United Auto Workers union officials said yesterday that the nation's two largest automakers have until Jan. 23 to produce acceptable contract proposals, or they risk losing the chance for the early settlement the companies said they need to help offset billions of dollars in business losses.

"There's no need to have this thing drag on and on," said UAW spokesman Don Stillman, commenting on the early contract negotiations with General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. The talks began in Detroit yesterday, about six months before regularly scheduled negotiations and nine months before the current contract will expire Sept. 14.

"We would like to be prepared with something on Jan. 23," when the union's GM and Ford councils plan to meet in Washington, Stillman said. If the two sides are far apart at that time, the councils might decide to abandon the drive for early settlement and wait until regularly scheduled bargaining to work out problems with the companies, he said.

GM and Ford have been demanding since early 1981 that the UAW give them wage and benefits concessions similar to the $1.068 billion worth that the union has granted Chrysler Corp. since 1979.

To fail to come up with a timely agreement that recognizes the automakers' declining fortunes would be to "write the death knell for a good part of this industry," Peter Pestillo, Ford's labor relations vice president, said in Detroit yesterday.

UAW officials acknowledge that they may have to make some significant concessions--perhaps sacrifice paid holidays and accept minimum pay increases. But they insist that the concessions won't come free of charge.