The Case of the Stiff Clutch, Docket No. 1562, opened in a meeting room at Tysons Corner Marriott.

It closed with a $699.33 judgment in favor of Dwight E. Hartman, a Baltimore employe of the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., who said his 1979 Ford F-150 pickup truck had clutch problems "from day one."

"I'm happy, very happy and satisfied," Hartman said when he learned of his victory. "I thought the Ford people were putting me off with this hearing. I didn't expect to get anything."

Hartman's recent case was one of 19 heard the same week by Ford Motor Co.'s Washington Area Consumer Appeals Board. Since 1979, the board has served as a "peoples' court" for area Ford customers left in the lurch with allegedly bum cars, trucks, service or bills.

The Ford board, consisting of three consumer advocates and one dealer representative from each of the company's two divisions, is one of 30 such panels nationwide. It is part of a growing experiment in customer relations--tried in various ways by other domestic automakers--designed to reduce litigation and retain customer loyalty.

The board also is part of Ford's "Quality is Job One" program, even though many of the cases before the board represent instances of product failure. But Ford officials say their definition of quality goes beyond the product. "It is the total package--the product, how the customer is treated on the showroom floor, and the service he or she gets after the sale is made," said Harold A. Poling, Ford's vice president of North American Automotive Operations.

"Quality is Job One" does not necessarily mean that all cars and trucks coming off of all Ford assembly lines will be perfect in every way, the officials say.

"I don't think it's any great secret that people occasionally have problems with their cars and that they sometimes have problems with dealers," said Dale Leibach, a Ford Washington spokesman. "But we think we have a good consumer complaint program and that the appeals board gives us more credibility with customers who have problems."

Nationally, nearly two-thirds of the boards' findings favor dealers and zone representatives. The rest favor customers, says Lou Plummer, Ford's national owner relations operations manager.

"But many potential cases, about 25 percent, are resolved before they ever get to appeals. We have honest differences of opinion on how cases are decided. But we really believe it is an equitable process," Plummer said.

Of the 19 cases considered one recent week, the Washington board deferred action in three, upheld dealers in nine, and ruled for customers in seven. The rulings are binding on the dealers and company. But customers objecting to the board's actions can take their complaints to a real court.

Hartman, however, says he'll pocket the money.

He said he had driven his pickup for 19,000 miles before the clutch brought him to the repair shop of Joe Grimm's Ford in Baltimore. Grimm fixed the truck--replacing a crankshaft and clutch assembly--for $932.44.

"I didn't know how stiff that clutch was until after the repair," Hartman said. "The new clutch operated so smoothly, I thought it was broken. Then it occurred to me that the original clutch must have been defective," and that he had paid for something that should have been covered by warranty, Hartman said.

Hartman said he raised the question with Bill Collins, service manager at Grimm's Ford, who advised him to take the matter to the board. "If it hadn't been for that advice, I just would have sat around and gotten angry," Hartman said.

As it turned out, Hartman nearly sat around too long, anyway, board members said. He might have gotten a new crankshaft and clutch free of charge had he complained about the truck before it rolled up 19,000 miles, they said.

Even if Hartman didn't get free repairs during the early days of ownership, when most major work is covered by warranty, he would have been in better position to recoup all of his $932.44 in repair costs if he had done more to document his efforts to fix the truck, board members said.

"Look, I believe the guy ought to get something. But I can't see giving him 100 percent. . . . He drove the truck for 19,000 miles. Something should have told him that the clutch was bad," board member Carl Brand, of Dulaney Lincoln-Mercury in Baltimore, said at the hearing.

"Something was wrong with the clutch," said Anthony D. Provine, pointing out that clutches normally don't wear out at 19,000 miles. "But how was the customer supposed to know that? This is a truck, right? He might have thought a truck clutch was supposed to be stiff," said Provine, who is an investigator with Fairfax County's department of consumer affairs.

Provine's view carried after much debate over the culpability of Hartman and the extent to which his failure to notify Ford early decreased the amount of the award--which eventually amounted to 75 percent of his repair costs.

Other customers, including a plaintiff who said his car problems developed after 61,000 miles of use, were not so lucky. In many of the "losing" cases, it appeared, the plaintiffs had done little to document their arguments with service bills, letters, etc. Also, some of the plaintiffs provided little or no evidence of routine maintenance of their vehicles.

"It's always best to get paper for everything," said Richard Alexander, a consumer affairs representative for Montgomery County. "And when you bring a car in for repairs, make sure that you specify as much as possible what's wrong with the car. And after the job is done, make sure that the repair order is as specific as your complaint," Alexander said.

For example, there is the owner in Docket No. 1575, whose 1981 Lincoln was afflicted with what one board member called "nagging mechanical problems." The owner documented every trip to his dealer and to other Lincoln-Mercury representatives, the board member said.

"A guy who buys a Lincoln and has that much trouble deserves something," said board member Jerry Cohen of Jerry's Ford in Annandale.

"You hate to see him spend this kind of money and then have problems like this. But every now and then, you get a car . . . it's just too bad," said Cohen, who participated in the unanimous vote to refund the Lincoln plaintiff $561 for repairs.

"We want to do what we can to make this guy happy," Cohen said. "Maybe, he'll come back and buy another car."