The unkind joke is that Donald E. Petersen is the perfect person to take over Ford Motor Co., which has its headquarters here.

Ford has been in second place so long and Petersen has played second-in-command so well that the man and the company are as good a match as any, detractors say.

Those who enjoy sticking the knife in a little farther say that all of the people who had better ideas left Ford years ago. They point with relish to the company's reigning expatriate, Lee Iacocca, a former Ford president who was unceremoniously bounced from his job in 1978, but who later found fame as chairman of Chrysler Corp.

Iacocca did not leave alone. He took with him a number of top Ford executives who helped Chrysler create a series of new products -- such as the minivan -- that have left the competition scrambling to catch up.

With each Iacocca success, there are people here and in nearby Detroit who shake their heads, point their fingers and complain about the "brain drain" at Ford.

But Petersen, who moved up to the Ford chairmanship last week after serving five years as president and chief operating officer of the company, has an answer for the critics.

Peterson said that Ford may still be second to the behemoth General Motors Corp. in overall size by 1992, when his seven-year term as chairman is scheduled to end. But he vows that, by then, every automotive competitor here and abroad will have fallen behind Ford in terms of quality and service.

"We will be acknowledged as the best-quality producers in the world, bar none," Petersen said. "We will be a customer-driven company, a company that in segment after segment will offer the best value."

The tall Minnesotan admits that is a big order for a company that was losing its fiscal hubcaps five years ago. Ford dropped $3.26 billion between 1980 and 1982 -- a period during which all U.S. auto makers lost sales and money.

That "last depression," as Petersen and other domestic car executives call it, was caused by high interest rates, rising unemployment and a host of other economic ills that made car-buying for most Americans a secondary concern. But poor U.S. auto quality, particularly when compared with cars made by the Japanese, also deepened the slump.

Marzetter Walker, a Ford assembly worker since 1966, vividly recalls the sloppiness that turned her company's nameplate into an acronym for "Fix Or Repair Daily."

"When I came out here in 1966, it was really bad," said Walker, who assembles alternator brushes at the company's Rawsonville Plant in nearby Ypsilanti.

"We'd use so many bad parts, it was crazy. I mean, we'd even use stuff that was thrown on the floor, anything to keep the lines going. Naturally, you get bad quality when you use bad parts," Walker said.

She said she believes Ford could take the lead in quality "because management's gotten serious about doing things right."

"We don't do the junk we used to do. . . . It's a lot more fun to come to work now," she said.

That kind of talk heartens Petersen, an acknowledged car enthusiast who, along with Iacocca, is credited with introducing the popular Ford Mustang 21 years ago.

Petersen said he will "spend a lot of time" as chairman "going to all" of Ford's 62 U.S. plants. "You can't get the quality without the people, and the people-side of our business is where we're really going to differentiate ourselves," he said.

Auto industry analysts long have regarded Ford as having the best labor-management relations of the nation's Big Three car producers. In an event that seemed to buttress that reputation, former Ford chairman Philip Caldwell, 65, last week was granted honorary membership in the United Auto Workers local at Rawsonville in his last day on the job.

Petersen, 58, did not attend the local's farewell ceremony for his predecessor. Ever the loyal team player -- "the only way you move up around here," one ranking Ford official said -- Petersen reportedly did not want to do or say anything to take away from Caldwell's day.

As for himself, Petersen said he is approaching his new job with a mixture of stage fright and determination to turn in a stellar performance.

"Inevitably, you are aware of the magnitude of the responsibilities of the office," he said. "You know that there are significant uncertainties that exist in this particular industry worldwide -- that there are many things about this industry and related economies that simply aren't predictable."

With 1984 retail sales of 7.95 million cars -- a 17 percent increase over the 1983 level of 6.79 million units -- domestic auto makers are coming off their best year since 1979, according to Detroit-based Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association of the United States Inc.

The MVMA said that 1985 will be another banner year -- one in which domestic and foreign car and truck sales in the U.S. market could top 15 million units. The all-time record was set in 1978, when a total of 15.4 million cars and trucks were sold in the United States, according to Ward's Auto World, a Detroit-based industry journal.

But Petersen said he does not believe the boom, which began in 1983, will last through his term. "It's going to continue to be an uncertain environment in which to function," he said. Ford will make it because of lessons learned during the last recession and because, despite all of the talk about a corporate "brain drain," the company remains well-fortified in its top and middle-management ranks, Petersen said.

"I find myself very pleased as I look at the group of individuals who are now assuming a series of the very significant positions in the company," said Petersen, who began his Ford career in 1949 after receiving a master's degree from Stanford University.

"I honestly believe that this team" -- which includes newly named Ford President Harold A. Poling -- "is the strongest team that I've ever seen in the Ford Motor Co.," Petersen said.

That team is in for some pretty rough games. Ford's share of the 1984 domestic auto market was 19.2 percent, a substantial improvement over the 16.6 percent share the company held in the dismal days of 1981. But Ford is being attacked on its small-car flanks by the Japanese and is facing an uphill battle against GM over big cars .

The No. 2 auto maker's plan is to win through what might be called strategic audacity -- that is, to keep rolling out radically styled, aerodynamically designed cars such as the Tempo, Topaz and, in 1986, the super-sleek Taurus and Sable.

Petersen and other Ford officials concede that they are taking a gamble, a nearly $3 billion roll of the corporate dice in the case of the Taurus and Sable, for example.

But Petersen said Ford will stick with the plan. "We decided five years ago that we needed to try harder to learn what our customers wanted and to follow their lead with our product designs . . . " he said.

That does not mean that Ford will ignore GM's moves, particularly the giant auto maker's new push to diversify into high-technology businesses, Petersen said.

"We always keep a very close eye on what The General is doing," said Petersen. "General Motors is so large that it's a bit like an elephant. It pretty much sits where it wants to sit."

Ford had $44.4 billion in worldwide sales in 1983 compared with $74.6 billion for GM. Both companies are expected to report measurably higher sales for 1984.

But Ford's smaller size means it will be able to move more quickly than GM in many areas, notwithstanding its smaller income, Petersen said. "In fact, many of the things you see GM doing today actually are attempts on their part to catch up with us," he said.

"We've come a long way in the last couple of years. We've turned things around and we've got an outstanding team in place today," Petersen said. "I'm reassured. We'll do okay."