The name Colston E. Warne is not exactly a household word, but there is probably not a household in the nation that he hasn't touched.

In a career spanning 43 years, his consumer organization has become familiar to almost everyone. In 1936 he founded and became the first president of Consumers Union, the largest product-testing and reporting organization in the world. And he has served as its president since.

Warne, 79, who retired from that post at the end of 1979, has guided CU from the days when it was called a Communist plot to the time that Ralph Nader attacked it as being too timid. He has seen it grow from 3,000 charter subscribers and a staff of 10 to an organization employing 400 and an all-time-high paid circulation of 2.3 million.

Today, its activities include books, a nationally syndicated newspaper column, a consumer magazine for children, three public interest law offices (in Washington, Austin, Tex., and San Francisco) and the International Organization of Consumer Unions, founded in 1960. The latter, with headquarters in The Hague and an office in Malaysia, has as members 112 consumer associations in 46 nations.

"I never thought we would even cross the million mark in subscribers," said Warne, an economist, who for years has divided his time between CU's offices here and his work as a professor at Amherst College. "We've become far larger than I ever envisioned in those days of yore. Our dream than was to get 50,000."

In his dark, three-piece suit, Warne looks rather like a banker, which was his first ambition. And, with his wispy white hair parted in the middle, and drawn-out, deliberate sentences, he also seems the quintessential academic, intent on keeping the interest of the lecture hall audience and filling the 50-minute period without a pause.

"He's a very decorous-type guy." said Nader, who resigned in anger from CU's board several years ago, charging that the organization was not political enough. "He's a very polite, gentle person. You would think he was a well-bred British gentleman."

Thus it is difficult to imagine the savagery that was directed at Warne and CU in its early days, notably by the House Committee on Un-American Activities -- an episode that Nader said was responsible for the organization's subsequent cautious approach over the years.

"When CU got under way in earnest, it got quite a bit of flak from the right wing looking for conspiracies," Warne said. "There was damnation that our new effort was a Communist device for overthrowing the government, or a plot against American advertising. Luckily, I was with an institution -- Amherst -- with a solid tradition of academic freedom."

And the magazine, with its policy of never accepting advertising, received considerable publicity, which Warne says contributed to its survival at a time when it was threatened with bankruptcy.

"In retrospect, the more conservatives took up this crusade, the more rapid the growth of CU," he said. "We had highly conservative members of the Supreme Court on our membership roster. If we had been left alone and ignored, we might not have stood the test. By making such an outcry, we became a forbidden fruit."

Michael Pertshuck, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission and once a member of CU's board, said that Warne's deliberate, cautious style was probably what helped CU endure, particularly through that trying time. "I get a feeling from many of the people who were there that it was quite grim and that he was quite heroic," he says. "I think that very quality -- being careful and professional -- always kept him above the battle. He was able to perservere whenever there was strife."

Volume 1, Number 1 of Consumer Reports, published in May 1936, actually seems quite tame today. It evaluated soaps (large size Ivory was a "best buy" at 9 cents a cake), cereals, stockings, toothbrushes, high-octane gasoline, Grade A milk vs. Grade B (not worth the 3-cent price difference) and the alleged virtues of Alka-Seltzer ("when its claims are soberly analyzed, they vanish like gas bubbles in the air").

Today's consumer, Warne said, relies on the magazine to judge the automobile more than any other product.

"They're most worried about the car and the cost of running it," he says. "In fact, CU is really built on the motorcar. We even own an auto testing track in southern New Jersey. People trust their own senses when it comes to food -- but they don't trust their own senses when it comes to deciding what model car to buy."

And despite Nader's criticism and the politicizing of the consumer movement in recent years, Warne is convinced that CU's most important function remains exactly what it was at the start: helping the consumer make judicious and economic decisions in the marketplace.

"We've got other groups to do the lobbying," he said. "Not to deny that there are useful things to be done on the lobbying front, but I don't think our role should be focused in that area."

Nader does not agree. "In the early '70s when the board was pressuring to open these offices in Washington and California, he wasn't too enthusiastic about it," Nader said. "He's cautious about bringing CU into areas of controversy -- like lobbying and litigation -- and I think this is borne out of his experience in the '30s with Red-baiting. He's gotten inhibited. He's very much into the magazine. I wanted them to open up more offices and litigate and be a presence -- and they didn't want to spend the money. They wanted to spend it on testing. It was all nonsense."

Warne, however, said CU was adhering to the wishes of its membership.

"We have a fairly conservative electorate -- our subscribers are far from being all-convinced consumers. Our readers are usually cursing us for being too strong in our sentiments. Stick to testing, they say. Forget the other stuff."

Pertschuk said he believes CU has taken a more activist stance in recent years, but has had to travel slowly.

"They've moved quietly toward a more active posture and perhaps it was necessary to bring their members along," Pertschuk said. "They weren't ready seven or eight years ago. Colston has been a conservator and has recognized that much of the strength of CU was built on the relatively conservative support of engineers and others primarily concerned with product ratings and quality, not consumer issues more broadly defined. But I think that CU has moved gradually toward taking a more active role with its litigation offices and building up its activity through legislative hearings and the like."

Pertschuk credited Warne with first putting forth the issues and commission is tackling now. "Many of the seeds that Colston and CU planted in the '30s and '40s are coming to fruition in the cases and programs of the FTC in the '70s and '80s," he said. "We have Colston to thank for pushing throughout the lean years."

Yet Congress is now trying to curtail the FTC's authority. "I'm very troubled by this attempt to put the agencies out of business," Warne said. "I don't think the consumer movement is in trouble -- I just think it's subject to a new challenge."

"We just had a retreat down in Virginia tackling that very question," he said. "Where should CU go? One of our dreams is to have consumer economics play a role in the school curriculum. On my list of desired changes, I would say I'd like to see a shift in the curriculum to give consumer economics the prominence it deserves. CU would help to furnish the materials."