US auto establishment.

Hundreds of brilliant photographs - about 450 of them, in fact - and a lengthy genealogy of US car companies are included within the 448-page girth of this sumptuous, high-quality-paper book.

Printed and bound in Italy, it remembers the ''glory days'' of the past as well as the torments of today. It brings back the names that are found only in the history books and a few well-stocked museums.

Again, if you like cars, you'll enjoy ''American Cars'' - a book to cuddle up to around a blazing hearth.

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