Ralph C. Rinzler thinks he owns a BMW car.

He bought it last year for $20,000 at Heishman BMW in Arlington, and it never gave him a moment's trouble, at least not until March 6.

That was the day an FBI agent stopped by and told Rinzler, who is assistant secretary for public service at the Smithsonian Institution, that his 1981 sedan was stolen property and that he was taking it with him.

Officials at Heishman, one of the area's largest BMW dealers, say they were appalled to learn the car was stolen, and told Rinzler to sit tight while they sorted out the situation.

Now, more than two months later, Rinzler is still without a BMW and says he hasn't seen a penny in compensation. And he has found his way to U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

"The dealer has absolute responsibility to reimburse my client," Warren L. Miller said yesterday after filing a $1 million damage suit against Heishman in that court. "This man bought a car in good faith from a reputable dealer."

Rinzler says he doesn't want a special deal, he just wants the car he bought and paid for or something similar to take its place.

Heishman President Steven Pieper said yesterday he agrees that Rinzler deserves better, but he says he is bound by the "process."

"Our insurance company said that we have to prove loss before we turn over any money to him," said Pieper. "If we just wrote out a check, we wouldn't get our money back."

Pieper said Heishman is planning to sue the person who sold the 1981 BMW sedan to them in the first place, even though that person expressed shock when told the car had been stolen. The company hopes that suit will prove its loss.

The FBI says the car was stolen in New York on April 27, 1982, and has had several owners in at least three states since.

Pieper added that, "I got my lawyer out there tracing back the history of this car so that we can nail the person who made the first bad step."

"You just have to sit there and scratch your head a little bit when this happens," said Peter McCormack, the agent for the Waterway Insurance Co. who has handled the case so far for Heishman. "I guess this sort of thing can go on. There is no insurance to protect the guy who buys the car."

"Somebody's got to pay," said Miller. "And it's not going to be us."

Who will wind up with the car? Probably someone who buys it at auction, according to McCormack. He said it will probably be sold to reimburse the insurance company that paid off the original owner.