Negotiations between the Teamsters and new-car haulers edged toward a strike deadline last night in the first test at the bargaining table for union president James P. Hoffa.

A strike could mean longer waits for hot-selling vehicles and leave manufacturing plants without spaces to park vehicles coming off the assembly line.

Faced with a 12:01 a.m. EDT deadline, talks stalled over management proposals that would establish a lower pay scale for newly hired drivers and permit the hiring of part-time workers, spokesmen for both sides said.

The haulers also are demanding more flexible work schedules, while the union is seeking increases in wages and benefits and retirement pay for employees retiring after 25 years. The Teamsters also wants to block the haulers from giving union jobs to Mexican trucking companies, something the haulers say they have no plans to do.

Both sides agreed that Hoffa is a factor. The son of legendary Teamsters leader James R. Hoffa was elected last December in the aftermath of a campaign finance scandal, and personally led the union negotiating team.

"This is a very important set of talks for Hoffa," said union spokesman Chip Roth. "He'll be judged on his ability to deliver for the members. He knows the members will be watching him."

Ian Hunter, chief management negotiator, said Hoffa's personal stake in the talks "can't be discounted as a factor. It's his first national contract. Sure, it is a political concern that he has. But we're attempting at the table to reduce that as a factor."

The contract covers about 12,800 drivers, mechanics, yard and office workers.

The two sides dueled publicly over the financial state of the unionized car haulers.

Roth cited the industry's "record profits," adding, "This is not an industry in need." Hunter said statements about record profits were "pure propaganda."

David Healy, an auto industry analyst with Burnham Securities Inc., said a strike would have an impact within days.

"Some plants could be affected in a day or two because they'd run out of room to park vehicles that are coming off the assembly line," Healy said. He added that dealers' inventories overall are "normal to slightly below normal." Roth, the union spokesman, said a strike would mean "people would have to wait for the hottest-selling cars."

Alan Adler of General Motors Corp. said, "We've got contingency plans" but he did not specify them. He said that during a car-haulers strike in 1995, the company allowed dealers to pick up cars from factories.

Jim Vella, a spokesman for Ford Motor Co., said only that the automaker was "watching the situation."

Steve Duchesne, spokesman for the management negotiators of the National Automobile Transporters labor division, said the 17 companies hauled more than 15 million cars last year. But he insisted that the revenue-producing miles for car deliveries has decreased.

"The indicators to show the fiscal health of the companies are all downward because of the competition of the nonunion trucking companies and the railroads," he said.

According to Duchesne, 71 percent of the new cars now leave the manufacturing plant by rail, compared with 29 percent by the union carriers. Other competition comes from nonunion haulers.

Union haulers now earn $68,000 a year in wages and benefits, with salaries at $55,000. The Teamsters said management wants to pay newly hired drivers 30 percent less than the contract wage, with gradual increases eventually equalizing the pay.

CAPTION: Talks between the Teamsters and new-car haulers presents union leader James Hoffa his first bargaining test.