Anton Motors Inc. of Rockville, pressed by a California bank's demands for payment on more than $4 million in loans, is seeking protection from creditors in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in a bid to reorganize its affairs and stay in business.

The 11-year-old dealership, which targeted sales of European luxury cars to the area's wealthy young motorists, now owes 322 creditors nearly $15 million, according to records at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Rockville.

Anton Schmidt, the dealership's owner, who came to the United States as a 16-year-old and worked his way up the through the auto-retail business, declined to discuss the case. In a statement, he said his business "will proceed as usual under the supervision of the court." One associate said Schmidt hopes to reduce costs through layoffs and perhaps by dropping one of the dealership's three car lines.

Its largest creditor is Security Pacific Corp., the Los Angeles banking company that has been hard hit by problem loans.

Like many dealers, Schmidt's loans for wholesale car purchases and other business expenses largely were secured by real estate holdings, including dealership sites and some personal property, one associate said.

"His principal assets were in real estate, which, 18 months or so ago, was worth anywhere from $12 million to $15 million," the associate said. But declining property values in the Washington-area real estate market undercut those holdings, making Security Pacific and other major creditors reluctant to continue making further real estate-based loans and anxious for payment of existing loans.

Declining car sales, especially among European models, did not help. Anton Motors sells one of the hardest hit lines -- Volvo cars, which are off 14 percent from 1989 sales. Sales of Mercedes-Benz cars, another Anton Motors franchise, are up a slight 1 percent. Anton also sells Toyotas, which are doing well as a group. But sales of Toyota Motor Corp.'s biggest money maker, the $22,000 Cressida, is off 52 percent from last year, according to figures compiled by Jacobs Automotive Inc., a New Jersey firm that monitors luxury car sales.

Anton does not sell Toyota's Lexus luxury cars, which were introduced this year and are doing well in the marketplace.

Locally, total car sales are off 5.9 percent from last year's levels, according to figures provided by the Automotive Trade Association of the National Capital Area.

Security Pacific, which funded the bulk of Anton's wholesale car purchases, "was threatening to sue," one of Schmidt's associates said.

"They were coming after the cars, which secured about $2 million of the debt. They were going to sell the cars at auction and then come after Tony {Schmidt} for the other $2 million or so. We didn't want to file Chapter 11," allowing the company to reorganize its business under the protection of the court, the associate said. "We simply had no choice. We made the decision in 24 hours," the associate said. Anton Motors filed for bankruptcy protection on Thursday.

A spokesman for Security Pacific declined comment, saying, "As a matter of company policy, we don't discuss client matters."

Among other creditors listed in Anton's court filing are Toyota Motor Credit of Timonium, $1.9 million; Volvo Finance North America of Texas, $1 million; Mercedes-Benz Credit Corp. of Montvale, N.J., $2 million; and Riggs National Bank of Washington, $2.9 million.

The Anton's spokesman said the firm's indebtedness could be boosted by the recent bankruptcy of American Warranty Corp. of Lincolnwood, Ill., a onetime major underwriter of extended service plans covering vehicles beyond their normal warranty period. "All of those claims are now back on Anton Motors," the spokesman said, declining to give specific numbers. "We think we have a chance to come out of this. But it's going to be a nightmare."

MANUFACTURER..........NUMBER SOLD..........PCT. CHANGE FROM

......................YEAR TO DATE................LAST YEAR

ACURA.....................49,330.................. -18%

AUDI......................19,705.................. -2%

BMW.......................56,784.................. -6%

CADILLAC.................237,132.................. -4%

CHRYSLER..................52,863.................. 65%

JAGUAR....................16,524.................. -3%

LINCOLN..................210,680.................. 14%

MERCEDEZ-BENZ.............69,217................... 1%

PORSCHE................... 8,339.................. -5%

VOLVO.....................83,001................. -14%

TOTAL JAPANESE...........284,933................... 5%

TOTAL EUROPEAN...........288,469.................. -8%

TOTAL..................1,237,160.................. -1%

SOURCES: Ward's Automotive Reports, Jacobs Automotive