Three previously undisclosed marketing studies by General Motors reveal that its own customers "strongly prefer airbags" over the alternative of safety belts, a fact that automaker did not reveal during the debate over proposed laws calling for passive restraints in autos.

The studies, released yesterday by Rep. John Burton (D-Calif.), chairman of the House government activities and transportataion subcommittee, show that as recently as February 1979, 70 percent of those GM car owners questioned preferred airbags over active or automatic seat belts, even when told that the airbags could cost up to $360.

A 1971 study also released showed that 50 percent of those surveyed preferred aibags over a choice of either belts or no restraints at all.

And a third consumer study, done in 1978, told GM that airbags "received the highest ratings on all operation, comfort and appearance items evaluated."

Burton timed the release of the survey to influence legislative proposals next week that could halt pending Transportation Department regulations ordering automakers to phase in passive restraint systems between 1982 (large cars) and 1984 (small cars).

Although the present DOT regulation merely calls for any form of passive restraint, there are certain types of vehicles that, under present technology, could comply with the regulation only through the use of airbags.

Burton accused the world's largest automaker of suppressing the surveys while the House was considering related legislation.

Burton claimed that GM "has known for years that a significant and growing number of its customers strongly prefer airbags. Yet GM does not offer airbags as an option on a single car today."

A GM spokesman attending Burton's press conference, Technical Liaison Group manager Bill Chaman, acknowledged that the surveys were genuine, but denied that GM in any way suppressed them. "When the committee asked for them, we gave them to them," he said.

Chapman further said that when GM offered airbags as an option in certain large cars from 1974-1976, only 5,000 people ordered them in the best year.

"We were tooled up to produce 100,000 a year," he said. "Some of the airbag proponents in this room did not buy them."

Chapman said marketing surveys are not in themselves enough to establish consumer demand. "There were lots of marketing studies done on the Edsel, too," he said.

General Motors had expressed safety concerns with its airbag system, which it orginally had planned to offer in late-model 1980 cars. That introduction has been delayed because the automaker said its tests have shown that unrestrained and out-of-place children could be hurt by the airbag system.

But Burton said he was shocked to find that GM withheld the consumer studies during the congressional debate over airbags, particularly since some House members claimed that airbags were "not what the public really wants."

"This (information in these studies) destroys the argument that people don't want airbags," Burton said yesterday. He said he personally found airbags to be far superior to passive restraint belt systems, which he said a consumer would find uncomfortable, "unless he was some kind of bondage freak."

Passive restraint belts are the seat and shoulder belts that automatically close on the occupant when he or she closes the door of an automobile. They are presently offered as options only on Volkswagen Rabbits. There were, howevr, about 10,000 1978 Chevettes sold with a similiar system.

Specifically, the three newly released studies revealed the following:

The 1971 Consumer Preference Study. This study involved 630 workshop participants who were interviewed extensively. They were asked their prefeences on several different occasions, each time being given new information. What the survey found was that even after told of the extra costs and dissadvantages of airbags, the majority of those surveyed found the airbag "far superior in all areas of style and convenience."

The 1978 Study. In this survey, GM asked 1,014 GM car owners in a midwestern city to examine and rate three items: active seatbelts (which must be buckled by the user); automatic seatbelts and air bags. It concluded. "The air cushion restraint system . . . received the highest ratings on all operation, comfort and appearance items evaluated," and that "passive restraint systems were preferred by a margin of two-to-one over a mandatory seatbelt law."

The 1979 Study. Here 195 Chicago GM large-car owners were asked their preferences among three types of automatic seatbelts or airbags. Seventy percent preferred airbags, even when told it would cost more than four times the price of the most popular belt. The airbags were priced at $360, while the automatic belts were priced between $80 and $150.

Speaking yesterday GM's Chapman said, "There is a big difference between saying you're going to do something and writing the check to do it."