It was Roderick Hills' first day at the White House as counsel to President Gerald Ford. Hills worked late into the night and hitched a ride home in a White House limo with fellow counsel Philip Buchen. It was raining. The chauffeur dropped Buchen off, pulled to the corner and turned to Hills who was stretched out in the back seat.

"I'm sorry sir, you'll have to get out now," the driver said.

"What do you mean get out? It's pouring rain. Can't you take me home?"

"I'm sorry, sir, but you're on the 'B' list. I can only take officials on the 'A' list to their homes."

"But . . ."

"I'm sorry sir, those are my orders."

Hills got on the car phone and started calling White House numbers. No one answered. Finally, he woke up the president.

"I have to get home!" Hills shrieked.

"Let me speak to the driver," a weary Ford said.

Hills handed the phone to the driver. "This is the president," the voice on the other line said. "You may take Mr. Hills home."

Four years ago, the Washington limo was dealt a fierce blow when Jimmy Carter cut the number of White House limos from 28 to 14, banning all unofficial use of them. No more chauffeuring to and from staffers' homes, he declared. To make matters worse, Carter walked down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day. That, the limo lords say, was bad for business.

"We were hurt when Carter came in," says Mark Monroe, assistant manager of Dav-el Livery Inc. "He really put down the limo image. But now, Reagan is bringing it all back. Republicans use the cars a lot more. They throw their money around."

Says Larry Sardelli of Ambassador-Georgetowne Limousines, "People are going to want to be ostentatious." Especially the West Coast celebrities trailing the Double R to the capital, the stars from Hollywood where money talks and nobody walks, unless it's a walk-on part.

New York may have the most limos, L.A. the best choice of colors, but Washington, drivers say, has the prestige.

"This city is the best," says George Coupe of Admiral Limousines. "We've got the embassies, the White House, the government, the military."

The limo is an office, a smoke-filled back seat where million-dollar decisions are made. ("I get most of my information on what my partners are up to from the driver," says one Washington lawyer whose firm owns a limo.)

The limo is a dressing room, where government officials lie on the floor and change from pin-striped suits to tuxedos on their way to the Kennedy Center.

The limo is a boudoir -- built for comfort, not for speed -- where the seats are cushy, the champagne chilled and the womb-like aura the ultimate aphrodisiac. ("Sex and limos go together," says one driver.)

It's a neon sign slicing through town, zooming down Pennsylvania Avenue in a presidential motorcade, sirens wailing, lights flashing: Outta My Way!

Most of all, because the shifting sands of fortune can find you in a Cadillac Fleetwood one day, a beat-up Buick the next, the Washington limo is the ultimate symbol of power.

"A lot of us come to Washington with poor backgrounds," says lawyer and lobbyist William J. Colley. "We're insecure. The limo is the right image. In Washington, power is more the perception of power than power itself."

Several years ago, a cabinet officer pulled up to a gas station in his limo. The attendant, eyeing the telephone in the back seat, kept washing the window, staring at the front seat. Finally the attendant blurted out, "Got a telephone in the kitchen, too, sir?"

George Coupe ("appropriate name, huh?") started his business 12 years ago with one car. Now, he owns a flotilla of 77 limousines, including the standard Cadillac Fleetwood 75s (with jump seats), Lincoln "Stretches" (customized to add 36 inches to the body) and Cadillac Broughams (darling of the corporate set) all fitted with phones, bars, TVs and beepers for the drivers.

The competition between companies is fierce (there are 68 leasing agents listed in the Yellow Pages), and the D.C. business has grown to a $10-million-a-year industry, according to Coupe. The government owns a small fleet of limos in Washington (mostly armored) and leases from the companies for visiting dignitaries.

There are a dozen or so Washingtonians who prefer to own chauffeured cars, rather than advertise the fact that they rent. (Look for the "L" on the license plate.)

Why do they need their own limos? "Because you can't always get a cab," says Frank Ikard, attorney and former president of the American Petroleum Institute and owner of a 1979 Cadillac Seville. "Because it's a great convenience," says socialite Evelyn Zlotnick, owner of a 1960 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. "Parking is such a problem."

"It's an enormous benefit," says Roderick Hills, now a lawyer in private practice. "You get a lot of work done in them. I would guess that Reagan is going to bring back limos for cabinet officers. When you have to go to three or four places in a day, it's necessary to have a driver. Maybe that's the root of Carter's problem with Congress. None of his staff went there because they couldn't find a parking place." The Joy of Limos

Ibrahim Awadllah, the Shah of Chauffeurs, holds open the massive door of his elongated silver Cadillac Fleetwood limo. "Let me take you for a ride."

The 46-year-old Jordanian ("Call me Abe") owns the Watergate Limousine Service. Dark-eyed and dimpled-chinned, Awadllah settles into the plush back seat, oriental carpet beneath his feet, fingers folded Sidney Greenstreet-style over his button-popping belly.

The Rolex watch. "That was a gift from King Hussein. One of my best customers. I have never bought a watch in my life," he says.

He started out with two limos back in 1972. Now he has 52, including his personal Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, and is importing 125 limos for the inaugural week. He charges $25 per hour plus a 15-percent gratuity for the driver, who earns one-third of the total bill.

A recent customer was the Egyptian Embassy, which leased 50 limos for 10 days for $50,000. "We give them a special price," he says.

Abe's other customers have included Richard Nixon, Lorne Greene, Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter -- before he became president. He likes the Arabs because they pay in cash. ("Some people in show business don't pay their bills at all.") He takes the Arab women to Bloomingdale's, Neiman-Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue.

"Sometimes these sheiks come to town and don't want to eat in a fancy restaurant," Awadllah says. "So they go to McDonalds. They sit in the back of the limo eating cheeseburgers."

Abe shudders and directs his driver to National Airport.

As the custom-made limo floats through the afternoon traffic, curious drivers whip their heads to see who's inside. They can't. The windows are mirrored. I can see you. You can't see me.

The car stops at a light. In the next lane, a sour-looking man in a pickup truck smoking a Camel stares hard, takes a drag and exhales, slowly, like a wolf whistle. Limo envy.

"Some people are very jealous," Awadllah says. "We always find scratches on the side of the cars. People take their keys and run them along the side. Some people are sick."

He points out the pushbutton for the partition, the soundproof smoked-glass wall dividing the drives from the drive-nots.

"Limousines are very funny," he said. "You can impress people." Going Too Far

A congressman called a Washington lobbyist one day, asking to borrow the lobbyist's limo to go to his daughter's wedding. The lobbyist agreed and the next morning sent his car and driver over to the congressman's house. That night, the lobbyist received a call from his driver. The wedding, it turned out, was in New York. Lorry of Lust

"It's a party-car," says Mark Monroe or Dav-El Livery. A symbol of status, success and sex all rolled into one lorry of lust. "A limo is like a drug except that it's legal."

Larry Sardelli of Ambassador-Georgetown Limousines agrees.

"One night last summer I picked up this guy at the Madison Hotel," Sardelli says. "He was a good-looking guy, about 36. We went to the Rayburn Building to pick up his date. Then I drove them to the Prime Rib."

The couple dined for a few hours, then emerged to the waiting limo.

"They got in the back seat and said they wanted to hear some jazz. I said okay and mentioned Blues Alley. Before I could turn down 19th Street, I looked around and they were already necking."

A little limo music, please.

"I zipped up the partition, turned up the stereo and headed for the G.W. Parkway."

Sardelli cruised to Mt. Vernon and back while his passengers were carried over the precipice of passion. "I tried not to think about it," he says.

He chauffeured them back to the Madison. "The last thing the guy said was, 'Wait here.' So I waited. And waited. I spent the whole night in the hotel lobby.Finally, the next morning, his date came down and I drove her to her apartment in northern Virginia. Naming Names

"Many drivers have seen it all," says George Coupe, of Admiral Limosines. "You can get an education just driving a limousine."

Coupe says the money is good: Drivers can easily earn $100 a day in tips. Many of them drive part-time; moonlighting government workers, firemen, policemen. People who are clean, reliable and know the city. Some will take a week's vacation during the inaugural to drive full-time.

They get spoiled easily, preferring celebraties and foreigners to working weddings or proms. Funerals are their least favorite.

When the drivers swap tales, it's an exercise in one-upmanship. In limo land, you are who your drive.

"I've had Sinatra, Jacqueline Onassis, Billy Graham, John Lennon, Paul Anka and Ronald Reagan," says Coupe. "I took Sinatra to the Capital Centre in a Chevy. You can drive him in anything. He don't care."

"I've had Elizabeth Taylor. She took Sammy Davis' wife to see her farm in Middleburg one day," says Sardelli. "And the White House. I saw what's her name -- Amy Carter -- in her treehouse one day."

"I had Jill Clayburgh last week," says Coupe. "We drove her to Pennsylvania. The trunk wouldn't close and the radio didn't work. It was a brand-new limo. She didn't mind."

Drivers are notoriously discreet. "What goes on in my limo stays in my limo," is one driver's mottol. Ask them what a politician or famous Hollywood star is really like and they inevitably reply, "Really nice."

There are exceptions. Actress Claudette Colbert left one of Awadllah's drivers in a rage recently. "She expected me to second-guess her every wish," says Joanne Warnke, one of a dozen or so female chauffeurs in Washington. "First it was too hot, then it was too cold.The heater wouldn't come on or something. She screamed, 'You're trying to RUIN me!'"

During the permier of "All the President's Men" in Washington, driver Jim Katradis chauffeured Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Redford, the driver says, "was nice. He sat in the back, slouched down, reading a book. Hoffman was showing off. He wanted to be in the limelight. I had to fight off a lot of women for both of them."

Katradis picked up actor Peter Strauss ("Rich Man, Poor Man") at National Airport recently.

"All these girls were hanging around him screaming 'RUDY, RUDY!" I didn't know who he was. I dropped him off at a radio station and called my wife. I said, 'Who the hell is Rudy?' She says, 'You got rudy! you got RUDY!'"

The chauffeur sighs. "It's weird, I tell ya. And not all fun." The Getaway

Abe Awadllah has only been burned once.

A guest at the Watergate Hotel hired a limo for four days. One day, the man asked to be taken to a suburban motel. The man went inside and the driver waited and waited and waited. Finally, after an hour, the driver went inside. wIt turned out the man had stolen a car, gotten into an accident and was arrested as a fugitive.

Awadllah was out $850 and says, "Now, we are very careful. We don't deal with just anybody."

Jim Katradis has only had two bad experiences.

"I picked up three guys at National Airport. Two were lawyers headed for a meeting with the Teamsters for a meeting with the Teamsters Union. The third was a bodyguard, packing two Magnums on each hip."

Katradis took the men to a meeting, then dropped the lawyers off at Duke Zeibert's for lunch. The bodyguard got out for a breath of fresh air.

"He said he wanted to look around. He spoke with an Italian accent. I said, 'Whaddya wanna look for, Jimmy Hoffa's body?' That sucker picked me up by the collar real hard and says, 'Heh, we donta mentiona that.'"

Kadratis nervously looked around. "Well, there's the White House, there's the Washington Monument, over there's the . . .

One night he was driving a group of men around Washington, bar hopping.

"They had too many drinks. One of them wanted to stop at a hotel on K Street to pick up some girls. One of the guys gets out, goes in and comes out to the car with four, well, guys dressed in drag, you know what I mean? They guys were so drunk they didn't know I took one of them aside and said, 'Mister, I hate to disappoint you, but that isn't the real stuff.' I got them into the car, drove around the corner and dropped the ladies off at a hotel. I gave them cab fare."

Waiting is what limo drivers do best. At embassy parties, several drivers will go off in one limo to get something to eat. The one cardinal sin is not to be there when the passenger is ready to go.

Occasionally, limo drivers can be cajoled into giving free rides -- especially attractive females -- free rides.

"Sometimes they do things they're not supposed to do," says Awadllah.

Sometimes they lose a rider. George Coupe says one of his customers, Marshall Coyne, owner of the Madison Hotel, was rushing in a limo to Dulles Airport one day when the car had a flat tire. Without missing a beat, the driver flagged down a passing car and Coyne hopped a ride. Some Joint

Red Skelton was in town recently and asked his limo driver to drop him off at a movie. The comedian said he didn't feel like eating dinner at a restaurant afterward. He asked the driver to pick him up some Kentucky Fried Chicken. After the movie, Skelton got in the back seat and started eating the chicken.

"You know why they call this finger lickin' good?" Skelton said.

"No, why?" his driver replied.

"'Cause they don't give you any damn napkins." The fringes

Fringe benefits are part of the limo life. The shah of Iran tipped in gold coins. King Faisal passed out gold watches. In 1976, the sultan of Oman tipped each of his drivers $1,000.

"I nearly fainted," says Katradis, who was driving for Cary Limosines at the time. "One of my buddies looked in the envelope and said, 'Oh, $100.' Then he looked again and saw there were 10 of them.

Stevie Wonder recently went to the Capital Centre for the Leonard-Duran fight and bought his driver a ticket. A wealthy businessman leased a limo for a weekend in Atlantic City. He rented a suit for his driver, dined with him every night and gave him $100 a day in gambling money.

But at least one chauffeur recently went home empty-handed after squiring Bob Hope around town. Hope, finding himself short on cash at the airport, borrowed a $100 from his driver. "He never carries any money," the driver said. Hope sent him a check in the mail.

Cleaning out the back seat is also an experience. "We find money, empty liquor bottles, joints, you name it," says driver Gordon Needham. "Sometimes we find cocaine scattered on the floor," says Needham. "But that's not too often." When the Party's Over

Then there is a withdrawl. Especially in Washington, where the perks of power can be yanked as fast as they are bestowed.

Several days after former attorney general Elliot Richardson left his post, he was asked to pick up a visiting dignitary in Cleveland Park. Richardson, who had spent years in the back seat of a limo, took a wrong turn and ended up somewhere in Arlington.

"He didn't know his way around Washington," his wife, Anne, says. "We threatened to send him to driving school."

And one Army general tells the story of having to learn how to drive again after decades of being chauffeured.

William J. Colley, lobbyist and lawyer with Patton Boggs & Blow, sold his custom-made Cadillac limousine several years ago "because my partners thought it was too ostentatious. They thought I was putting on the dog."

Now, he says, his partners have seen the light. The firm owns a Cadillac limousine, three Rolls Royces and a Bentley.

And then there's James Russell Wiggins, former ambassador the United Nations. Wiggins left his post in 1968 after six months of riding to and from work in a chauffeured limo.They day after he left, his wife pulled the family station wagon up to the front door. Wiggins got in the back seat.