A play-by-play on the great uphill automobile race

WE'VE been doing our best, our level best, to track down the meaning of the term ''level playing field,'' as used (if not overused) by heavy thinkers in the automobile industry.

Just in case you're coming to the term cold, we'll give you one hint. ''Level playing field'' does not refer to the winter potholes that nobody is filling on your street.

The phrase first buzzed into our life one balmy spring day when Philip Caldwell, chairman of Ford Motor Company, was explaining to the world why he felt entitled to a $900,000 bonus.

We have a lot of trouble following rigorously logical arguments, particularly on balmy spring days - particularly when distracting numbers like $900,000 float about like golden pollen. But if memory does not deceive us, the reasoning marched more or less like this:

1. The field that Ford and Chrysler and General Motors play upon can never be level as long as the dollar is high and the yen is low.

2. To compensate - barely - for this slant, the ''voluntary'' quotas on the import of Japanese automobiles must continue into the future.

3. Nevertheless, an unlevel playing field so favored the Japanese in the past that they can now afford to hire away the cream of Detroit executives. Why, last year alone 28 of Ford's top brass defected to Nissan!

4. Q.E.D., large bonuses must be lavished upon American automobile tycoons to prevent a further pirating of personnel that can only lead to a less level playing field than ever before.

Naturally, we were relieved that Mr. Caldwell, with $900,000 thrust upon him, had resisted the temptation to jump, say, to Toyota. Still, about now we were beginning to feel like one of those four-wheel-drive vehicles in TV ads that rocket up and down mountains to prove they can smooth out the terrain. And the bouncing had only begun.

For at this point, Owen Bieber, president of the United Automobile Workers, stepped very carefully onto his playing field, which he perceived as dangerously unlevel between labor and management. If management could pay itself $900,000 bonuses, Mr. Bieber wanted to know why management couldn't also hand the workers a lovely raise when contract time comes around.

William E. Brock, United States trade representative, just back from Japan, could not argue with Mr. Bieber's effort to level the playing field, as the poor fellow stared uphill toward Mr. Caldwell. But, Mr. Brock asked, what will further raises do to the unlevel playing field within the very boundaries of American labor? After all, auto workers already earn nearly twice as much as the average American worker!

Right about then the level playing field began to turn muddy, as other technical terms like ''greed'' and ''obscene profits'' filled the air, while Mr. Caldwell was heard to say that he believed the American Way meant the ''payoff went to those who win.''

All this leveling off has us topsy-turvy. But we must push the new metaphor just one question further. If Mr. Caldwell levels the playing field with Japan, and Mr. Bieber levels the playing field with Mr. Caldwell, and the other union leaders level the playing field with Mr. Bieber, what does this do to the playing field of the American consumer?

Talk about your uphill slope! The price of the average new car is $10,500 (and rising) upon the one playing field nobody is troubling to level.

We don't know exactly what to make of all this vigorous exercise of not-quite-free enterprise. What would Henry Ford say?

Sometimes it seems as if somebody is always asking somebody else to level the playing field, and that's it - everybody is so busy bulldozing the 50-yard line that nobody ever gets around to playing the game.

And we don't mean just the automobile industry.

We anticipate that the first words lisped by babies of the future are likely to be ''Level my playing field.'' What else are Mommy and Daddy and Big Brother for?

The moral of the story (we think) is that the playing field always looks more level at the other fellow's end - unless, of course, some nice groundskeeper is raking $900,000 in your direction.

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