Most of the women gathered around the Camaro had never touched a dipstick, didn't know where brake fluid goes, or why, and were unnerved by the prospect of jump-starting a car. Some knew a little about what went on under the hood; for a couple of them, however, the lesson started with how to open it.

When the mechanic-instructor explained that sticking hoods might require grease, one woman asked, "Will vaseline work?"

"Not really," he replied calmly. No sneer, not even a smile. "It tends to break down."

The recent auto awareness clinic was held "to take some of the mystery out of" cars, said Craig Knox, the Gulf Oil Co. training representative who conducted the clinic.

During the two hours that the 22 women gathered around four automobiles at the Gulf station on Georgia Avenue above 16th Street, five mechanics showed them how to check oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, coolant and brake fluid, as well as hoses, belts and filters; how the cooling and charging systems work; what a brake looks like -- in poor and good condition; how to jump-start a car that has a dead battery; how to check tire pressure; and how to change a tire.

"I won't change my own tire, I'm too old for that," said Mary Sciullo afterward. "But I can check the oil and transmission fluid now, and at least I know the inside of the car a little more than I did."

The clinics Gulf offers have been cosponsored by chapters of the Business and Professional Women's Club and the American Business Women's Association, which request a $3 donation and set a limit of 25 women per session. Last week's clinic was cosponsored by the Silver Spring Business and Professional Women.

In Virginia, similar clinics have been offered for free by Goodyear through Hecht's Tire Centers in the Washington area, and by Arco. Arco's car care clinics are cosponsored by the League of Women Voters, which organized the company's first big clinic on the Ellipse three years ago.

"I describe these clinics as explaining all the things people assume you know about cars but never tell you," said Nadine Rosen of the Falls Church League of Women Voters. "For example, how to put a newspaper under your car so you can see if you have leaks and where, where to look for worn parts, how not to mix different kinds of oil, how to clean basic engine parts so your car runs smoothly, and how to recognize a $20 repair before it becomes a $200 repair." "Women are becoming more and more independent and more and more conscious of their automobiles," said Glenn Cade, owner of the Gulf station where the session was held. "I don't think they weren't interested before. They just didn't know about cars because men ordinarily took care of the car. But with women in the working force, they're on the road more often than they ever were before, and it's important that they become self-sufficient in an emergency situation."

Adds Walt McClinny of Goodyear, explaining why some service stations are helping foster this self-sufficiency: "Naturally we also hoped we would generate a little business for ourselves, and confidence in our mechanics."

"I think a woman should take every course like this she can. You can't know too much," said Julia Allison, a legal assistant who had taken a similar course earlier.

"One thing I can't do is change a tire," she said before the session started. Two hours later she was changing a tire. Many of the women passed up this hands-on experience when it became apparent that the tire was heavy and that tire-changing also was a knees-on-the-ground experience for which at least half the group was neither properly dressed nor psychologically ready.

Still, for most of the women, this introduction to auto mechanics seemed to be a prelude to greater self-reliance.

Most were single women living alone -- some young, some old, some widowed or divorced -- who want to cut their expenses and who don't want to feel helpless when they drive into a garage. Some find the clinics a good way to check out their local mechanics.

"I'm going to show you a few things you should take along in your car on long trips, in case of emergency," said Knox, wrapping up the class.

"I'm going to take you," called a voice from the audience.

"I learned a lot tonight," said Al Homan, the only male at the clinic. "You ought to have a lot more husbands come out here."

The car clinic season is expected to end around mid-October, when cold weather will make outdoor sessions impractical. The clinics will resume in the spring and most of the oil and tire companies offering them are willing to set up special sessions during the winter for any group that wants one and can get enough people together to make it worth the effort.

Generally, the clinics cover the basics of auto care but may vary to some extent by company and individual instructors. In most cases, the instructors are mechanics at the stations where clinics are held.

The following are among scheduled sessions.

Clinics in Maryland at the following Gulf stations (for information, call Debbie Sparks at 484-8600):

Station at Baltimore-Washington International Airport; today, 7 to 9 p.m. Register with Karleen Helton at 544-1466.

3396 Ft. Meade Rd. (Rte. 198), Laurel; Tuesday, Oct. 6, 7 to 9 p.m. Register with Karleen Helton at 544-1466.

A clinic is scheduled at Arco's Circle Service Station, 9605 Lee Hwy., Fairfax, Va.; Saturday, Oct. 3, 9:30 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3:30 p.m. To sign up, call the Falls Church League of Women Voters at 533-0507.

The classes sponsored by the Alexandria League of Women Voters are already filled, but spots may be open when the spring clinics start. The number to call is 671-0019.

Two Hecht's Tire Centers will hold car clinics Tuesday, Oct. 27, starting at about 7 p.m.: the Parkington Center, 600 N. Randolph St., Arlington (524-1136), and the center at Duke Street and Shirley Highway in Alexandria (354-2034). Reservations are necessary.