Henry Ford II surrenders the reigns of command at the nation's second-largest automobile manufacturer amidst family squabbles and power struggles reminiscent of the time 34 years ago, when he ascended to the top at Ford Motor Co.

But, while the current drama echoes the past, the setting is very different. Back in 1945 Ford Motor was still a privately owned and basically domestic firm that was losing $9 million a month. The problem then was, simply put, how to make to profit.

The problem now is how to keep one. Though Ford's revenues have been at record levels in recent years, the company's profit margins at home have been shrinking. Beset by competition, hassled by regulations, entangled in shareholder lawsuits and government investigations, the Ford company of today confronts a much more complicated world than the one Henry II's grandfather left to him.

Henry II himself noted the difference yesterday. Asked why his nephew, Benson Ford Jr., was not qualified to serve on the company's board at age 29, when the elder Ford had started running the company at 28, Ford II replied, "It was a family company then and the board meetings were in my grandfather's head."

For Henry Ford II, his semi-retirement makes good sense now. After being hospitalized for angina in 1976, he has found the return to corporate life to be a greater strain-and much less fun.His friends say he is genuinely tired of being actively in charge.

But for the company, Henryhs leave-taking comes at an inopportune time. Ford Motor is clearly in a delicate transition period with critical challenges ahead. As much as ever, what the company needs is strong direction from the top.

Ford II served as an effective bridge from the autocratic, entrepreneurial, early industrial world of his father to the more more diverse, international and professional world of his children, nieces and nephews. A committed family loyalist, he kept the family stamp pasted firmly on the corporation. At the same time, he began erecting the sophisticated-and bureaucratic-structure any large company needs today.

Recognizing early that he could not expect to run the company by himself, Ford II hired a team of 10 smart young men from the Air Force Office of Statistical Control. They became known in life and in legend as the "whiz kids." Among them were Robert S. McNamara, who went on to be Secretary of Defense and head of the World Bank; Charles B. "Tex" Thornton, now chairman of Litton Industries; and Arjay Miller, retiring dean of the Stanford Business School.

Only one of the original bunch is still at Ford-J. Edward Lundy, executive vice president. And it is somehow appropriate that he, too, recently announced his retirement.

Despite Ford II's efforts to bring professional management methods to Ford, there are many both in and out of the company who say the company remained a one-man show. Henry II contests this, and some Ford observers believe that last year's startling firing of the popular and commanding Lee Iacocca from the Ford presidency was a sign of Henry Ford's desire to leave the company in less autocratic hands.

At the same time, the swiftness and absoluteness with which Ford II carried out the dismissal - and then turned around to lift his brother, Willaim C. Ford, to a top post-only reinforeced the impression of Henry Fore II as absolute king. Though he frequently speaks about the importance of being a corporate team players has never left any question about who is captain.

Philip Caldwell, 59, the man who will succeed Ford II as chief executive on Oct. 1, will be a team player. He also fits the modern manager mode. He is highly rational, an organized problem solver who was schooled by Harvard Business.

Caldwell's rise at Ford has been exceptional. He joined the company in 1953 and worked a number of jobs in rapid succession. In 1968, he was named general manager of Ford's North American truck operations and quickly became head of manufacturing for the continent's automotive operations. In 1972, he was appointed head of Ford of Europe and, a year later, stepped up to run all of the companyhs Henry Ford II tapped Caldwell to be president.

Caldwell's selection signaled more than a tilt toward the professional manager. It indicated that Ford intends to draw heavily on its very successful European operations to set the course for the entire company.

So successful has the company's overseas operation been, in contrast to its increasingly beleguered domestic group, that one major Wall Street brokerage house recently issued a report entitled, "Ford Motor Company: Two Different Companies?" The overseas operation accounted for 30 percent of the company's sales last year and are growing rapidly. But more significantly, the net profit margin overseas was 7.4 percent compared with a profit margin at home of 2.7 percent, which has beem declining.

Why the disparity? Overseas, Ford has been expanding aggressively and its introductions of new models have been well-timed. In contrast, at home the company has been under stress. It has been slow in bringing to market small, fuel-efficient models to compete against General Motors and foreign fleets.

And one of the models the company was counting on in this regard-the Pinto-worse than flopped. It produced a flood of lawsuits when the car's fuel tank was found to led to fires and explosions in accidents.

The less-than-straightforward way in which the company handled the Pinto case also caused a public relations problem for the firm. And that, together with still-unresolved charges alleging Ford bribery in Indonesia and mismanagement in Detroit, has badly damaged the company's credibility.

In the past, Henry Ford II-blunt, often outspoken, independent-minded-could partially diffuse such crises with the force of his own personality. It is unlikely that his successors can perform as well in the public spot- light. With the family chief's retirement, the corporate stage loses one of its most original performers.

Will another Ford ever take Henry's place?

Because of the family's strong stock ownership position-controlling 40 percent of the voting shares outstanding-there could be another Ford in the future, seated in the chief exeuctive's suites. But the family is not a group a close heirs with a common purpose. Altogethe, there are about a dozen persons in the Ford foruth-generation; some want to rise at Ford Motor and others have other interests.

The late Benson Ford's son, Benson Ford Jr., 29, is one who wants in despite rebuffs that continued yesterday. He is in court, trying to contest his father's will and take control of some of the estate, with $40 million of Ford stock. These holdings by the late brother of Henry Ford II, in Benson Jr.'s hands, might be an avenue into Ford Motor's executive offices and board room.

Other family members to watch:

William Clay Ford, 54, another brother of Henry Ford II, whose family holds 12 percent of voting shares. As chairman of the executive committee, he will be the senior member in management.

Edsel Ford II, 30, son of Henry Ford II, who graduated from Babson College in 1974 and joined the firm. He is in an executive training program but is not seen as running the company for a decade or more, if that.

Two other cousins of Edsel (in addition to Benson Jr.): Walter B. Ford III, 35, son of Henry Ford II's sister, Josphine, who gave up film work to join Ford Motor recently; and William Clay Ford, 19, who is studying economics and political science at Princeton. He is said to be "the brightest of his generation," according to a recent Business Week article on Henry Ford II's departure from control. CAPTION: Picture 1, HENRY FORD II . . . at annual meeting yesterday; Picture 2, PHILIP CALDWELL . . . to be first non-family CEO