Lee A. Iacocca may be running out of tricks in his bid to keep Chrysler Corp. alive.

His company is losing sales, money and market share. Its products are few and mostly old. New vehicles needed to strengthen the company's offerings are nearly two years away, a dangerous span in the volatile auto business.

In the interim, Iacocca has to keep Chrysler intact, a challenge that now requires him to sell conflicting messages to skeptical audiences on Wall Street and in the ranks of the United Auto Workers union.

To maintain needed financial support from investors, Iacocca is boasting about Chrysler's strengths, especially the company's $4.5 billion in cash reserves and marketable securities.

To temper union demands in current contract negotiations, Iacocca is bemoaning the company's problems, including the relative inadequacy of $4.5 billion in an industry where a simple reworking of an existing product can cost $600 million to $1 billion.

This weekend, Iacocca begins talks in earnest with the UAW, which is insisting that Chrysler commit much of its cash to a labor agreement that follows the basic, if not exact, pattern the union just negotiated with General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. The UAW has announced that it will let its contract expire Monday night in an effort to put pressure on Chrysler.

Wall Street, however, wants Chrysler to use most of that money for new cars and trucks. The company's biggest sellers now are its Voyager and Caravan minivans and its Jeep products, all of which are under siege by competitors. That competition, coupled with a faltering U.S. economy, has cut Chrysler's car and truck sales by 17 percent this year.

This week, Chrysler is expected to report a third-quarter loss of $250 million; the company made a profit of $251 million in first six months of 1990. With a worsening economy, Chrysler is not expected to do much better over the coming six months or more, according to analysts.

Iacocca is in trouble again. He saved Chrysler from bankruptcy in 1980 through a deft juggling act that won $1.5 billion in federal loan guarantees from Congress and billions of dollars more in concessions from the UAW, parts suppliers and banks. In those years of crisis, Iacocca was Chrysler. But he has since stumbled on his pride and made crucial mistakes, his critics say. The result, they say, has been a major erosion of his credibility.

Ego 'Worst Enemy' "Iacocca's worst enemy has been his ego," said one Chrysler consultant, echoing a sentiment voiced by many past and present Chrysler officials. "On the one hand, it drove him to take heroic steps to save the company; on the other, it clouded the judgment he needed to keep Chrysler going."

It is an often-heard complaint, frequently filled with numerous anecdotes, chief among them being Iacocca's $3 billion diversification, stock buyback and building programs between 1984 and 1989.

In 1984, for example, Iacocca teamed up with Alejandro DeTomaso, a personal friend and owner of Maserati of Italy, to build an ill-fated sports coupe, the Maserati TC. Two years later, Iacocca bought aircraft manufacturer Gulfstream Aerospace for $637 million. He picked up Lamborghini, another Italian sports car company, in 1987. That same year, he plopped down $757 million to buy American Motors Corp.

All of those purchases were met with intense opposition within the company, mostly because they were seen as diverting money away from product development, according to some past and present Chrysler officials. "But Lee pretty much got his way," one of those officials said.

Iacocca also got his way in a controversial decision to buy back nearly $2 billion worth of Chrysler stock, which the company has done, beginning in 1984. The company has paid as low as $12 a share and as much as $45.25 a share for its stock. "Lee believed in his heart that the stock was undervalued," said another Chrysler executive, who asked not to be named. "He thought it was worth closer to $40 a share. In a way, he was looking out for the stockholders; but he also felt that Wall Street was giving him and the company a bum rating."

In the end, "We went along with it, some of us enthusiastically," the official said of the buyback. "It turned out to be the biggest, dumbest thing we ever did. Chrysler stock now is trading at less than $10." The stock has since bounced back a bit, closing at $11.12 1/2 Friday on the New York Stock Exchange, down 50 cents.

Iacocca conceded in published reports that he goofed in his diversification strategy, an admission that he also makes in an interview in Playboy magazine, to be published Nov. 23.

Iacocca was unavailable for comment for this report, but two of his top lieutenants, Chrysler Motors President Robert A. Lutz and Chrysler Corp. Vice Chairman Robert S. Miller Jr., said that Iacocca did nothing to hurt the firm's chances for survival.

At no time did Iacocca take money away from Chrysler's product development programs to pursue diversification goals, Miller said. The money used in those acquisitions was extra cash, he said, set aside from product development funds.

"We never had a meeting where we said we don't have money for a product program because we had rather use it to buy an airplane company or to buy stock," Miller said. "The first priority was, is and always will be the automotive business."

If Iacocca had any fault, it was his inability to divine the future, Lutz and Miller said. In the go-go days of the 1980s, all major manufacturers were trying to diversify to protect themselves against downturns in their core businesses. Stockholders and Wall Street were encouraging companies to diversify to gain new sources of income, Lutz and Miller said.

But many of those acquisitive companies, like Chrysler, have started selling off what they bought in attempts to raise money and lose weight in what have become tougher economic times.

Iacocca went the acquisition route out of a desire to help Chrysler and its stockholders, not out of self-aggrandizement, Lutz and Miller said. Besides, said Miller, Chrysler won more than it lost through diversification. Many analysts agree. For example, the company last year sold Gulfstream Aerospace for $825 million, clearing a $188 million profit.

Though Iacocca has apologized for any errors made in diversification and for taking time away from the corporation to work on a series of public and personal projects, "I don't think that any of that really had anything to do with our current conditions," Lutz said.

Others disagree.

"You've got this stamp on your head that says 'chief executive officer.' If you don't want to be chief executive officer, then you've got to take the stamp off your head," said Arthur G. Davis, an analyst with the brokerage firm Prescott Ball & Turben Inc. in Cleveland.

"Iacocca wanted to have it both ways. He wanted to take his eye off the business and do other things while keeping all of the authority for running the business unto himself."

That seeming unwillingness to delegate authority has frustrated top Chrysler officials, resulting in the resignation of several of them, some Chrysler insiders said.

Key Executives Quit Key Chrysler officials who have resigned in the last two years include former Chrysler president Harold Sperlich, vice chairman Gerald Greenwald, vice president and treasurer Frederick W. Zuckerman and Michael N. Hammes, former vice president for international operations.

All of those officials have publicly denied speculation that they left because of differences with Iacocca, and none of them would comment on the record for this story.

Said one: "I don't want to have the reputation of being the kind of guy who goes around bad-mouthing his former employer. That is not a good thing."

However, other past and present Chrysler executives expressed concern about Iacocca's alleged penchant for "having it both ways" and the negative effects that they say that tendency is having on the company. Those officials cite Iacocca's maneuvers in the current contract talks, his verbal assaults against Japanese automakers and his reliance on Japanese products to make ends meet in Chrysler's thin product line.

On the matter of Iacocca's labor contract maneuvers, one Chrysler official said: "He's beating up on the company's stock by speaking with a forked tongue to both constituencies. I wish he'd stop it. ... Politically, he has no chance of getting the UAW to give concessions. All he's doing by poor-mouthing the company is convincing Wall Street that it's right" in its low valuations of Chrysler stock.

UAW officials said Iacocca has made it hard for the union to even consider some contract relief in the current negotiations. Another UAW source predicted that the union's view of Iacocca has so changed in recent years that even if the leadership could be convinced to grant contract concessions the membership would reject it.

"Lee's halo is very tarnished," a UAW official said.

Despite the tough talk, there were indications the UAW might be willing to make some changes in the basic industry pattern to help Chrysler. For example, the union could eliminate or reduce the requirement that the company pay up to $5 an hour per worker when overtime exceeds specified levels. Currently, Chrysler workers -- like those at GM and Ford -- do not receive that money, which goes instead into a training fund.

Concessions Expected UAW sources also indicate that the union could defer some of the pension payment requirements to the end of the three-year contract to help ease first-year costs. Chrysler has the oldest work force in the industry and for every active employee drawing a paycheck it has a retired company worker drawing health and retirement benefits.

Shifts such as these would hold Chrysler to the basic benefits of the contract pattern but would ease some of the company's cash flow problems.

"We know that when Ford and GM catch a cold Chrysler gets pneumonia. But you don't call the doctor until you're actually sick," a union source said. He said the UAW would insist on the industry contract pattern at Chrysler, but would tell the company to come back to the bargaining table if it gets sick.

But while Chrysler claims its labor costs are more than $3 an hour higher than either Ford or GM, it would not say how much of its overall costs were attributable to labor. Ronald E. Harbour of Harbour & Associates Inc., an auto consulting firm in Troy, Mich., estimates that labor accounts for 14 percent of Chrysler's overall costs. GM, by comparison, estimates its labor costs at 23 percent. It takes lots of chutzpah for Iacocca to plead poverty under those circumstances, UAW leaders say. If so, it takes even more gall for Iacocca to attack Japanese automakers while relying on Japanese partner Mitsubishi Corp. for engines and image-building cars like the 1991 Dodge Stealth R/T Turbo, some Chrysler insiders say.

For 10 years now, Iacocca has accused the Japanese of playing unfairly in the U.S. market. For just as many years, Chrysler has been one of the biggest importers of Japanese products.

"Our rhetoric is killing us, both with the Japanese and with our customers," the Chrysler official said. "People are buying cars like the Dodge Dynasty because they are responding to Lee's calls to buy American. When they open the hood of that car and find a Mitsubishi engine, we have an instant credibility problem."

Indeed, some sources said, Iacocca has been dumping on the Japanese at a time when he is trying to work out a deal with Honda Motor Co. to distribute Jeeps in Japan. Honda, which has no Jeep-like vehicle, is keenly interested in doing business with Chrysler, those sources said. And though Honda officials are personally miffed over his public criticism of Japanese car companies in the United States, "they seem willing to ignore it because the Jeep deal could be good business," said one source familiar with the Honda negotiations.

Detroit has been long on rumors that Chrysler is seeking a possible merger with Italy's Fiat SpA, for which Chrysler now distributes Alfa Romeo cars in the the United States. Lutz and Miller confirmed that Chrysler has been and is now talking to Fiat, but declined to discuss details.

Another source familiar with the Fiat talks said Chrysler and Fiat will make a "major announcement" in January. But that announcement is likely to involve a joint venture, rather than a merger, because Iacocca has no immediate plans to leave Chrysler, sources said. "In any merger with Chrysler, Iacocca is going to have to be on the outside. He has no talent for sharing power," said a consultant familiar with the Fiat talks.

Iacocca Image Survey Chrysler officials, concerned that Iacocca's alleged image problems would make his use in product advertisements harmful, recently commissioned an independent survey to see where their man stands with the general public.

The "Iacocca Image Survey," published this month in an internal company memo, said in part: "Mr. Iacocca is still one of the most recognizable personalities in the United States. At 84 percent awareness, he was tied with the now-infamous Donald Trump and was second only to George Bush."

Trump is flirting with bankruptcy, and President Bush is struggling -- so far unsuccessfully -- to reduce the federal budget deficit and find a peaceful solution to the crisis in the Persian Gulf.

Worried Chrysler officials are hoping that a beleaguered Iacocca can bring them better luck.