"What do you call that thing," a passerby in a sleek Buick hollered at Cole (Country) Cummings and his personalized 1965 Chevrolet Impala, parked at its usual place in the Safeway lot at 6th and H streets NE.

It's my Cadillac," he answers as the car passes on.

The Chevrolet, just barely discernible beneath Cummings' custom work, is covered with blue, green, white and purple splotches, streaks and swirls.

If the paint scheme doesn't startle onlookers, the car's attachments do. Cummings' Chevy has eight rear-view mirrors (four on each side), model airplanes, plastic swords and spinners, paint-can tops, wire hangers, luminescent hands, flashlight batteries and 65 antennas glued and taped to hood, roof and trunk.

Unfurling a wrinkled tissue from a well-worn shirt pocket to wipe his brow, Cummings explains that neighbors bestowed his nickname, "Country," after he began the artsy tinkering on the car seven years ago.

Since that time, he has become something of a neighborhood fixture, greeting people he's come to know and, when his auto draws comments, as it is wont to do, responding to strangers as well.

Cummings traces the car's wild appearance to a plan he developed to find a daughter he had never seen before moving here from Florence, S.C., in 1962. He had been told the girl's mother had settled in the Washington-Baltmore area with the baby.

The Chevy's appearance would attract attention, he reasoned, and he hoped the girl's mother would spot him. She did. Cummings says he finally met his daughter last April at her mother's home in Baltimore. The meeting was short, he reports, and his daughter did not like the car.

But Cummings gets plenty of attention everyday at the Safeway. He usually arrives around 7 a.m., and before the day is over he's often embroiled in gossip with other middle-aged men perched on the gateway entrance to the grocery.

He recalls cases where people displayed an abnormal interest in his vehicle. "Couple years ago I got an offer for $5,000 . . . I don't think he was really serious. I think he was just playing around."

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus once wanted his car, he says, and he claims he was approached by the National Collection of Fine Arts, part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Cummings, however, seems to have his own territory carved out.

A Safeway employe cautiously cricled the gaudy Chevy recently before thinking out loud, "I want to know how he gets this thing through inspection."

Cummings, pausing while dusting the hood, replies, "I take it to a friend."

The car's roof is an assembly of 16 horns that toot such numbers as "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "London Bridge is Falling Down."

They can be heard for blocks, but Cummings still plans to enlarge the ensemble when he can afford to.

When he is not at the Safeway, he says he can always be found at home or at church. (Although, truth to tell, he is fond of driving around, showing off his far-out Chevy.)