The steering wheel has been handled so much that it has literally began to rot. The original seats had been sat in so many times that they wore through and had to be junked. The engine and the clutch had to be replaced in 1967. The original mufflers and tailpipes followed suit a few years later.

But at the age of 14-plus, the car that all this happened to be is not only still in one piece and not only still moving, but it also continues to add to an apparent American record.

The car, a basic-black 1965 Volkswagen Beetle, showed 425,838 miles on its odometer as of a few days ago. That is roughly 17 times round the world and more than any VW registered in the United States has ever covered, according to Herb Williamson, a VW spokesman.

The owner is Jay Parker, a 42-year-old Washington public relations consultant. He bought his Bug new in May 1965, for $1,752, from a dealer in Prospect Park, Pa.

"One-seven-five-two," said Parker, shaking his head in wonder at the idea of that many dollars buying a whole car today. "I was just married. I wasn't rich, or even close . . . I thought I was splurging."

Parker never intended that his "child" would survive so long or go so far. "I thought maybe I'd keep it for the traditional three, for, five years and that would be it," he said.

Nor does Parker have a fixed goal for the future. If his car lasts half a million miles or 20 years, "I'll just take it in stride. I'm not going to take the world out to dinner or anything."

What Parker is sure to do is to keep following his strict service regimen. Since moving to Washington in 1971, he has taken his VW to a mechanic near his Alexandria home twice a year.

"I tell them. 'Charge me five bucks more [which they do], but do it right [which they evidently do], so I don't have to come back [which he hasn't]. If I have a secret, that's it." Parker estimated he spends about $150 a year for parts and labor during his two checkups. See

Parker has major parts (batteries, tires, fuses) replaced before they've actually broken. In recent years, he has stopped driving his bug more than 70 miles an hour, or more than 30 miles at a time. "At its age," he explained, "it has to rest."

Parker has parked indoors or underground since buying the car. He has the oil checked every time he gets gas. And most important, as far as he is concerned, Parker tries never to let anyone else drive his car.

"If I let a parking lot attendent park it for me, I can tell someone else has driven it." Parker said. "It doesn't feel the same. It doesn't handle the same. After all these years, it's taken my personality. It's adjusted to my habits."

Parker's Bug is no buggy with a motor that works and nothing else that comes close. Not only does the AM radio still function, but it has enough oomph to overcome underground parking garages. The heater still works and the windshield wipers are fine. Even the windshield washer works, as do the lights and the horn.

Perhaps most remarkably, it is still difficult to shut the doors of Parker's car if the windows are rolled up, for the famed "Volkswagen vacuum seal" is still alive and well.

Parker ran up about 300,000 of the car's miles in the first five years he owned it. "I was selling insurance door-to-door in a strip between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and I'd put about 60,000 miles a year on it," Parker recalled. Since moving to Washington, Parker uses the car largely to commute between his home in Old Town Alexandria and his office near Connecticut Avenue.

According to Williamson, Parker's mileage total is second only to the 698,581 run up on a 1943 model by Tony Levy, a travel agent from Middlesex, England, who was still going strong in late 1977. The previous high U.S. total was 368,000, run up by Willard R. Wagner of Port Royal, Pa., who sold his VW in 1970. The average car in the United States is driven 95,000 miles, according to the American Automobile Association.

It is tempting to assume that a man who has bothered to keep the same car running for more than 14 years must be as frugal as they come. But Parker wears the best suits Brooks Brothers make, lives in a stylish home and picks up checks in restaurants "all the time, too much of the time."

He doesn't even know how many miles to the gallon he gets. "I kind of outgrew worrying about it, to tell you the truth," he said.

So what is Parker's fascination and motivation? Why breathe life into a VW that could have died with dignity long ago? "The reverse snob appeal," explained Parker. "Just what the VW ads were saying at the time I bought it. It is such a relief to have something this reliable that I can't see any reason to change. Besides, I love going to a dinner at an embassy and pulling up next to all the Caddies and the Continentals."

Probably because he maintains it so carefully, Parker has only once had the car die on him. "It was in rush hour on the George Washington [Memorial] Parkway a couple of years ago. All it was a timing adjustment the car needed," he said. The car was towed only that once, and it has never been in an accident. Nor have the chassis or transmission ever needed any major work.

Would Parker buy another VW? "I honestly don't know," he said. "I wouldn't be sure it would be the same car after all these years."

Would he buy any car besides a VW? "I doubt it. They all have so many moving parts. Something can always go wrong."

And will Parker ever sell his Bug?

"One of the guys at the garage asks me from time to time," said Parker. "What I tell him is, I couldn't afford to." CAPTION: Picture, Jay Parker stands beside his faithful VW Beetle, which has been driven farther than any other Volkswagen registered in the U.S. By James A. Parcell - The Washington Post