The guys from Surrattsville High School -- seven of them -- would squeeze into Norman Ashby's '59 Chevy Impala and head for the Ranch Drive In Theatre in Clinton. The trunk of the car in those days was big enough to sneak three of them through the ticket booth.

Once inside, they would pull up beside their friends in the back row, drink beer and jump on each other's cars. They say the snack bar food was terrible and the movie was irrelevant.

The drive-in was fun with their buddies but even better with a date. "You couldn't do too much because there was always a guy walking around with a flashlight," said Ashby, now 41 and a sales employe for Pepco. "If he didn't see any heads, he'd shine the flashlight in the window."

It was the halcyon days of the outdoor movie theater, the late 1950s and early '60s when cars were big and gas was cheap and drive-in movies were a dime a dozen. In the years since, the guys from Surrattsville have gotten married and gained weight and the number of drive-in theaters in the Washington area has dwindled.

In the Washington area, there remain only 10 drive-ins, down from 18 or 19 in 1958. Of those open today, six are in Prince George's County, where land is less expensive than in other Washington suburbs. Three are in Fairfax County and one is in Charles County.

The most recent casualty was Wineland's Laurel Drive-In on Route 1 in Prince George's County, which closed last month to make way for a commercial complex. It went the way of more than 1,400 drive-ins across the country since 1958, when the number of outdoor theaters peaked at 4,063. Nationwide, there are about 2,600 drive-ins still open, but the number is declining steadily.

"It's a real sad occasion," said Samuel Wynkoop of the demise of the outdoor theater. Wynkoop, one of Ashby's high school buddies and now administrator to the Prince George's County Council, described his drive-in nights with nostalgia: "We'd get there right at dusk . . . go with sufficient time to play on the swings. If you were slightly in love, it was even better."

So where have all the drive-ins gone?

Blame for their decline has been laid on everything from bucket seats to video cassette recorders. Some people even say today's teen-agers just aren't as interested in making out.

The most frequent explanation points to suburbanization: as people move farther from the city, land occupied by drive-ins becomes more valuable for housing or commercial development.

A drive-in owner, faced with an opportunity to multiply his investment, is likely to sell. "It just doesn't make sense to hold on to the land , because he can sell hotdogs and hamburgers all his life and never make that kind of money," said Marvin Goldman, part owner of the K-B Theatre chain in the Washington area.

K-B sold its Rockville Drive-In four years ago for an undisclosed amount, and 135 town houses sit in rows where cars once lined up before a screen.

In Laurel, the drive-in site will be occupied by wholesale and retail stores by next year. The surrounding area has become commercial, and the drive-in owners made the decision to relinquish the land to development.

"We had pretty good business at Laurel, but it was at a point where we'd get a better return on the investment than to let it continue as a drive-in," said Fred Wineland, former Maryland secretary of state who runs the family theater business in the Washington area that his parents started in the 1920s.

Drive-in theaters flourished in the first wave of suburbanization after World War II, most of them built at the edge of development, where land was cheap and the new surburbanites were looking for entertainment without traveling all the way downtown, according to Douglas Gomery, film historian at the University of Maryland.

The number of drive-in theaters across the country multiplied from 820 in 1948 to nearly five times that many six years later. But since the 1960s, the second wave of suburbanization has swallowed up outlying land and the drive-in theaters located there. Theater owners looking for new sites have opted for "hard-top" locations in shopping malls.

Virtually no new drive-in theaters have been built since the late 1950s and, while drive-ins fare better in the Sun Belt states, where they stay open year-round, most industry experts expect the number of outdoor theaters to continue to decline.

"I'm glad they're going," said a former drive-in devotee, now 43. "I have a 10-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son. If they did what I did . . . . I really don't want my daughter in the back seat."

Drive-in theaters "were nothin' but a big make-out place," he said. "I always went to drive-ins, but I never saw a movie." His favorite was the Laurel Drive-In, where he would take his sister's '59 Rambler with the reclining seats. And the perfect date, he said, "was the kind that liked to smootch."

"It was a pretty easy place to make out," said Wynkoop, for whom Ashby's black Impala provided the perfect ambiance for "Where the Boys Are" and a slew of "Gidget" movies.

"Everyone now has a little Honda," he said. "It's not quite the same as being in an old Impala where you have lots of stretching room."

Wynkoop is not alone in blaming bucket seats and compact cars for the slow death of drive-ins.

"When you get two couples or a couple with three kids in a compact, you're not exactly talking about a suite at the Waldorf," said Paul Roth, president of the Roth Theatres chain, which owns two drive-ins in the Washington area.

"Making out in a car is not comfortable, despite what your hormones are telling you," said Bruce Austin, a professor of communication at the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology, who has conducted surveys of drive-in audiences.

The "passion pit" phenomenon is less true today, he says, and the drive-in as family entertainment is also history. Austin, who questioned more than 600 drive-in patrons in 1981 and 1982, found that only 15 percent of the audience was made up of families, with the remainder largely young couples.

When asked why they chose the drive-in, his respondents gave mostly social reasons. Like their counterparts 20 years ago, young people declared the movie on the screen before them was almost inconsequential, Austin said.

The Washington area drive-ins are showing mostly second-run movies, "Flashdance," for example, and "Ghostbusters." Two in Prince George's, the Beltsville and Central Avenue drive-ins, show X-rated movies.

There has been one new development in drive-in technology: The tinny speaker systems are being replaced, in the D.C. area and nationwide, by broadcast signals that can be picked up on the car radio.

Despite the improved sound and still fresh-popped popcorn, drive-ins are up against heavy odds. In addition to suburbanization, industry experts say, televised movies and cable television have bitten into drive-in audiences.

And because outdoor theaters are primarily independently owned, they are less able to bid competitively for first-run movies against the many indoor theaters that benefit from the resources of a chain, according to Austin.

"Distributors view drive-ins today as second-class citizens," he said. "Why put movies in drive-ins when you can put them in four walls, where there's more advertising exposure and it's perhaps more reputable? They'd rather devote energy to placing their products on cable than in drive-ins."

Some outdoor theater owners have responded to the dismal economics of their business by switching from Disney fare to triple-X.

"They can't compete in the regular marketplace. Anyone who can't compete becomes specialized -- foreign language films, Kung Fu, chop suey pictures," said theater owner Goldman. "Porno has become good now because people can go in their car and not be recognized and get their jollies, where a respected doctor, lawyer or newspaper editor doesn't want to be recognized in the theater."