Ford Motor Co.'s profit soared more than 40 percent to $4.6 billion in 1987, marking the second straight year that the nation's No. 2 auto maker has made more money than the much larger General Motors Corp.

Ford said yesterday that most of its record earnings of $9.05 a share came from new-car sales and from sales of light trucks -- pickups, vans and sports utility vehicles, such as the Ford Bronco II. In contrast, only $130 million of GM's $3.6 billion income last year came from its main business, the making and selling of cars and trucks. Most of GM's profit was generated by the company's nonautomotive subsidiaries and by changes in accounting procedures.

As a result of Ford's performance, its employees are expected to receive average profit-sharing payments of more than $2,100, company officials said yesterday. Some 160,000 Ford workers received profit-sharing checks averaging $2,100 in 1987, based on the company's 1986 earnings.

Eligible GM employees received no profit sharing last year, and will also go without the extra money in 1988.

"The joint effort by employees, suppliers and dealers in bringing the consumer high-quality, value-for-the-money products was the key to the 1987 results," Ford Chairman Donald E. Petersen and Vice Chairman Harold A. Poling said in a joint statement.

"The entire Ford team deserves credit for the company's success," Petersen and Poling's statement said.

Ford's revenue for 1987 was $71.6 billion, up 14 percent from $62.7 billion in 1986. In 1986, Ford had a profit of $3.3 billion, or $6.16 a share.

The company earned a record $932 million ($1.87) in the fourth quarter, a 19 percent increase over $785 million ($1.50) in the year-ago period. Fourth-quarter sales amounted to $18.7 billion, up from $16.3 billion.

Clearly, Ford is on a roll. By most assessments, including those by California-based J.D. Power and Associates, an auto marketing and research firm, Ford has managed to persuade the public that it is a high-quality domestic auto maker.

That is a radical turnabout from Ford's image of the late 1960s and the 1970s, the bad old days when the Ford nameplate was jokingly said to stand for "Fix Or Repair Daily."

Today, Ford is gaining car market share, up to 20.2 percent in 1987 from 18.2 percent in 1986 -- a feat made all the more notable because of the rapidly growing number of competitors in the U.S. auto market. One of the company's subcompacts, the Ford Escort, was the best-selling car in the United States last year; a Ford midsize car, the Taurus, was the second-best selling.

Ford sold 6.1 million vehicles worldwide last year, up 131,000 units from 1986.

Ironically, Wall Street does not seem terribly impressed with Ford's performance. The company's stock closed at $42.25 a share yesterday, down $2.25.

The problem is that Wall Street believes that the auto industry, which has been riding high the last three years, is due for a fall, said Harvey E. Heinbach, automotive group vice president for Merrill Lynch Inc. in New York.

"Our view towards the auto stocks is colored by the belief that we are still in the early stages of a cyclical downturn," Heinbach said in his January 1988 report on the auto industry.

"We believe that investors should wait until we are closer to the bottom of the sales cycle before expecting the group to be a good relative performer," Heinbach said.

But, "for those investors looking to keep some exposure to the group, we would favor Ford, whose strong financial position should help it to weather the expected downturn well," Heinbach said in his report.

Ford ended the year with cash and marketable securities totaling $10.1 billion, compared with $8.6 billion in 1986. The company has been using its huge cash reserve to shop for other businesses, particularly those in the financial and electronics industries.