Nowadays, cars are utilitarian, like bathtubs," says Earl Beauchamp, president of the capital area Antique Automobile Club of America. "A guy goes out and buys a Honda, with no charm and no nothing--it just gets him from here to there."

But here at the 27th annual Skyline Caverns car meet,Beauchamp is safe in the middle of vintage cars that trace the history of the automobile industry.

Behind him is a 1904 Oldsmobile roadster so simple that it looks homemade, like a buggy with oil lamps nailed onto a wheel base. To his left is a 1915 touring Hudson that has logged more than 103,000 miles; to his right a 1957 F series Thunderbird with a supercharged V8 engine and a polish so deep that Shakespeare's Ophelia could drown in it.

And next to Beauchamp is his wife's pink-and-white '55 Ford Victoria, rigged with a tape recorder and a repertoire of 1950s hits.

"We call this our rainy-day tourer," says Beauchamp, 44, whose penchant for '39 Buicks has won him the nickname "Mr. Buick." "I wish I could be restored as well."

Now that the long American love affair with the automobile has cooled to an uneasy economic truce, it may be hard to remember the time when the family car held a place of affection rivaling the family dog.

But these antique auto enthusiasts have little truck with MPG ratings or resale values. They put their faith in wide chrome and open air.

"For some people, it's nostalgia," says Beauchamp. "It's the car they had in high school, or wanted in high school and never got.

"Then there's the artist, the guy who loves to build things. He buys a piece of junk, restores it, wins a couple of awards to show how good he is, and then sells it and buys another piece of junk."

"Then there are the folks who get joy out of being in the country, 'touring' ," Beauchamp adds. "You know, when cars were new, the whole family used to go out on a Sunday for a drive in the country. It's a good family activity."

Yesterday's judging of more than 50 antique cars (1948 or older, with a grudging allowance for "special interest" cars through 1962) was only a mid-sized meet compared with the huge annual October show in Hershey, Pa. The local AACA club already is gearing up for Washington's first national AACA meet June 29, 1984 at the University of Maryland, which Beauchamp estimates will draw 650 antique cars.

Under each hood at yesterday's event, enthusiasts compared notes and nodded over carburetors with the deftness of caucusing politicians.

While modern manufacturers babble promises of sturdy, five-passenger transportation, these four-wheeled survivors whisper seductively of swift flight and a startling new sense of freedom. This pride is most evident in the hood ornaments: a '29 Chevy's Art Deco Valkyrie with lion's head helmet, a '35 Ford's ribby greyhound, a '55 Chrysler's leaping buck, and the '48 and '59 Packards with a swan that makes Gloria Vanderbilt look thick.

The cars also recall an age of self-sufficiency. Edward S. Spangler, who drove his 1938 Packard touring car up from York, says that he "grew up" with automobiles. Spangler said that after his father died in 1915 he raised himself as a mechanic, and still does all his own tinkering.