The white card is making the rounds at Ford Motor Co.

Top executives carry it in their coat pockets. Engineers tuck it behind pencils in the pockets of their shirts. Assembly-line workers tape it to machine-control panels.

The card is stamped with the oval Ford logo and a title, "Company Mission and Guiding Principles." Visitors to Ford's world headquarters here are unlikely to go home without being given a copy of it.

The card symbolizes a corporate cultural revolution, which Ford officials hope will return their company to its long-lost position as the world's leader in automotive-product quality. As in all revolutions, there have been, and will be, casualties.

Ford, the world's second-largest car company in terms of sales, is trying to build a similar reputation for quality in the aerospace and communications industries, where it has growing business interests.

But the pursuit of quality is particularly intense on the automotive side, where the company is trying to atone for sins of its recent past.

Ford gave the world the first moving automobile assembly line and the venerable Model T in the early 1900s. But it also gave America the Pinto in 1970.

The Pinto, in the minds of many owners, auto critics and industry analysts, was the quintessential sloppy American car. Many auto safety experts also called it one of the most dangerous cars, because some Pintos exploded and burned when they were struck from the rear in vehicle crashes.

Ford officials, while defending the Pinto's overall safety record, concede that it was one of their poorer products. Some go further, saying that the car was Ford Motor Co. at its worst.

"The Pinto was a terrible thing for all of us," said Joseph A. Kordick, general manager of Ford's parts and services division. "From an emotional point of view, it called into account in a lot of our minds: 'Were we working for the right company?' "

The Pinto trauma -- the awful publicity and numerous lawsuits -- shattered some employe marriages and ended some careers, other Ford officials said; and they each gave similar answers when asked why their company produced such a car.

Kordick's remarks are representative.

Ford's management style, as well as that of the entire domestic auto industry, was symbolized by young Lee A. Iacocca, then a rising star at the company, Kordick said. Iacocca, now chairman of Chrysler Corp., became president of Ford four months after the Pinto was introduced.

"Lee was a very brash, pumped-up, aggressive kind of guy, and that kind of rubbed off on our team. We all walked around with that same chip on our shoulders," said Kordick, emphasizing that his words should not be "misinterpreted" as blaming Iacocca for the Pinto.

Ford was composed of order-givers and order-takers in those days, according to Kordick and others here. Anyone confusing those roles was out -- even Iacocca, who was fired in 1978 reputedly because of a personality conflict with Chairman Henry Ford II.

There was no white card then, no talk of "human values" or "caring" -- words often heard in Ford's executive suites nowadays.

"We were far more confrontive, far more short-term-oriented. There was far less listening to one another . . . A company whose senior executives don't listen and love, I suspect, is a company that builds Pintos," Kordick said.

But according to some auto industry analysts, it took more than Pintos to make Ford reevaluate its attitudes and operations and draft its six "guiding principles," the first of which is: "Quality comes first."

It took losses -- in all, $2.44 billion between 1980 and 1983 -- some of the analysts said.

The quality talk "is sort of spongy stuff," but Ford's commitment to doing a better job is real, mostly because the company has no other choice, said David Healy, an analyst with New York-based Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc.

Ford and its domestic rivals -- Chrysler, General Motors Corp. and American Motors Co. -- are facing increasingly tough competition from foreign auto makers, especially from the Japanese, Healy said.

Last month's U.S.-market-share figures for passenger cars are indicative. Japanese-built imports captured 27 percent of the market, up from 20 percent in October 1984. Overall import penetration approached 30 percent of the U.S. market; and that figure is expected to grow as auto makers in China, Korea and Yugoslavia gear up for U.S. sales.

Thus, Ford's drive to improve product quality is running in tandem with its campaign to cut costs. Auto industry analysts say that the two movements are inseparable. Without quality, Ford loses customers. Without competitive production costs, Ford loses customers, because higher manufacturing costs often appear as higher prices in the showroom.

So, since 1980, when Ford lost $1.3 billion, the company has been on a cost-cutting spree, eliminating what now amounts to $4 billion in annual operating costs.

Much of that operating-cost reduction is reflected in smaller worldwide and U.S. payrolls. Ford's worldwide average employment dropped 22.4 percent between 1979 and 1984, down from 494,579 people to 383,696. Ford's U.S. employment decline was proportionately greater at 27.5 percent, or from 239,475 people to 173,655 during the same period.

More cost cuts and staff reductions are needed -- about 25 percent more in both categories -- at Ford and at other domestic auto manufacturers, according to Peter Van Hull, an auto industry analyst with Chicago-based Arthur Andersen & Co.

Japanese auto makers now have a $1,500-to-$1,800-per-unit production cost advantage over their American competitors, Van Hull said. Even with all of their current cost-cutting, Ford and other U.S. car companies still will trail the Japanese by between $700 and $900 per unit by 1995, Van Hull said. The Americans cannot afford to relax and hope to stay in business, the analyst said.

However, some Ford employes see the cost-cutting moves as running contrary to Ford's plan to achieve higher product quality through "excellence in human relations" -- a major tenet of the company's mission statement and guiding principles.

Ford President Harold A. (Red) Poling said he understands how some of those employes feel. But he said he disagrees with the notion that excellence in human relations and excellence in business management are mutually exclusive.

"The corporate-mission statement of values and guiding principles doesn't say that life is going to be easy," Poling said. "It isn't a substitute for action. It isn't a substitute for responsibility and results. . . .

"Any time you have to reduce your work force, it's a problem. The question is: 'How do we go about implementing the actions that have to be taken to ensure that this corporation has a long-term future?' The mission statement is an approach" to answering that question, Poling said.

There are other developments. Japanese car companies are putting more assembly plants in the United States. According to most domestic auto industry estimates, the Japanese will have the capacity to produce at least 900,000 cars a year in this country by 1990. Many of those new Japanese cars will be aimed at the power center of American car producers: the mid-size and luxury-car segment.

As a result, all American auto makers have been working on quality and cost-control, Healy said. "Ford today is building, on average, a better car than its domestic competitors. But the company still can't hold a candle to the Japanese" in terms of quality, he said.

John A. Manoogian, a 30-year Ford veteran who is now the company's executive director of quality assurance, bristles at that kind of talk. Manoogian acknowledged that some Japanese companies still have a quality edge over Ford; but he said the advantage is small and is disappearing.

"We're pretty proud of the rate of improvement we've made since 1980," Manoogian said. "Our customers tell us that we've got 50 percent fewer things going wrong with our cars than we had in 1980. That's a very, very dramatic improvement -- the best in the industry."

Ford recognizes that it has to do a better job of attracting the so-called Baby Boom generation, people in their mid-30s and early 40s, "if it is going to survive the end of the century," Hemphill said.

The Japanese "have been singularly successful" at winning the Baby Boomers and their children, who are determining the shape of future automotive designs and services. Ford and its domestic rivals, on the other hand, mostly have been successful with an older group -- people with an average age of 48 years, Hemphill said.

Ford is going after the Baby Boomers. In the process, the company is trying to ditch a habit it developed in 1931: following GM.

Ford had been the world leader in automotive sales almost since its founding in 1903, until it relinquished the lead to GM in 1930. The problem? Ford held on to the reliable, economical -- but patently boring -- Model T too long. GM, in the interim, was out there wowing customers with new designs.

Ford fell to third place behind GM and Chrysler from 1936 to 1949. It moved back into second place in 1950 and has been there ever since, reacting to virtually every move GM made -- until 1983.

That year, Ford shocked the domestic auto industry by introducing a radically designed group of cars -- the Tempo, Mercury Topaz and Lincoln Mark VII, and a totally redesigned Thunderbird and Cougar.

The new Ford cars entered the market with slanted and rounded bodies -- a major departure from the U.S. boxy look -- and they were equipped with small, but spirited engines. Their targeted buyers belonged to the 40-and-under set. There was some buyer resistance at first, mostly in the Midwest, but the lines now are selling well and are attracting imitators, according to Hemphill and other analysts.

Ford is accelerating its Baby Boomer push in the 1986 model year with the introduction of the Taurus and Mercury Sable, regarded by many auto critics as the only two substantially new domestic cars of the season. But the Taurus and Sable are coming in three months late, with a rescheduled introduction date in late December, largely because of production problems at the Taurus-Sable assembly plant in Atlanta, said Kordick, Ford's parts and service manager.

"We weren't able to come up with the quality we expected to have" for the scheduled fall introduction date. "So, we just delayed it," Kordick said.

"No longer are we going to put out crap because we have to run a plant and because we've got to get so many units out an hour at all costs. That's not going to happen anymore," Kordick said.

The delay-introduction strategy is becoming commonplace in the domestic industry. But according to Healy, Hemphill and others, Ford seems to be more willing to wait with its new products. Ford, for example, was the last of the Big Three to introduce its minivan, the Aerostar, which hit the market nine months late in the 1985 model year.

Delay, however, is not foolproof. Nor are the computers, automated quality-checking devices, streamlined work rules and other quality-improvement systems found in facilities such as Ford's Livonia, Mich., transmission plant near here. For example, Ford last week voluntarily recalled 252,000 Tempo and Topaz cars for a suspected faulty rear-suspension bolt.

But there is good news in the recall, according to James Mateyka, an analyst with Booz-Allen Hamilton Inc. Ford's willingness to bring back its well-advertised new cars, thus risking embarrassment, shows that the company "is sincere when it says 'Quality is Job 1,' " Mateyka said.

"Ford is running a very aggressive quality program. Even its suppliers will tell you that. They now seem to recognize that it's going to cost them at the sales point if they put out low-quality cars," Mateyka said.