When a company's fighting for its financial life -- and that's surely the case with Chrysler Corp. -- obviously every penny helps. That being the case, would you believe that the ailing automaker, in an unpublicized and questionable action, blew at least $20 million and perhaps $24 million?

This story dates back to last September when the nation's largest bartering firm, Atwood Richards Inc., came up with an intriguing idea. In brief, Atwood -- which essentially trades media time for a company's slow-moving inventories -- would offer to take 10,000 of Chrysler's 1979 vehicles off its hands (passenger cars, vans, trucks, etc.) in exchange for a combination of cash an d credit. Such an offer at that time would have covered virtually all of Chrysler's '79 inventory of 12,000 vehicles.

It relayed its offer to Chrysler's management in a letter to Iacocca. And on Nov. 12, a meeting took place in Detroit between Jerry Pyle, Chrysler's VP in charge of U.S. automotive sales, and Atwood Chairman Moreton Binn. Pyle estimated the average unit price of the vehicles to the dealers at about $6,500. Binn countered with an offer of upwards of $4,000 a vehicle, plus an additional $2,500 in a trade balance. That $2,500 could be used for advertising as well as the purchases of such needed products and materials as tires and upholstery, Binn explained.

Upon completion of an agreement, Atwood immediately would transfer $40 to Chrysler, Binn added. There were no terms, no conditions, no waiting for the money.

The positive benefits to Chrysler were obvious: The $40 million cash infusion could provide some immediate relief to the company's sizable cash-flow problems; further, that additional $25 million credit bank could be used by Chrysler to reduce its cash outlays against basic purchases. And, of course, Chrysler would go into 1980 with a lean inventory position.

In turn, Atwood -- whose roster of more than 100 major corporate clients includes the likes of Olivetti, Liggett, Foremost McKesson, Schick, Pet Foods and Shell -- would have added to its laurels by pulling the single biggest bartering deal ever. And it would dispose of the cars by selling them to its corporate clients.

One immediate concern would be the problem of circumventing Chrysler's 4,800 dealers. Atwood had an answer for that one: They would be part of the deal. Atwood would receive the delivery of all of its cars through authorized Chrysler dealers. It would pay the dealers the usual preparation fee (ranging from $50 to $200). And Atwood would buy optional features such as radios or air-conditioning units from the dealers at full price.

In relating the story, Binn said "Pyle flipped out; he loved it." And in a follow-up conversation, an enthusiastic Pyle asked Binn to come to Detroit for another meeting and explain the specifics of the transaction to some of the key people in the fleet, purchasing and advertising divisions so as not to ruffle any feathers. Binn agreed and he did just that on Dec. 9.

That meeting "went beautifully and everybody was very excited," Bin said.

A happy Binn went home thinking he was on the verge of closing the deal; he was wrong.

Less than a week later, Chrysler -- in a surprise move -- announced a six-day $2,000 discount of its entire '79 inventory (embracing 5,000 cars and 7,000 trucks). A spokesman at the time acknowledged that the incentives could cost the company some $24 million in discounts. But he said "getting them out of the inventory (which is what the Atwood deal would have done) is cheaper for us than keeping them."

That offer, though, was hardly a world-beater; it produced sales of only 5,600 units. And to date, the '79 inventory still stands at 2,500 cars.

As Pyle observed in a recent letter to Atwood, Chrysler's rationale was "to keep these units in the dealer channel, as well as letting the dealers and customers become the beneficiaries of the incentive monies."

That view, though, is clearly contrary to Pyle's initial thinking. Why the change of heart? I would like to have questioned him about it, but I was told he was unavailable.

Now I'm no expert on autos or bartering, but even a casual observer would have to question Chrysler's actions. Why would the automaker -- so desperate for cash -- take a $4,500 cash offer from its dealers payable in roughly 20 to 30 days (the time it would take them to raise the financing) instead of a $4,000 cash offer payable immediately? And for that $500 difference, it's tossing away a $2,500-per-unit credit. In essence, it's forfeiting a 30-day cash flow (the use of Atwood's money) . . . as well as blowing $20 million.

Atwood, by the way, also has proposed to take up to 10,000 excess Chrysler cars at the end of each '80 quarter. Assuming a similar $6,500 price tag per vehicle, that would mean a $260 million guarantee to Chrysler. Accordingly Chrysler could enter each quarter with a nonburdensome inventory position.