Ford Motor Co. yesterday named Peter J. Pestillo as chairman and chief executive of Visteon Automotive Systems, the automaker's $18 billion, in-house components manufacturer.

Pestillo's appointment is expected to smooth the way for the eventual spinoff or outright sale of Visteon, a prospect that drew strong opposition from the United Auto Workers during summer contract talks with the car company.

Pestillo, a labor relations specialist who is now Ford's vice chairman and chief of staff, helped resolve the contract dispute. Under a compromise plan, Ford agreed to keep Visteon's 23,500 UAW-covered workers on its payroll, even if the partsmaker becomes independence.

UAW leaders long have respected Pestillo, who built a reputation for fairness and honesty in handling union issues at Ford, where he began in 1980 as vice president of labor relations.

Pestillo will assume his Visteon duties Jan. 1, 2000, replacing Craig H. Muhlhauser, who will remain as president of Visteon. Pestillo will leave his position as Ford vice chairman, which will be turned into a group vice president's slot to be filled by John M. Rintamaki, who now serves as Ford's vice president and general counsel.

The 61-year-old Pestillo said yesterday that he is "looking forward" to working closely with the Visteon group, which will be free to aggressively pursue customers outside of the Ford empire after it is either spun off to Ford's shareholders or sold outright through an initial public offering of stock.

Auto industry analysts say divestiture would be good for Visteon and Ford, which remains the only global car company to have a dedicated in-house components maker. The spinoff could help Ford reduce product development and assembly costs by allowing it to shop on the open market for more competitively priced components. Meanwhile, new customers could mean new income and better opportunities for growth for Visteon, according to industry analysts.

CAPTION: Labor relations specialist Peter J. Pestillo will become Visteon's CEO.