Like so many venerable American automotive makes, Buick seemed to jump its tracks somewhere back in the 1960s. A quarter-century later, the aged and much-honored brand is still having trouble getting back on the rails of success, returning to its tradition of building autos that reflect upper-middle-class style and luxury. Sales this year are off nearly 40 percent from 1986, a year that also recorded a steep sales decline. Buick's story is by no means unique; it symbolizes the ailments that afflict much of our domestic automobile industry.

Since 1903, when David Dunbar Buick left the hardware business (where he had perfected the process for porcelainizing iron bathtubs and sinks) to make automobiles, the name Buick has stood for good sense and restraint. One of the original members of General Motors, formed in 1908, Buick established a seemingly unbeatable reputation as the transport of America's burghers -- well-off tradesmen and merchants, doctors and lawyers.

The cars were positioned in the GM pantheon just below Cadillac and slightly above Oldsmobile. According to the corporate wisdom of GM paterfamilias Alfred P. Sloan, who ran the corporation from 1923 to 1956, that place was inviolate. The GM ladder would start at the bottom with Chevrolet, with the next rung being Pontiac, then Oldsmobile, then Buick and finally Cadillac. By rigidly maintaining these five distinct echelons, based on style, price, quality and image, Sloan was able to make General Motors the largest and most profitable automobile manufacturer in the world. But after Sloan retired, the system began to unravel.

Inter-divisional rivalries prompted territorial encroachments. Chevrolet began to elbow into Pontiac's domain. Oldsmobile and Buick eyed the power and prestige of Cadillac and began producing rival models. The import invasion of the late 1950s prompted more confusion. When compact cars became the rage, Buick built its small "Special" in 1961, blurring the image of prestige and status it had fought so long to preserve. Some buyers at the time must have recalled that it was in a Buick Roadmaster that Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson made her escape during the English abdication crisis of 1936. Such buyers must have wondered if she would have deigned to make the trip in a mundane Special.

With the performance craze of the mid-'60s, Buick began courting the youth market with hot Wildcats and Skylark GSs -- cars with four on the floor, four- barrel carbs and massive V-8s.

In the '70s, Buick was saddled with the homogenized, corporate-designed X-cars and J-cars, cloned mediocrities that were identical throughout the GM lineup except for trim and nameplates. All the GM divisions, from Chevrolet to Cadillac, were selling essentially the same automobiles. For example, the J-cars from Chevy (the Cavalier) and from Cadillac (the Cimarron) were also sold by Buick (the Skylark), Oldsmobile (the Firenze) and Pontiac (the Sunbird). Each GM division was intent on being all things to all people -- pandering to the traditional large-car customer, to the hot-rodder, to the baby boomer, to the economy-minded. The real irony for Buick is that throughout a quarter- century of this chipping away at its own identity, the company was frantically trying to find its own niche in the market.

Potential customers, confused by an amorphous image and repelled by declining quality, went elsewhere. But today, despite its terrible tailspin, Buick is making dramatic changes.

First, new products are on the way. For example, Buick will be the first to sell the new GM-10 mid-size cars. Oldsmobile and Pontiac won't introduce their GM-10s until the spring of 1988. Buick will call its flashy new front-drive model the Regal and will introduce it later this summer. GM pledges that the car will offer major advances in design and, more important, quality. (No one is sure how the GM-10s will be received, but initial reviews are favorable. Though the car is extraordinarily aerodynamic, with a drag coefficient of .30, its styling remains in the recent GM idiom, which may be a bit pallid for consumers smitten by the flashier lines of Ford.)

Second, Buick has announced a change in marketing strategy to reestablish communication with its old, upper-middle-class market. The timing could not be better. J.D. Power and Associates, the leading automotive market researcher, recently noted that maturing, increasingly affluent buyers will become a major factor in the market. As the baby boomers enter their forties and dual-income households become more common, domestic carmakers have a chance to make inroads in this segment.

Power notes that domestic luxury-car purchases increase steadily among buyers 50 years and older and jump dramatically after age 65. As Americans grow older and richer (households earning more than $50,000 per year will double by 1997, predicts Power), traditional American brands like Buick have an excellent shot at recovery.

But there are caveats: Buick's managers must keep their eyes on the target, carefully tailoring their products. Buicks should be automobiles with superb ride control, adequate power, high levels of quality and conservative but distinctive styling (a Buick must never again be confused with a Pontiac or a Chevrolet). Buicks must not be compact economy cars or souped-up pavement-burners. Buicks have no place in automobile racing, where the stock-car fans are light years away from the target audience.

Buicks must be serious, strong, responsible machines, tasteful but not gaudy, luxurious but not overwrought. They must not be cheapened Cadillacs or gussied-up Oldsmobiles. The same goes for the other four GM product lines. By carefully segregating them from one another in terms of form and function, the corporation will take a giant step toward reviving the American car business.

Sloan had it right. Now it's up to his successors to make his wisdom work. If they succeed, buying a Buick may once again mean something. Mrs. Simpson wouldn't have had it any other way. ::