Last year was a good one for the autmobile industry. It sold 11.2 million cars and trucks in the United States. But even more vehicles were recalled to be checked for safety-related problems: a record 12.9 million.

This year may break that dubious mark. More than 6 million cars and trucks already have been recalled, and the National Highway: Traffic Safety Administration is now considering what could be the biggest recall ever, involving 9 million Fords equipped with two kinds of automatic transmissions. At least 12 persons have died in accidents believed caused by these transmissions (called the C6 and the FMX) that somehow slipped out of parking gear and into reverse, according to the Department of Transportation.

It does not seem unreasonable that after 60 years of mass-producing automobiles and 15 years of building automatic gearshifts the industry would have learned how to make a safe automatic transmission by now, not to tension a safe car. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.

"Our investigation has not revealed that a defect exists," said Charles Gumushian, Ford's government relations associate. "I'm inclined to feel that people just aren't properly engaging the shift level in park." He added that Ford has cooperated with the safety agency's inquiry and is "as interested as the government" in finding out whether there is a problem.

In the Ford transmission case, as in many recall cases, the central issue is not whether the industry will every learn to make a part correctly but whether the point of correctness can ever be defined. The outcome hinges on the relatively new and growing federal presence in the field, an involvement most insiders agree is responsible in one or another way for a drumroll of recalls that is just as steady as the rhythm of new dream machines rolling off the assembly lines. Errors in Design

THERE IS no brand of car, foreign or domestic, that has never been recalled. No one problem recurs more than any other, and no one auto maker may conclusively be labeled best or worst in number and seriousness of problems.

The first summons home was in 1903, for Packards with faulty drive shafts. Rolls-Royce brought back some of its Silver Shadows last February to correct a problem in the cruise control. In all, some 68 million cars have been recalled, some several times, for a total nearly half the size of the 143-million-vehicle fleet now on the nation's roads.

Before 1966, noted the traffic safety agency's administrator. Joan Claybrook, Detroit never bothered to keep records of who bought it cars. Dealers and garges were advised of possible problems and when a car came in, the defect was often fixed without the owner being told. All that changed in 1966 when two federal traffic and highway acts began requiring federal and state standards for cars and tires. Without those ever-strengthening requirements. Claybrook said, an additional 30,000 Americans might have died in accidents last year.

There is continual confusion, however, over the role of safety standards, of which there are 50 that a vehicle must meet before going into production, and the role of operating defects that crop up while a vehicle is ine use. Detroit routinely belittles its recalls with the observation that the car met all safety standards when it was produced, complaining that standards for today's models should not be applied retroactively. Yet most recalls have nothing to do with safety standards and instead involve operating problems.

For example, safety standards in 1971 specified the permitted leak rate of the fuel system for new cars. But performance criteria by definition cannot say something like. "Thou shall not make the top of the gas tank be the same piece of steel as the bottom of the trunk." Doing it that way is a design choice.

Three-fourths of the 12.9 million vehicles recalled last year were brought back because operating defects were designed into them, according to Claybrook. "The industry is constantly looking for inexpensive ways to do things," she said. "Often they will take a risk that proves to be a mistake."

After 25 persons died in Pintos that exploded following rear-end collisions. Ford in June recalled 1.5 million Pintos and Babcats to insert a plastic shield between their gas tanks and their passenger compartments, a design error the company will spend $30 million to $40 million correcting. "At the time of its manufacture, that vehicle met all existing safety standards," said Ford's Gumushian. "It's ludicrous to think that a technology developed seven or eight years later should be applied to a car built in 1971." Yet it is not a safety standard that is at issue here, but a design that simply did not work well under operating conditions.

Industry voices further seek to downplay recall frequency by noting correctly, that the majority of recall campaigns concern a relatively small number of cars with a loose bolt, a misplaced part, an incomplete weld or some other assembly-related problem. The industry estimates that it recalls three or four cars for every one it eventually finds with that kind of fault. General Motors, for example, recalled 20,000 Chevrolets in February to find 200 that had received the wrong size steering shaft coupling in an assembly-line mixup. It is this sort of deviation from design that makes Detroit able to claim, again correctly, that 90 percent of all recalls are originated by the automakers themselves. A Price on Life?

THERE ARE always those few problems, however, that involve millions of cars because each one was designed that way. It is on these vehicles that serious conflicts arise: When is a highway event or a part failure a safety hazard? How much prescience in these decisions can we expect Detroit to have?

In the Ford gas tank case, a jury in Santa Ana, Calif., awarded $128 million last February to Richard Grimshaw, 19, who was burned over 90 percent of his body in a Ford Pinto after a rear-end crash. "Ford knew that people would be killed," one juror said. The panel cited a Ford report that making design changes in the gas tank on the assembly line would have cost the company $10 to $15 per car. The award was later reduced to $3 million.

Gumushian said the charge was vicious nonsense. The cost evaluation was made years after the car was produced and at the traffic safety agency's request, he said, and not during any decision on the design of the gas tank. "They try to make it look as though we put a dollar value on human life," he said.

Industry critics say just that. "Dollars take precedence over quality," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington group founded by Ralph Nader. "A dollar extra on 10 million vehicles adds up. . . . It's cold-blooded economic calculation."

"The industry is interested in obsolescence and changes in appearance, in razzle-dazzle, rather than quality and substance," said William Haddon, director of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a Washington research group founded by auto insurance firms. "They are doing as little as possible to provide a margin of safety."

Joan Claybrook took over the government's traffic safety agency in early 1977 when it was "the biggest mishmash I ever saw," she said, with pending complaints and investigations stretching back seven years. "The industry didn't have a sense of laws that would be enforced," she said, "but we're changing that."

Before the agency won the right to order recalls itself in 1974, she remembered, "it was just a bargaining process. They [the automakers] would come in and say, 'We'll bring half of them back,' and the agency would say, 'Well, OK.'" Now recalls are becoming something that automakers must expect if they shave things too closely, she said, and that is the idea.

Consumer complaints in the form of 6,000 letters a month and 300 hotline calls a day are the basic source of information on vehicle safety problems, Claybrook said. In processing those complaints, industry leaders complain, the agency has been trying to widen the margin of safety beyond reasonable bounds. "The interpretation of what is a safety defect has widened very broadly," said George Brown, director for vehicle emissions and safety at American Motors Corp. "They are saying that just about anything is an unreasonable risk."

An example, he said, is the windshield wiper controversy. The safety agency recently won a court case over its order that 189,000 Ford Capris made between 1971 and 1973 be recalled because the wipers have a tendency to break off at the pivot mount in high winds. "That's really stretching it," Brown said, echoing the Ford position in the case. "The guy can act responsibly and get off to the side of the road if the wipers go . . . I think the pendulum has swung a bit too far."

Claybrook looked on that case and a number of other precedent-setting court rulings as tools in the efforts to prod Detroit into valuing safety more highly in its design decisions by making recalls more costly. The agency has won six out of six cases so far (two by out-of-court settlements), moving toward the principle that a mechanical problem does not have to be related directly to a given number of accidents and or fatalities in order to be ruled a safety defect. The problem must only be shown to cause a critical part of the vehicle to fail, and accidents at that point may be assumed, the agency has argued.

For example, the agency won a Supreme Court case against General Motors over the low-speed failure of a steering part in 1959-60 Cadillacs, using only evidence that six times as for other models, and that steering failures led to accidents.

In the windshield wiper case, the agency argued that any defect which causes a driver to have to pull over to the side of the road is an unreasonable safety hazard, an idea with far-reaching implications.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, mobile sources emissions control director Ben Jackson noted frankly that standards there have been shifting continually for several years. "It's an evoluntionary process . . . the standards change, the technology changes and the manufacturers take some risks," he said.The problem in the past, he said, was that the automakers' attention waned sharply after the car was sold. "The whole purpose of the recall program is to direct [the manufactuer's] attention to those aspects of the product that involve performance in use."

"Performance in use," the courts have held, includes how a car performs in an accident; the Traffic Safety Administration's standards are divided into pre-cash, crash and post-crash performance criteria. "A Step at a Time"

THE INDUSTRY says its biggest problem is that vehicles are systems of 15,000 parts and that, as in any system, a change in one part affects the whole. American Motors says 1,000 engineers and designers work to make its 14 kinds of vehicles safe and beautiful and salesworthy; Chrysler has a stable of 7,600 in its engineering and development section, and Ford claims 13,000. Together the four largest automakers put out 88 different "nameplates," cars that tvary structurally at least somewhat. Estimates of the changes on each one from model year to model year range from dozens to thousands. Each change has to be tested: "It has to work and it has to sell," said Chrysler news relations director Tom Houston.

Lead time for changes varies from about four months for a single new part to three years for an entirely new model, a fact Detroit insists its regulators do not understand. "We do things gradually. It took us 15 years to go over to automatic transmissions," Houston said.

The industry insists that changes in the government's emissions and safety rules will cost consumers thousands of dollars unnecessarily over the next few years; the Traffic Safety Administration strongly challenged those figures in a recent study.

Industry critics say Detroit is a decade behind the state of the art in safety design engineering, and the safety agency has contracted research to prove it. Auto executives have been deafeningly silent in their reaction to the agency's experimental safety vehicles, including a four-passenger model from Mini-cars Inc. of Goleta, Calif., that resembles and AMC Pacer. It is 1,000 lbs. lighter, twice as fuel-efficient and just as peppy as standard Detroit small cars, the agency claims, and allows the passengers to walk away from crashes at up to 50 miles per hour.

Traditional caution is part of the reason Detroit has been slow to embrace airbags, foam-filled wall panels, damage-reducing bumpers and other features of the Mini-car, Houston says. But the real question is the obvious one: How much will the public pay for safety?

"People don't want to concern themselves with safety," Houston argued. "Look at seat belts. Every study shows they cut the death rate dramatically, but you can't get more than 20 percent of the people to use them . . . The problem with a car like that [the Mini-car] is that nobody knows for sure if it's going to sell or not. The industry likes to go a step at a time, using things they know will work across the board."

The new regulations, in fact, will mean vast redesign programs in every elemont of the auto industry until 1984, and that could mean more recalls as the bugs are worked out of all those new parts. "There won't be a part on the car then the same design as it was in 1977," said American Motors' Brown. "It won't necessarily mean more recalls; at least we hope it won't."