In the corporate boardrooms of the auto makers, she is known as "The Dragon Lady." To her former coworker, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, she is a sellout. And to the average automobile driver, Joan Claybrook may be on her way to becoming a household word.

As head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Claybrook oversees the agency responsible for the almost daily string of automobile recalls for everything from leaky fuel tanks to loss of steering. In 1975, NHTSA recalled 2.1 million cars, and in 1976, 3.4 million. But in 1977, Claybrook's first year on the job, that number swelled to 12.9 million.

She is also behind many of the standards that are applied to autos before they ever leave the plant, such as those involving fuel efficiency and seat belts.

A former consumer advocate with several Nader groups, Claybrook is at the center of a growing controversy over the boundaries of government regulation in the auto industry. The consumer groups say she hasn't done enough and that her hands are tied, while the auto makers say she is doing too much and that their hands are tied. This past week provided fine examples of both sides of the argument.

Last weekend, consumer group pressure finally led to the recall of 1.5 million Pintos and Bobcats for fuel tank problems, something the government was having difficulty doing on its own. Another consumer group labeled the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon unsafe because of handling and stability problems - placing NHTSA in the awkward position of having to admit that it was not even investigating the two new Chrysler imports because there still is no government standard for stability. "And there probably won't be one for another 10 years," says one consumer advocate.

At the same time, General Motors Corp. complained to NHTSA that the agency's tests, not the fuel tank, were faulty when NHTSA declared that the 1977 Chevrolet Chevette falls short of safety standards. GM said the firms that ran the tests for NHTSA violated procedures on two of five tests - the only two that resulted in fires. GM claimed that 100-pound weights were placed incorrectly in one test, and the weight used in another test was moving faster than the 30 miles an hour prescribed.

And in the middle is Joan Claybrook.

"Joan is 'sheer energy'," according to Mark Green of Congress Watch, mimicking Madison Avenue. "And the result is that she has awakened a somnolent agency. More cars are now recalled than are sold in any given year. But despite all her energy, the political fact is that she has lost most of her major battles to (Department of Transportation Secretary Brock) Adams and the industry."

Many consumer advocates say she often has her hands tied by the bureaucracy under her and by Adams over her. They point specifically to her attempts to get tough fuel economy standards for vans. When a Chrysler Corp. executive was able to get an advance copy of the standards she was going to propose, Chrysler Chairman John Riccardo met privately with Secretary Adams - and Claybrook was not invited. The standard was softened considerably.

There were other defeats at the hands of Adams. On air bags, for example, Claybrook wanted 1981 as the target year for their mandated use, but Adams chose a sliding scale beginning in 1982 with bigger cars and ending in 1984.And at practically the same moment that Claybrook was testifying before Congress on the need for a strong new federal standard for trucks with air brakes (Rule 121), Adams was releasing a statement to reporters that DOT would be weakening the standard.

"She lost the big decision on passive restraints (air bags) and was humiliated in fuel efficiency on vans and the truck brake standards," says Nader, who apparently has not changed his mind after a scathing attack on her value as a regulator last November. "What is she wasting her time for?"

Nader says Claybrook could be doing more good outside the government in her old job as a consumer advocate. He says she would have been outspoken on last week's House decision to cut off any DOT spending for enforcement of air bag rules. "But she couldn't talk," Nader said, "because you just don't go after Congress if you are a regulator. There are just too many trade-offs. If she was not in that job, she would have leveled the House personally after that decision."

"I'd have to give Joan mixed grades," says Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety, the most vocal consumer group in the auto field. "She is clearly doing a good job on safety recalls, but she is not doing well at all in the area of fuel economy standards, for example. A large part of the problem has to do with the bureaucracy she inherited; I've never seen anyone have as few appointments as she could make. And she has problems with Adams."

Both Adams and Claybrook dispute those charges. "I get along with (Adams) quite well," says Claybrook. "He's a smart and humane individual and he has a good sense of humor. I think he has been supportive." While she admitted that they had differences of opinion on passive restraints and Rule 121, she said that "our philosophies are very similar, and I don't think he ever undercut me." She gave long and detailed explanations of the history behind each disagreement, in each case making the point that their major differences were merely on strategy, not on goals.

For his part, Adams says "I'm sorry people are giving her a hard time. The thing that is frustrating to both Joan and myself is that we both like each other very much. I guess the consumer groups are always looking to the next goal, because they and the manufacturers are never happy. We have done something with air bags, for example, that went through three secretaries (of Transportation) before it finally got done. We are in complete agreement."

The auto makers are unhappy with the fruits of Claybrook's labor. They are screaming, almost in unison, that they are being regulated to death.

Chrysler Chairman Riccardo told a convention of automobile dealers in San Francisco in February that "it is time to make a complete reassessment of each of the costly standards . . . and to demand that each one stand up to the test of reason and need."

Riccardo said that "nonsense" standards which go beyond need will boost 1985 car prices $1,000. He particularly attacked air bags, emission control, fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks, and the 121 braking standard.

Ford Motor Co. Executive Vice President William Bourke said last week that the "cumulative impact" of government regulation on the "health and vitality" of the automobile industry should be examined by Congress.

Bourke asked several congressmen at a lunch observing Ford's 75th anniversary "if we may not be reaching a point of diminishing returns in some of the regulatory areas."

Henry Ford estimates that "statutory and proposed standards for the 1976 through 1980 model years could add more than $800 to the retail price of the average Ford-built car." Ford adds that the success of President Carter's attempts to stimulate economic recovery depend "on the government's willingness to restrain the sharply rising costs of government-mandated standards controlling our products and our plants."

General Motors Corp. Vice Chairman Richard Terrell estimates that the cost of complying with government standards for GM in 1977 was $1.25 billion, "the equivalent of about $2,100 for each of our U.S. employes." His message to a recent gathering of financial executives at the Greenbrier in White Sulpher Springs, W.Va., was for "balance" between government regulation and the business needs of any company.

And then there is Claybrook, working 75 hours a week to turn around some devastating statistics.

"There are 47,000 traffic deaths a year," she says. And then she takes out a fact sheet that goes even further: 1.9 million traffic injuries a year (one every 18 seconds), over half of the nation's paraplegics were victims of auto accidents, and on and on.

But there are positive numbers, too. Since 1966, when Congress passed the first significant highway and motor vehicle safety legislation, the fatality rate has fallen from 5.7 to 3.3 deaths per 100 million miles of travel, DOT reports. "Had the fatality rate remained at the 1966 level, nearly 200,000 more persons would have been killed and an additional 35,000 would have died in 1977 alone," says a DOT press release.

And Claybrook, 41, does whatever it takes to get the safety message across. She goes to special town meetings set up across the country to push auto safety. She monitors some 2,000 car repair shops and 300 new-car dealers to see what parts are being returned in abnormally high numbers to get leads on possible safety hazards.

In a special report just released NHTSA disputes auto industry claims of the cost of mandated safety standards.

"The estimated average price to consumers of all mandated safety features for a 1978 automobile is only about $250 - approximately one-half the amount claimed by some auto makers - or only aabout 5 percent of the total vehicle price," the report states.

"The agency feels it has an important social and economic role to provide a challenge to the engineering expertise in the industry to produce a safer, cleaner and more economical car," says Claybrook.

In an interview at the end of another long day last week, she said that the engineers in the auto companies that she has talked to "actually love what we're doing. They are challenged, and they know that when we are all through, they will have better cars than anyone else in the world."

Claybrook said the auto companies give her some cooperation. "They are working with us more now," she says. "But when we raise issues, they answer for the most part accurately, but the questions are narrowly construed."

NHTSA has had several recent successes in courts, forcing manufacturers to accept new standards, or recalls.

While Claybrook admits that auto sales are directly tied to the health of the economy, she contends that regulation is "an insignificant portion of the sales price."

Unfortunately, Claybrook says, the auto makers rarely take the initiative in safety standards because "their attitude is that, if they take the initiative, the government will look at it and make it a standard for everyone. And nobody wants to take the blame."

"The regulation of the 1980s will make for a whole new generation of autos," she says. "They will be more economical and generally new and better products. There is no question they will be more competitive with foreign cars. Foreign auto makers are panicked because they will not be able to maintain their uniqueness - which was based on fuel economy, faster reaction and safety. Things will be better for everybody."