Rep. Charles A. Vanik (D-Ohio), chairman of an influential House subcommittee on trade, yesterday warned Japanese auto producers to cut back their exports here to 1977 levels, or face more drastic action through legislated quotas.

Vanik, at the first of a series of hearings on shifting conditions in the world auto industry, said he hoped Japan "will pick up this signal to respect some kind of voluntary limit," or the Congressional protectionist mood will accelerate.

Vanik suggested a phasing back of Japanese auto sales to the 1977 level over a two-year period, from 1.7 million sales in 1979 to 1.6 million this year, and to 1977's 1.5 million level in 1981.

Overall, under Vanik's proposal for voluntary reductions of foreign car shipments, the total, including European imports, would be cut from 2.5 million in 1979 to 2.0 million (the 1977 level) by 1981.

Vanik's signal will be carried personally back to Japan by Naohiro Amaya, vice minister for international affairs of powerful Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI).

Amaya, who has had consultations here in the past two days with Vanik and other officials, told The Washington Post "that it is too early to decide on any concrete actions." But he added that "export restraint" is clearly one of many ways of dealing with the problem.

Yesterday's hearing, before the trade subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, displayed a bipartisan concern over the recent levels of Japanese penetration of the U.S. auto market -- 27 percent in February -- at a time of rising unemployment here. But the committee was cautious in responding to demands for drastic action right away.

Vanik and other committee members blamed the domestic industry for failing to make enough energy-efficient cars, and -- in effect -- inviting the Japanese producers to fill a necessary void.

He nonetheless said that Japan's auto industry is "wreaking havock on our industry," and urged major Japanese producers to consider capital investments in this country so that at least a part of their sales would be produced with American labor.

This call, urged as well by United Auto Workers President Douglas A. Fraser, was echoed as a principal demand by a panel of Michigan congressmen. Bob Traxler (D-Mich.), for example, told the committee: "If they want to sell 'em here, let 'em make 'em here." Traxler has introduced a bill that would force an immediate 35 percent cutback in Japanese car imports.

Amaya indicated in The Post interview that the Japanese government is urging Toyota and Nissan to open up plants here, but added: "That's the business of those companies -- we can't tell them what to do."

Fraser supported Vanik's call for voluntary limits, but suggested that "an unambiguous message" could be sent to Japan if Congress passed a joint resolution demanding export restraint. This idea, which would fall short of a mandatory quota, appealed to several members of the committee.

U.S. government agencies will appear before the Vanik committee March 18 to give their views. Trade representative Reuben Askew has publicly invited Japanese companies to follow Honda's lead by investing here, but has not yet concluded whether it is wise to ask Japan for voluntary restraint.

Fraser -- with 201,000 UAW members out of work -- also urged permanent legislation that would require major foreign producers to incorporate a North American content of 75 percent in the cars they sell here. He said that would protect not only auto industry jobs, but workers in major supplying industries like steel, rubber and aluminum.

Fraser said that Japan would have to show "voluntary restraint" until 1983 or 1984, so as to provide enough lead time for the domestic industry to create a better mix of cars, including ones competitive with Japanese imports.

Ford Motor Co. executive vice-president F. G. Secrest, however, conceded that Ford's product lineup would not match the fuel-efficient offerings it now makes in Europe until 1985. Secrest did assert that part of his companyhs competitive problem with Japanese sub-compacts would be eased in the next few months with new front-wheel drive models called the Escort and Lynx.

Vanik condemned the U.S. industry in unusually blunt language for causing the present day crisis by failing to see "the handwriting on the wall after the first five minutes of the 1973 Middle East War . . . Detroit wanted big cars because big cars meant big bucks."

Without foreign competition, Vanik said, "Detroit would still be lagging in trying to exceed the mileage requirements." This conclusion was supported, as well, by the American Imported Automobile Dealers Association, which said that trade restraints would cost consumers $4 billion annually, and boost the inflation indexes.

But the most dramatic statement opposing limits on Japanese imports -- voluntary or mandatory -- came from a major Ford dealer, Joseph Coberly, vice-president of Coberly Ford of Los Angeles.

Coberly, who also identified himself as vice chairman of the Council for a Competitive Economy, a new national business Organization believing in free markets, said "the effort to impose restrictions on foreign cars is a conspiracy to thwart the American consumer."

The problem, he said, is that the American manufacturers "have been caught with their pants down (with) too many big and medium sized cars and not enough small cars . . . which today's automobile market is demanding." He said that if it were economic for Japan to have invested in plants here, they would already have done so.

Fraser argued that small, efficient American cars are available, and that any over all costs, through quottas on total gasoline consumption would be offset by an improvement in the U.S. balance of payments deficit.