Up ahead, Ralph Nader is riding in a maroon sedan doing 70 on I-94, the Willow Run Freeway, outside of Detroit. Nader's 6-foot 4-inch body is strapped in by a seat belt on the passenger side, his face behind a newspaper, while a Wayne State University student at the wheel weaves through traffic. The man who became famous 18 years ago for Unsafe at Any Speed, a book about the dangers of the General Motors Corvair, is wheeling up the road in a Chrysler because he is late for a press conference in the Motor City.

As many politicians and newspapers have soured on Ralph Nader in the last five years, Nader has taken to the road almost every week, quietly tending an empire that has grown to include 167 "public interest research groups" in 27 states, four powerful and moneyed organizations in Washington, twice-a-week cable television commentaries, even a nonfiction movie production company he hopes will produce films to inspire workers and consumers--films in the style of "Norma Rae," which Nader liked.

"I think he's about to make a comeback, because the issues that started him out are timeless--the issues are about to make a comeback," said Michael Kinsley, a former Nader's Raider who is now editor of Harper's magazine. "He's coming out of his cocoon . . . He's not going to allow himself to become a cuddly old man like I. F. Stone."

As part of his new push for recognition, whenever Nader visits a city like Detroit he holds a press conference to evaluate the local members of Congress. This day, on the Wayne State campus, in front of five television cameras and about 10 reporters, Nader-- shoulders sloped in a rumpled gray suit-- goes after Rep. John Dingell, the Democrat from the 16th District.

"Dingell voted against me on the vote for delaying the (Alaska natural gas) pipeline vote for only two days," says the self-appointed spokesman for the little man. He leans over the lectern, gripping its edges and waving a bony finger at reporters: "Two days that would have allowed consumers to mobilize the opposition we needed . . . The consumer voting record of Rep. Dingell needs improving ..."

The question he hears the most from critics, Nader says, is "Who elected you?" As in, "Who elected you to say I want air bags in the dashboard of my car?"

To Nader, the question sums up an attitude that leaves the graying Harvard-educated lawyer both puzzled and compelled to prove himself. Nearly two decades after Nader became the king of consumers and environmentalists, he finds people calling him a has-been.

His answer has been to cultivate support groups around the country that honor and respect him as their patron saint, the man so feared by General Motors that the corporation once hired detectives to trail him.

"He's a hero to me," says Richard Levick, a staff member of the Michigan public interest group Nader has come to address. "He's the only one in Washington I'd like to be like."

Laboring largely out of view of the front pages in the past few years, Nader personally earns at least $200,000 a year, judging from his average $3,000 lecture fee and the number of lectures he delivers (at least one a week); in earlier years he sometimes earned much more than that. He says much of his income has been plowed back into his organizations. Information returns filed with the Internal Revenue Service support his statement that he has contributed $300,000 to $500,000 since 1964 to tax-exempt groups he influences. He says he invested another half- million dollars to Congress Project, a Nader-inspired study of how members of Congress vote, and poured money into other projects as well.

Nader's income for the last 18 years and the tax-free $283,000 he won in his lawsuit against General Motors have led biographer David Sanford, now of The Wall Street Journal, to conclude that Nader is a closet millionaire. Nader denies that.

The king of the consumers now heads tax-exempt groups worth about $5 million. He has 100 employes working directly for him in Washington, buttressed by a devoted contingent of nearly a million supporters in the network of Nader-founded public interest research groups. Many of the PIRGs, set up as independent organizations, are headed by directors hired on Nader's personal recommendation. The PIRGs, all on college campuses, are financed by students who often authorize "dues" to be paid from their student government fees. The groups monitor members of Congress, lobby in city halls and state legislatures and mount national campaigns to sway Congress or the White House. And many of them are growing rapidly. The New York State Public Interest Research Group in four years has doubled its budget--to $2.5 million per year--and its staff--to 180 full-time workers.

Nader staffers over the years have gone on to powerful jobs elsewhere. Among his former workers are: James Fallows, Washington editor of Atlantic magazine; Kinsley, former editor of The New Republic and now editor of Harper's; Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.); Claire Townsend, vice president of 20th Century-Fox; Harrison Wellford, an official of the Office of Management and Budget in the Carter administration.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, many of the very brightest student activists from Ivy League schools joined Nader's Raiders after graduation. These days, Nader says, the Ivy Leaguers have slipped into Topsider shoes and have become obsessed with getting into law school, medical school or business school. The activists now, he says, are at state universities, and before they graduate, they join the PIRGs he has founded.

"Ralph has had several victories in the last few years," said Sidney Wolfe, former head of Public Citizen, Nader's main group, and now director of a Nader health research project, including:

* "An immigration case decision that prevented the House from overruling the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service)."

* Creation of the Citizens Utility Group in Wisconsin to fight rate increases (an organization that signed up 70,000 members in nine months at $3 each).

* A monitoring program that helped "in keeping the Teamsters' pension fund in order."

Nader has his own additions to the list:

* A Nader group prompted Ford Motor Co. to send a warning to owners of some autos because of gearshifts that could slip from "park" to "reverse."

* Public Citizen put out a book on 610 drugs the group believes to be ineffective but that are still widely prescribed.

* Newspaper reporters were on the phone to his Aviation Consumer Action group as the source for information after an Air Florida plane crashed into the Potomac River.

Nader says he is at work on food safety laws to ensure that restrictions on chemical additives are not removed by food- store lobbyists and that meat inspection standards are kept up. He also is trying to persuade Congress to require that television networks give consumers one hour a day of prime time with viewers funding a staff of producers, entertainers and reporters.

But Nader sees the creation of the Wisconsin Citizens Utility Board as a key victory. The Wisconsin law, adopted at Nader's urging, requires utilities to ask their customers four times a year--in an attachment to utility bills--whether they would like to join a Citizens Utility Board. The $210,000 raised in Wisconsin in nine months funded a staff that opposed utilities on rate increases and fathered a mailing list of people who could be mobilized on other consumer issues. The Citizens Utility Board is the "silicon chip" of the consumer movement, Nader said, the discovery that will take it into the future.

On the day he left for Detroit, Nader walked idly into National Airport at 10:28 a.m., two minutes before his plane was scheduled to depart. He comes through this airport about once a week, but as he walked in, he seemed confused. He searched for his departure gate. He ran his hands through his graying hair.

"Detroit?" asked an airline ticket taker. Nader, who often impresses acquaintances as being preoccupied, nodded and, guided by the attendant, moved off toward the correct gate.

Nader's agenda on his Detroit trip was to expand the Michigan PIRG by organizing chapters at Wayne State University and at Ypsilanti's Eastern Michigan University and finally to put in an appearance at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Nader helped found the Michigan group 10 years ago. It now has 40,000 student members and operates on a $150,000 annual budget.

The recipe for expanding a PIRG is simple. Step One: Bring in the man the students have heard about since they were kids, and let him tell them that the movement needs them. Step Two: Pass around a petition asking that the student government approve a referendum on whether to establish a PIRG at the school. Step Three: Put Nader on the TV news that night so the students can see him again. (Two weeks after Nader spoke at Wayne State the students approved organizing a PIRG.)

As his airplane climbed out of the airport, Nader looked down at the 14th Street Bridge. He pointed to where Air Florida's flight 90 crashed. Is National a safe airport? he was asked. "This airport is amazingly safe for a small airport with as many flights as the major airports," he said.

Did he know what kind of aircraft he would be flying in? Yes, Nader knew the Boeing 727 is Northwest Orient's standard airplane. He said that although there were some problems with 727s after their introduction, the plane is now operationally "very safe . . . There's accountability in flying. As they say, the pilot is the first on the scene of the accident."

Nader flies in confidence, but there are autos he will not ride in: the Volkswagen Beetle ("too fragile"); the Corvair, the car his first book criticized. Nader doesn't like to ride in Fiats or in small Hondas made before 1980 either.

Wherever he walks on the campus of Wayne State University, there are whispers and fingers pointing at Ralph Nader. He gets to the student auditorium and stops to look inside. The room is packed with about 1,000 students-- standing room only. As he walks to the stage, there is an ovation.

His speech is ad-libbed, conversational, with "ahs," pauses and "you know" here and there. Slouched over the lectern, dramatically tousling his hair in exasperation when he tells of misdeeds, Nader looks the part of the hip professor. He begins by asking the students how many are in school to get a job. Most hands go up.

How many are there to get an education? A few hands go up--accompanied by a lot of laughter. Nader tells the students that's just what the big corporations want--young people hungry for any job, willing to do anything, to give the company whatever it wants in exchange for a paycheck. Anything, he says, including destruction of a whole neighborhood like Poletown, the Detroit area razed to make way for a new General Motors plant.

Why do corporations get anything they want? asks Nader. Because, he answers, of the great corporate threat held over students, politicians and anyone else: "If you don't do what we want, we'll take your job--we'll take all the jobs and move to Houston."

Why are there no courses in corporate crime? he asks. It's going on all over the country. "The companies don't want you to know what's happening. Can you imagine going to a job interview and telling the man you were studying corporate crime?" Nader asks. "You wouldn't get that job." So, he says, instead of studying what you want to study, you end up studying everything the corporations want you to study, subjects that won't challenge the companies but make you come begging for a job.

Why not challenge the system? says Nader. Get college credit for seeing what corporate lobbyists are doing in the state legislature; get college credit for finding out where the pollution in the Detroit River is coming from; find out why the chemical PCB is found in mothers' milk.

Would Detroit be in trouble now, he asks, if there had been an organization of car consumers in the 1950s when American auto companies would do little more than change the grills from year to year? What, he asks, if car consumers had organized, had said they didn't care if the grills "grimaced one year and grinned the next"?

From cars, Nader goes on to nuclear power plants. He says that if the Kremlin wanted to plant Trojan horses in the United States it couldn't have done a better job than the American utilities are doing building nuclear power plants.

Then he shifts to the military. How many cities could one Trident submarine devastate, he asks? One? Two? By the time he reaches 10, all the hands are up in the air. "Two hundred and forty," he says.

Back to the corporations: he asks how many teaspoons of sugar in a 12-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola? Two? Some hands. Three? Most of the hands in the audience go up. He keeps going. "Nine point two," says Nader with a look of horror, his eyes wide. He is enjoying this. Yuck, nine, the students groan. He asks: If you saw them putting nine teaspoons of sugar into your soda, would you drink it?

Then the pitch: join him, join his public interest research group. He caricatures bored students, studying subjects that have nothing to do with real life. He says students in other parts of the world are fighting for rights. "This generation may be remembered as the generation that refused to give up so little when it could have (achieved) so much."

Back home in Washington, Nader is sitting in the P Street offices of the Center for the Study of Responsive Law. Around him are pieces of old office furniture, boxes crammed with files and in the corner there are boxes of sugar- free, no-preservatives grape juice. The place has the look of rumpled, friendly chaos, the style of Nader himself when he is addressing college students.

"I live on $100 a week," says the son of a Lebanese restaurant owner. "I don't own a house or a car--because they would take too much time, like finding parking spaces or repairing the house. I don't have time to spend money. I'd rather be dealing with GM than go to the Kennedy Center. I've been to three Redskins games in the last 10 years . . . two Bullets games. If I want to relax I'll stay home and watch a play on public TV--maybe I'll go to a movie."

Nader's recent reading list has included Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen's biography of Admiral Rickover, Joseph Dekin's The Electronic Cottage, a book on home computers and technology, and Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth, a book on the nuclear arms race. Does he read any fiction? Nader said perhaps one of the 100 books he reads a year is fiction. There's too much happening that he wants to keep up with, he said. He's too busy for fiction, just as he is to busy to own a car, too busy to have a family, too busy to care about clothes or anything but reforming the nation for consumers.

Some congressmen consider Nader self-righteous. They didn't like the way he threw his weight around when he was trying to get a government consumer agency started in the Carter administration. They bristled when he called Rep. Paul N. McCloskey Jr. (R-Calif.) a "disgusting, repulsive, slimy, double-crosser." And then there was the infamous 1979 shouting match with Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) at a congressional hearing.

Nader, who opposed a federal government loan guarantee for Chrysler unless the car company improved the safety of its cars, was told by Garn that "if the American people knew what you've cost us in the name of consumerism, they'd run you out of the country."

Nader's reply was swift: He told Garn that if auto safety standards had been issued as Nader wanted them, "one senator's wife would be alive today." Garn's wife, Hazel, died in a 1976 accident when her Plymouth Volare crashed.

Garn, furious, rose in the hearing room to tell Nader that his wife had been wearing a seat belt. Garn asked Nader how he could use "my wife of 19 years to interject into a hearing. What kind of human being are you?"

Nader now says he was trying to make a broader point that if the car companies had responded to calls for higher safety standards, the car would not have crumpled, killing Hazel Garn, when it rolled over. The car was not hit by another vehicle, but rolled after skidding. The exchange with Garn made the next day's newspapers. But for many on Capitol Hill, the story entered the history books, a permanent reason for disliking Nader.

"Nader can't generate votes in the Congress on anything anymore," said Jeff Joseph, the congressional lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce of the United States. "There was a bill a while back to set up a consumer's court where people could go to complain about bad products. We almost lost that because of the backlash to Nader. He acts as if he alone holds all the truth.

"The popular image of Nader," said Joseph, "is that he stands up for people. That's good. But in reality the programs he advocates are the kind of things most people don't want--more regulation, more government, more bureaucracy, more red tape . . . Nader said take saccharin off the market. He said put air bags and passive restraints in cars. And people are saying, 'No thanks, Ralph Nader doesn't speak for me.'"

Nader knows he is often unpopular in Washington, even in liberal circles. He claims The Washington Post and The New York Times, among other publications, publish feature articles, editorials and columns that he says--he has counted them--go 6-to-1 against him.

The Post and Washington politicians are not his only adversaries, adds Nader. So was the Gannett News Service, he says, when it ran a six-part series cree, laiming that a Nader foundation profited by speculating in International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. stock while Nader was fighting that company's merger with The Hartford Fire Insurance Co. Nader says the foundations' and his actions were coincidental.

Nader said he believes Gannett published the series because he is opposed to newspaper chains. Gannett owns more than 80 newspapers, several TV stations and an advertising firm. He calls chains like Gannett "enemies of democracy" because he says they promote conformity of opinions in the press.

Another of his adversaries, he says, was the Nixon White House. In 1970, Nader paid a $3,057 fine to the IRS for "churning" stocks in the investment portfolios of some of his tax-exempt groups, buying and selling them quickly to make fast profits. The IRS charge was brought on by the politics of the Nixon White House, Nader said, and he would have fought it, instead of paying the fines, had lawyers' fees not been more costly than the fine.

Still another adversary, Nader says, is Ralph De Toledano, a syndicated columnist. In 1975 Nader filed suit against De Toledano. Nader claimed he was libeled when the columnist wrote that Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.) had said Nader fabricated evidence showing the Corvair to be an unsafe car.

Nader's suit prompted Nat Hentoff, a Village Voice columnist, to write: "Ralph Nader is the very model of a public citizen vigorously exercising his free-speech rights around the clock . . . but when Nader himself was vigorously criticized in similar terms by a little-known right-wing columnist, this champion of robust debate on public issues chose to punish his critic with a million-dollar libel suit . . ."

Later, Hentoff added: "Or was this meant to be a lesson to other journalists that Saint Nader is to be considered immune from attack?"

Nader replied in a column of his own: "I've been pilloried, lied about and smeared more than anyone, and I have never filed suit--until then. He (De Toledano) misrepresented what Ribicoff had said . . . That was the line . . . if you let them get away with that, what will happen to the little guy when he tries to speak out? What happens if a guy in one small company town stands up and says the company is polluting the water? Without the libel laws the company can go right after him, say he's a liar, a communist, whatever, that he's chasing little girls and ruin him. That kind of lie puts a chill on the exercise of democracy. That's why I did it. Besides, he said he wanted to be sued by me. Why should he be denied his pleasure?"

The case is scheduled to go to trial in the Superior Court in Washington later this year.

Some press curiosity about Nader is fueled by the air of secrecy that he cultivates. He has lived in Washington for 18 years, first in a rooming house near Dupont Circle, sometimes in his brother Shafik's house off Connecticut Avenue, and now in an apartment off Dupont Circle. But Nader declines to supply any addresses.

Even where he works is something of a mystery. He has several desks scattered through his organizations but apparently no one office with pictures and mementos of his life. He has no secretary. He has no noticeable social life other than with friend Joan Claybrook, who, even after Nader publicly lambasted her while she was administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Adminstration, has remained close to Nader. In February she became head of his main group, Public Citizen.

Nader is so private that he says he sometimes does not admit he is Ralph Nader to people who recognize him on the street. He often makes reservations using an initial for his first name.

"I lead a life that is open to so much hassling during the day," Nader says. "Everyone wants something done or wants to find out what I'm doing if I'm looking into their organization . . . Maybe there are those who wouldn't wish me well. Maybe there are those like the detectives for GM who want to trail me again. Who needs that?"

He refuses to discuss his income, because he says that would give his corporate opponents information about his groups' resources. In a serious legal fight, Nader says, information about his earnings and savings could allow corporations to try to outlast him and bankrupt his groups.

Nader not only suspects the motives of enemies but has been wary of friends as well. Take the case of Ted Jacobs, as it is described by Nader and Jacobs' associates of the time. In the early '70s Jacobs, who was executive director of the Center for the Study of Responsive Law and a Nader classmate in both college and law school, proposed that Nader's various groups all be housed in one place and put under the control of a central board. Nader opposed the idea, explaining that he did not want to start a huge bureaucracy, he says, but Jacobs reportedly saw Nader's real objection as a fear that his ultimate authority over the affairs of the groups might be challenged if the reorganization went through.

Jacobs became increasingly disturbed by what he saw as Nader's autocratic methods after his proposal was turned down, and began writing critical memos to Nader. Jacobs had worked with Nader for seven years in addition to their school days together. One night Nader went into Jacobs' office and removed all his files. Jacobs left the Nader organization shortly afterward and now works for a congressional committee; he won't comment on what happened.

Nader's fears about adversaries make some people think that he sees himself as the good guy in a world of bad guys, a man with a persecution complex. Nader scoffed at such suggestions. "People with a persecution complex lose their composure, their detachment, their competence and their credibility," he said. "They're not productive. I'm productive."

Fear of Ralph Nader in political circles is not what it used to be. In the early 1970s Nader was often used by politicians in their campaign advertising. When he started his Congress Project to "tell the American people what is going on in Congress," several congressmen were quoted in the newspapers as saying they felt threatened for having voted against Nader's proposal for a consumer protection agency. Now some politicians say they like having it known that Nader doesn't like them. Many voters, they believe, don't like Nader.

"Across the board," said Angie Martin, head of campaign services for the Democratic National Committee, "Ralph is known for his integrity, his honesty--no one questions that. Our polling data show that his issues--environmental concerns, clean air--are things people are very concerned about. But it depends on where the race is . . . If the incumbent has been in office a long time and people know him, I don't think Ralph will have much effect . . ."

In the two political races in which Nader has taken an active part, both of his candidates lost. The most recent was former Nader's Raider Mark Green's loss to Bill Green in a congressional race in New York.

While he still attracts crowds on the road and his organizations grow in money and membership, the press and the politicians have yet to reveal renewed interest in Ralph Nader's projects.

Now he is more preoccupied with government regulation of industry than with badly made autos; now he is better known for focusing on the Freedom of Information Act than on high prices. Those issues are not as gut-level as dangerous cars and polluted drinking water, and that leads Nader's critics to two questions: Has he lost touch with the public that made him a hero, and who can tell Ralph Nader that he is wrong about anything?

Even his friends acknowledge some of his problems.

"His anger can be used against him," says Claybrook. "The temper makes Ralph into a personality that can be dismissed."

Claybrook felt Nader's sting shortly after she joined the government and signed an agreement with car makers extending the deadline for when airbags or other passive restraint systems would be required in all new cars.

Nader roared into print and before the TV cameras condemning Claybrook for giving the car makers too much time. He said they would use the extra time to get her ruling overturned--not to comply with it. Nader filed suit.

Claybrook, under attack from both sides, found herself without support. The car companies pushed, and eventually her ruling that airbags be required was overridden.

Would the auto companies have won if Nader had acted as an ally to Claybrook and been able to argue with Congress that Claybrook had given the car companies enough time?

Nader's position on the fight was that government officials--it doesn't matter if they are former consumer advocates--need pressure from both sides. If they can't handle pressure from consumer advocates, then they certainly can't handle pressure from corporate bosses.

"The Carter administration years showed," said Nader, "that no matter how good the administrator, if (consumers) don't have a power base in the citizenry to make it work, then the power base outside the government (the companies) is going to cut the ground away from under you."

And what about the critics who say no one can tell Nader if he's wrong? "It's hard for us to abuse power," Nader says, clasping his hands intently. "Our power is in the facts we can find, the values we have and the litigation which asks the courts to agree with us. That's it. We don't have power like corporations. We don't have the power to sell bad products and hurt people . . . We don't have the power to shut down the economy. The best way to bring a senator to his knees these days is for a lobbyist . . . to say, 'Senator, if you don't give us this loan guarantee, 30,000 guys are going to be out of work.'

"Then there is the power of massive corporate wealth. They can hire lobbyists . . . and there is the power of campign contributions. And you've got job opportunities for when the congressmen and the agency directors leave government. They know what is waiting for them if they don't rock the boat . . . three-fourths of the former FCC commissioners now work in the broadcast industry."

If he could reform America for consumers, if he could have Ralph Nader's vision of the perfect America, then what would he have?

"An America where citizen involvement in community and national affairs is more pleasing and time-consuming than the 25 hours a week that most people spend watching television," he said, laughing.

Then very seriously he added: "It would be a country where consumers would own many of their own businesses . . . where there is a good mesh between what products are manufactured and what products are consumed. Right now you have companies manufacturing video games when people need homes. There's not enough mass transportation or health care, and they are putting out games. Consumer groups would have the information to balance the economy, to say to the producers, 'We have an interest in what you produce and we are organized to the point where we can have a say in what you produce and the byproducts of what you produce, the amount of pollution . . .'

"Socialism is government ownership of the means of production," he answered in response to a question of whether he advocates socialism. "I'm talking about consumers having sovereignty over the economy, over the means of production, having the knowledge to be well informed as they deal with the private sector."

The speeches, the twice-weekly commentaries on Ted Turner's Cable News Network, an attempt to start a cable TV talk show, the growing number of groups on college campuses, all represent Nader's effort to make himself a permanent part of the political landscape.

"The stage is being set," he said, "for a lot of corporate abuse in the marketplace and in the environment and in politics. It's going to lead to a backlash that will make the '60s consumer movement pale by comparison."

This is Nader's prayer for the future. He wants to get back into the spotlight, to do interviews, to appear on TV. His present media obscurity is a marked contrast to the young Connecticut lawyer who once was single-handedly fighting the heads of corporations, a man who often did not return reporters' phone calls because there were so many, too many.

"In media circles," he says, stretching his long, nail-bitten fingers, "the truth, to be newsworthy, has to be fresh . . . you see it in every era.

"Every era has its particular big movement even though 20 years later there is just the same need for the same movement. I mean, auto recalls were big news in the late '60s. Now there are so many they're just a squib in the paper. You know, people say to me, 'What are you working on now?' and I say 'Injustice.' . . . We stake out areas that we think are generic: right to access to government, access to the marketplace. Those things transcend substantial issues like car repairs or insurance. And then we focus on the health issues, autos, taxes and teaching people how to organize, how to develop a coalition, how to investigate. I like to think of myself as a Johnny Appleseed getting consumer groups started and letting them grow on their own. That's what we're trying to do."