It used to be that a car was merely something to get me from one place to another. I required nothing more except that it start in cold weather. Then, last year, we decided to order a car for me according to my own specifications. Not a luxury car, mind you, but something a shade better than an eight-year-old Chevy blowing blue smoke for an exhaust.

We spent months leafing through copies of consumer guides.We visited dealer after dealer where, just when we thought we had settled on price, the manager discovered something that the salesman had "overlooked." Finally, however, the order went in for a Fairmont wagon. We made a deposit and the manager in turn gave us the number of our car-to-be. We could call any time, he told us, and they would run the number through their computer to see just where it was on the assembly line. It was something akin to monitoring a fetal heartbeat.

The nine-week wait for the Fairmont was like a pregnancy, but whenever we checked its progress, we were told that things were going nicely and the baby would arrive on schedule. Then came the day that the Fairmont left Michigan and they said we could expect it the following Tuesday. We circled the day on the calendar.

On Monday we received a phone call.

"We're terribly sorry," said the manager, "but we've made a mistake. Your car came in over the weekend and a salesman sold it to someone else."

He might as well have told me that the baby I had carried for nine months had gone home with the wrong parents.

"Tell him to bring it back!" I gasped.

"I'm afraid that's not possible. The papers have been signed and the title drawn up. But of course we will refund your deposit."

"I don't believe this is happening!" I said: "We researched that car; we designed that car; we paid for that car; we waited nine weeks for that car, and our son needs our old one for a summer job. You can't do this to us!"

"Haven't you ever made a mistake?" the manager chided.

My husband got on the phone and the manager agreed to at least call the unsuspecting owner of the Fairmont, tell him what happened and offer him a similar car in trade. Without bucket seats, of course, and stereo and side vent windows and a rear defroster -- all the little extras that made this car ours.

"He'll never agree to trade it," I wept to my husband. "He'll turn out to be a redneck bigot who throws beer cans in the back seat."

"We'll see," said my husband.

The dealer called back to say that the owner certainly wasn't happy about it, and would make no promises, but had at least agreed to meet us.

We drove to the dealer's. The Fairmont, our Fairmont, was there in the lot with a parking sticker already affixed to the bumper. The owner was at a phone in an inner office.

"He's consulting his lawyer," the manager huffed sullenly, and busied himself with his papers.

"What kind of a man do you think he is?" I asked my husband as we watched the owner through the glass, making his lengthy phone call. "A taxidermist? A house painter? IBM?"

We stood out in the showroom waiting for something to happen and found ourselves standing next o the owner's teen-age son. He looked miserable too, so we began to commiserate with each other. They had gone shopping over the weekend, he told us, and come upon the Fairmont, and then this man had called...

The owner emerged at last. We circled each other like mongrels, but managed somehow to shake hands. The owner, in fact, gave us his card: "Professor of Social Ethics," it read, and named a local university.

So what does a professor of social ethics do when confronted with a social problem in front of his teen-age son?

The ethical thing, of course. The man was a gentleman. He said he had been discussing the problem with his wife, and felt that he ought to return the car. He was relieved to have it over. We were relieved to have the Fairmont. And the dealer was enormously relieved to have us all out of his showroom. He probably went home and kicked the dog.