Legislation that could have led to restrictions on sales in the United States of Japanese cars and trucks was killed by the Senate last night. But key senators vowed to resurrect the measure or other aid to the U.S. auto industry by the end of February.

The measure, offered as an amendment to the debt ceiling bill, was permanently set aside after Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said the House wouldn't consider the debt limit bill with an amendment on it. An unamended debt limit bill was then approved.

Passage of the auto imports measure was also threatened by a filibuster from Sen. Adlai E. Stevenson (D-Ill.). who said the measure wasn't carefully thought out, wouldn't help the auto industry and would set a dangerous trade precedent.

Before the auto imports measure died, however, its mourners, led by Sens. Donald W. Riegle (d-Mich.) and Carl Levin (d-Mich.), staged a requiem. They said they intended to send a warning to the Japanese to voluntarily curb their vehicle exports.

The warning was the 65-to-12 vote against tabling debate on the issue which was already passed in the House. Riegle said that vote was "highly significant . . . It shows a very strong concern and feeling in the Senate for this. I hope the importance of this message will travel outside this chamber," particularly to the Japanese.

Stevenson said, "As the vote indicates, the Senate is under great pressure to pass this amendment." But he called the legislation "an example of hasty, ill-considered, last-minute legislation."

However, several other senators eulogized the measure as its death seemed iminent. Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) said that as the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee subcommittee on trade, he plans to hold hearings next month on the auto industry's problems and would introduce legislation to help Detroit shortly after.

The import restriction legislation had been pushed through Congress at the request of Ford Motor Co. and the United Auto Workers union. The International Trade Commission ruled last month that imports weren't a substantial cause of injury to the domestic auto industry and refused to restrict foreign sales here.

Ford and the UAW then took their case to Congress.

The measure would have given the president authority to negotiate and implement an agreement with a foreign country to restrict the sale of autos, trucks and their parts through July 1, 1983. The industry requesting such relief, however, would have to seek relief from the ITC first.