RAYMOND RAINWATER knows a good thing when he sees it.

So last week, after hearing the news that John De Lorean was arrested for alleged cocaine dealing and the De Lorean Motor Co. was going out of business, Rainwater went out and bought two De Lorean sports cars. At $29,000 each. One for himself. One for his wife.

"At first I thought I couldn't afford to," says Rainwater, the owner of a Lorton, Va., concrete company. "Then I decided I couldn't afford not to. I look at it as a safe investment, not a foolhardy one. Even though they are overpriced."

He bought the first one at Dave Pyles Lincoln-Mercury in Annandale and the second at Herb Gordon Oldsmobile in Silver Spring. Rainwater, who also owns a classic Cadillac, had considered buying a De Lorean before the car's sudden notoriety. When the story broke, he says, "I was just devastated. I think it's a tragedy. They took a man and his ego and his need for money. He was set up for it."

Since he bought the cars, Rainwater says, reaction from other drivers who pass him on the roads has kept the construction company owner smiling. "People break their necks," he laughs.

At Cherner Lincoln-Mercury in Tysons Corner yesterday, Ralph Herring, a 53-year-old retired electrical contractor from Oakton, Va., was handed the keys to the next-to-last De Lorean on the lot.

"I guess in essence, we're buying it because it's different," Herring says. "But we had a long, hard struggle because of the moral issue." As a Christian, he says, he and his family at first could not reconcile themselves to the fact that part of the $29,000 purchase price might be going to a man "accused of trafficking in cocaine. We came to the conclusion that the money probably wouldn't help him personally. But we had to overcome that."

Herring says he decided on the De Lorean because of it's "uniqueness and the possibility of it remaining unique in the future."

So yesterday he paid for the car in cash, saying he will use it "just as a toy."

It hadn't taken long for the idea to catch on: The stainless steel sports cars that had moved sluggishly out of six area dealerships all year were suddenly hotter than Jackie Stewart's blow dryer. Besides Rainwater and Herring, other buyers in the Washington area who snapped up the gull-winged creations included doctors, lawyers and one Saudi Arabian sheik.

"Since this tragedy, the phone's been ringing off the hook," says Harvey Cherner, owner of Cherner Lincoln-Mercury in Tysons Corner. The dealership, which sold 29 of the cars since they arrived in August 1981, has two left.

"Everybody's trying to buy them," says Jerry Beswick, sales manager at Dave Pyles Lincoln-Mercury in Annandale, which sold its last six De Loreans in four days last week. "Most people paid in cash," Beswick says. "With the company going out of business, they're a collector's item now. It makes them quite valuable."

But whether the De Loreans will be driven or stored is the question. "They're probably going to store them," says Johnny Saunders, sales manager of Alexandria's Corporate Fleet Management, Inc., who put a classfied ad in the newspaper the day after De Lorean's arrest, advertising a 1981 model for $27,500.

"Five years down the road, they might be worth five times what it costs now. I have one man who wants to buy this car as an investment. But he's trading in an airplane for it. I gotta find a buyer for the plane first."

The sleek, silver-gray cars known as DMC-12s began arriving in the Washington area last August. Six dealers, who were asked to buy $25,000 worth of De Lorean Motor Co. stock in exchange for the franchise, said this week initial sales were brisk but fell off sharply after the first wave of customers, some of whom had been on waiting lists for as long as two years.

But since last week, buyers have been tripping over one other in the showrooms. Within hours of the news that the company was going out of business, Anton Motors in Rockville sold its last two De Loreans.

"Thank God," says sales manager Jack Smith. The dealership sold 17 of the sports cars in the past year. Sales, he says, were not brisk. "It was hard to find the right buyer, if you know what I mean. Two, three weeks from now, who knows, when the whole thing boils over they'll be just as hard to get rid of as before."

Area dealers estimated that approximately 8,500 De Loreans were shipped to America during the last year. Another 400 cars, still on the West Coast, are currently owned by the motor company and may be seized by creditors, according to one dealer.

Along with the sales rush was the equally predictable rash of De Lorean jokes, aimed at the flamboyant owner's supposed cocaine connection. Example: Q. Why does a De Lorean have trouble staying on the road? A. It keeps veering over to the white lines. Q. What noise does a De Lorean horn make? A. Toot-toot.

"Yeah, and it comes with free snow tires," says Melvyn J. Estrin, a Bethesda financial adviser who is thinking about cashing in on the sudden demand by selling the De Lorean he bought last year. "A friend of mine called up and said he was going to tear his De Lorean apart. He's sure there's a stash in there someplace."

Estrin is philosophical about the car's new-found cachet. "In some respects, I think it's an American tragedy. A man goes to start a new venture, to almost be successful. He got caught up in his own ego." The car, he says, debuted with a certain amount of glamour. "And it's certainly going out that way," Estrin laughs. "The image of glamour is directly from John De Lorean." Unlike other car models, designed by faceless Ford officials or corporate Chryslerites, Estrin says, "there is a person associated with this car."

"The economic times are really what made it fail," says Jerome Kaplan, a 46-year-old Bethesda real estate developer who bought his De Lorean in September 1981 for $26,000. "I just thought it would be fun to own one of the first ones," he says. "Mostly I like it. It's very dependable. I've had very little mechanical trouble. The visibility is bad in certain parts of the car. The seat is so low you can't see the front end of the hood."

Kaplan says the car attracted more than its share of attention, even before it made the headlines. "I'd get the thumbs up and the waves and the amazed looks when I opened the door."

Kaplan says he doesn't think the De Lorean is the Edsel of the '80s. "The Edsel was always known as a loser," he says. And as a collector's item, well, Kaplan isn't convinced. "The fact that it may go up 10 or 20 thousand dollars, in 10, 20 years, who cares? To me, the increased value isn't important." The De Lorean, he feels, isn't really as unique as some people suspect. "I don't think performance-wise it's anything special."

Raymond Rainwater, proud new owner of two De Loreans, disagrees.

"It drives like a dream," he says. "The De Lorean is almost in a class by itself."