I AM NOT as pessimistic about the American automobile industry as most people. The one thing that makes the U.S. consumer buy something is if the product is different from anything his neighbors have. This is particularly true of cars.

Americans consider their automobile status symbols; something not only to drive, but to use to put down their friends and relatives.

For a long time, the foreign car has been the ultimate status symbol for someone impossible to impress anyone with an imported model, because everyone has one of his own.

But now the pendulum may be swinging back, and because they are so rare, an American car is the fashionable thing to own.

Just the other day at a party, Jeffrey Doranz drove up the driveway in a strange-looking vehicle and honked his horn.

We all rushed out of the house to look at it.

"What is it?" someone asked.

"It's called a 'chevette'," Jeffrey said proudly.

Bob Elliot, who was the first one on the block to own a Toyota, was livid with jealousy.

"Where was it made?" he asked.

"In the United States," Jeffrey said. "It was built in Detroit: I have this friend who lives in Grosse Point, and he tipped me off. He said it's going to be the car of the future."

Mrs. Elliot, who owns a Mercedes-Benz sports car, whispered to Bob, "Do you think it's true?"

"I don't know," Bob told her. "I heard they were toying with the idea of making cars in Detroit, but I didn't realize they had gone into production."

Burberry, who owns a Volvo and a Volkswagen, opened the door of the Chevette and looked inside.

"Would you like me to take you for a spin in it?" Jeffrey asked. "It's amazing what American engineers have put in a little car this size."

Jeffrey and Burberry took off, while the rest of us stood around depressed and sick that Doranz had put one over on us.

The wives were particularly furious. One said to her husband, "I thought you told me the BMW was the new status car in the country."

"It was for a year. How did I know Americans would start making automobiles again?"

"i'm going to top Doranz," Elliot said. "I hear the Ford Motor Company has a new car called the 'escort.' If we move now, I'll be the first one on the block to own one."

My wife asked me, "What do we do with our Mazda?"

"We sell it, before Doranz makes a fool of us. I saw on television the other night that Chrysler is putting out a 'Dodge Colt.' I'll make inquiries. But mum's the word. We don't want anyone in the neighborhood to get wind of it."

Doranz came back with Burberry. "Anyone else want a ride?" he said pompously.

We all declined, though the curiosity of driving around in an American-built car was killing us. Most of us left the party as soon as we could because we couldn't stand the smug look on Doranz's face.

Who would have dreamed that in such a short time, the thrill of owning a foreign-made car would be gone?