I am about to engage in that 20th-century flog known as buying a car. To most of us, that generates about as much pleasure as root-canal work. First of all, "buying" a car is a misnomer. "Haggling," "trading," "hustling," "dealing," all are more appropriate words for what reminds one of a barter deal taking place in a marketplace in Tangier.

My goal is simple: to obtain a small economy machine for my daughter, who is about to leave for college. I would imagine that any number of dads around the nation are embarking on a similar mission, and all are heading, filled with the same trepidation, for those flashy glass and chrome emporiums. Awaiting all of us, according to our most fearsome images, are gangs of smoothies in glen- plaid sport coats possessing the guile and hypnotic powers of a Rasputin.

I like cars. I like to own them and to drive them. But I hate to buy them. I hate to troop into a showroom to be greeted like a long-lost pal by a silver-tongued rascal with a special deal just for me, a deal for which he pledges to sacrifice his job, his reputation and his entire family simply to sell me a new Blivet-8 with optional sun roof.

I hate to have to bargain with him, knowing the price he quotes me is not the real price but some ephemeral number. I know, but he won't admit, that he's working on a mark-up that could be as high as 20 percent, plus all sorts of "hold-back" bonuses (hidden extra profits sometimes offered by the manufacturer to the dealer as a sales inducement). Therefore, I have no idea what the actual price is.

This is not the case when I buy a suit or a half-gallon of milk. I don't have to negotiate for these items, and I object on principle to having to bluff and bluster my way, like a camel trader, to a mutually agreeable price.

Curiously, the National Automobile Dealers Association, the powerful and progressive organization encompassing most of the 25,000 domestic and import dealers in the nation, says that I am in the minority when it comes to objections about the way cars are sold. It quotes a recent customer survey conducted by Market Opinion Research revealing that 80 percent of those questioned expressed satisfaction with the car-buying process. Moveover, 71 percent said they "shopped" at least three dealerships seeking the best price, and 32 percent claimed they liked the game of haggling over price (43 percent said they disliked bargaining). But if this is such a pleasant chore, why do automobile dealers still have such a lousy public image?

"We're at the bottom, looking up at everybody," says Lou Priebe, director of public relations for the NADA. He cites a 1981 Gallup poll ranking various businesses and professions that indicates only 6 percent of the public believe that car dealers represent honesty and high ethical standards. That may be a bum rap. Over the years, the car salesmen I've dealt with (despite their questionable wardrobes and their lapses into hyperbole) have been no better or worse than the average real estate agent, insurance agent or clothier.

Car salesmen, or "sales consultants," as the men and women now in the business like to be known, are victims of a mad barter system that forces some of the weaker souls in the business to the edge of thievery. They are on the front line, forced to sell the good, the bad and the ugly served up by the manufacturers they represent. "You can't believe the number of customers who think we actually built the junk that sometimes gets unloaded in our lots," says a dealer friend. "That's a natural reaction, I suppose, because we represent the product -- bragging about it when it's good and trying to hide from it when it's bad." (Priebe describes it as "blaming the flight attendant when the plane won't take off.")

In reality, the car dealer of America is an independent operating with a franchise to sell one or more brands of automobile. He must buy the cars from the factory and resell them for whatever he can get. If the products are good -- say, with the present lines of Ford or Honda -- he can sell them for the full sticker price. If the line is weak -- say, the present General Motors brands or the Nissan line -- dealers have to discount to prevent being overwhelmed by inventory.

Car dealers operate in wild cycles of feast or famine, either their inventories depleted because the manufacturer has produced a line of hot sellers or their facilities loaded with lime-green diesels upholstered in purple velour that couldn't be sold as boat anchors.

In 1950, there were 48,000 car dealers in America. You could buy a Ford or a Chevrolet on every street corner. At the end of 1986, there were 24,750 dealers left, and the countdown continues. The ones who are left are serious businessmen. In 1986, they generated business to the tune of $283 billion and employed 888,000 people. There are almost no bozos remaining. "Those stereotypes in the double-knit leisure suits with the white patent- leather shoes are passe'," says Priebe. Most are solid professionals operating businesses with gross average sales of more than $11 million annually (more than double that of 1980, owing to the fact that new-car average selling prices have leapt from an average of $7,350 in 1980 to $12,850 in 1986).

"Mega-dealers" -- multi-franchise owners selling tens of thousands of cars annually through as many as 20 different dealerships over wide geographic areas -- are the latest trend, and serious talks within the industry center on them (as court cases surely will, too, as manufacturers question this as a violation of the aged single-dealer franchise agreement).

No matter how professional the businesses themselves, the system is still crazy. And it will remain so until automobiles are sold as price-stable merchandise, not as commodities subject to zany swings in the market, like crude oil and pork bellies. Sadly, there is little we as customers can do about it, except to steel ourselves for the ordeal and to be cautious about our new-found "friends" behind the glass doors.

Oh, yes -- one more thing: Anybody got an idea what I can get on a trade for a nice, clean 1982 Toyota Corolla? ::