Somewhere on the roads of North America is a 1981 gray BMW 528i that has left a legacy of litigation and bitterness wherever it has been parked.

Just ask Ralph C. Rinzler. One day in March 1985, an FBI agent came to his home in the District, politely explained that his sedan was stolen property and took it away.

Rinzler, assistant secretary for public service at the Smithsonian Institution, was stunned and furious. He successfully sued Heishman BMW, the Arlington dealer that sold it to him.

Rinzler was pleased. Heishman wasn't.

Seeking to recover its money, Heishman sued the man who sold it the car.

When the dealership won, the loser sued the man who sold the car to him. He then sued a dealership in Georgia, which is expected to sue another Georgia dealership.

"South American drug dealers should study this case to see how to launder money," said Gary Goodman of G&F Imported Cars of Roswell, Ga., who is one of those sued and suing. "We all thought we were getting the genuine article. There was a good title. It checked out. Now, somebody is going to end up eating it, and I just don't want to be that person."

The legal drama, much of which has been played out in federal court in Alexandria, has turned on the fact that because each party bought the car in good faith, the only way each can recoup his losses is to sue the seller for breach of contract.

So far, Rinzler, who paid $19,600 for the car, has sued Heishman and won $28,000, which covers his attorney's fees and the cost of renting a car. Heishman sued Cortlandt M. Taylor of Falls Church and was awarded $33,000. Taylor has filed suit against Frank Edward Smith of Cockeysville, Md., who has filed suit against G&F Imported Cars. G&F is expected to file suit against Peachtree Rent-A-Car Inc. any day, according to G&F's Goodman.

The trail, according to court papers, leads back to a new car that was imported by a Nevada dealership in the spring of 1981. The new gray BMW 528i was sold to a Georgia dealership, changed hands several times and eventually was purchased by Aaron Cohen of Atlanta.

In early 1983, the car was demolished in an accident, with Cohen listed by the Georgia State Motor Vehicle Department as the owner. The BMW's identification plates ended up on an identical BMW that had been stolen in New York City on April 27, 1982.

"Aaron Cohen almost got killed driving that car," said Goodman. "There is no way that car could have been put together."

Goodman and others believe that after Cohen's accident, a thief in possession of the stolen BMW got the identification plates and filed for a title. He then sold the car, and it ended up in the hands of Aetna Casualty and Surety Co. of Atlanta, which in turn sold it to Peachtree.

The stolen car, the FBI said, has been returned to its original owner. But the FBI and lawyers involved in the case say the original owner had been reimbursed by an insurance company for his loss, and the car is believed to have been auctioned off to pay the insurance company.

"You could call the whole damn thing a joke except that I just had to pay Heishman $33,000 for a car I sold to them for $13,500 last year," said Taylor.

Taylor is in the process of suing Smith for the money he had to pay Heishman. "Now, I know -- or I think I know -- that Smith is a perfectly honest man. But what the hell am I supposed to do here?"

Smith feels the same way. "I'm not blaming anybody. I'm suing, but this thing will go down the line until we get a criminal. And they aren't telling us who the criminal is."

Neither the FBI -- which refuses to say how it traced the stolen car to Rinzler -- nor the New York police have said whether they have a suspect in the 1982 theft, but no criminal charges have been brought in the case.

"It's a bad situation, but there is nothing you can do," said Steven Pieper, president of Heishman, who was upset by the publicity the original suit caused. "Everyone here is a victim. There are no bad guys, just losers all around. Mr. Rinzler is on the end of the chain and he got hit the worst. We were duped and we duped him by mistake. We're sorry the whole thing happened."

So is Rinzler. He said as soon as he got his check from the BMW dealership, he ran right out and bought a Toyota. A brand new Toyota.