"We had two kids before I got a car," said Mike Sheehy. "My father died when I was real young. I went to work when I was 16, into the service at 17. It was the end of World War II. I just never had anything . . ."

That bitter experience prompted Sheehy to help his own children get cars of their own - a Maverick for the oldest daughter, now married; a Duster for the next son, also gone: a Honda for Kathleen, 20: and now a new Chevette for Tim, 16.

The Sheenhys, like most American families, pay more in monthly car expenses - about $375 - than they do for food, even though, Sheehy said, "We eat pretty good." The car tab: $240 in payments on the Chevette and his own LTD; $80 for gas; and $54 for insurance: plus varying sums for service from time to time.

Talk to the members of an American family about their cars and you open a special corner of their hearts. Their joys, defeats, dreams and finances may be traced in the steel machines that carry them to and fro across the years.

Multi-car suburban families like the Sheehys have come to be viewed as a kind of special archetype in American culture. Washington-area census data show that 49 per cent of 822,000 car-owning households had more than one car. Eleven per cent had three or more cars. Eight per cent had trucks, and since the data is not clear on how many one-car households here also had trucks, it's perfectly possible that a majority of homes in the area is multi-vehicle.

Nationally, 42 per cent of the car-owning households had more than one car. An American Family

Mrs. Sheehy does not drive - a quirk. "Too many crazy people on the road," she explained. And Sheehy is luckier than most suburban commuters. He takes the train to his $30,000-a-year foreman job at the U.S. Government Printing Office in downtown Washington.

The family - Mr. and Mrs. plus the two children still at home - lives on a tree-lined street in an old neighborhood in east Rockville. On a lazy Sunday they sat at the dining room table and talked about cars.

Sheehy bought the big gold LTD for family errands, vacations and his daily trips to the train station. But because it costs $15 to $17 to fill it up with gas, he said. "Probably if I had it to do again I wouldn't buy the LTD."

Gas prices also prompted his decision to buy the Honda and Chevette. They cost about $5 to fill, a sum he said his children could afford to pay.

Like so many others interviewed, Sheehy thinks there is something phony about the energy crisis. "I think there's a lot of supplies that could be distributed better," he said. "The rich get richer. They"re gonna get theirs."

He said interest in small cars seems to be spreading. "Since I've gotten that Chevette my best friend bouth one and my daughter and her husband bought one. It's a comfortable riding car. The back seat's not much but you can load a lot of stuff in there."

Sheehy also admitted to a selfish reason for getting Tim the Chevette - so Sheehy would not have to drive his increasingly active son everywhere.

While the father talked. Tim came running in and then out again - on his way to a baseball game. He did not take the car, but caught a ride with friends.

Sheehy said he realizes he is a lenient father, but believes in giving his son "enough rope" and seeing what happens.

Sheehy not only bought the car for Tim but pays his son's $402 insurance bill. His own bill is $242.

Despite all this, Sheehy thinks youths shouldn't be allowed to drive until they are 18, and he complained that the Maryland high school driver education program "forces kids to drive earlier." (High school students who take the state's driver education program may get their regular driver's licenses at age 16, while those who don't must wait until they are 18.)

Sheehy bought the Honda Civic for Kathleen in 1974. "I'm not driving my car," explained Kathleen as she prepared to rush off to K-Mart where she works. "It broke down and it cost me a lot. Then they canceled my insurance . . ." Paying For a Lifestyle

Dennis and Michele Tyree live on a pleasant street of row houses in Northwest Washington. Their combined income as government employees is $17,500 and they own a 1971 Dodge and a 1975 Impala.

The Tyrees are living closer to the margin than their suburban counterparts, the Sheehys, and they probably pay more for their cars, both of which are gas-guzzlers. The Impala payments alone are $133 a month, and the Tyrees fill each car once or twice a week at a cost of about $15 a fill.

In addition, Tyree said the Impala has given him a lot of trouble. The brakes cost $160 to fix, and now he thinks the carburetor needs work, which means, said Tyree, "I'm looking at another $100 bill."

More outrageous, said Tyree, is the price of tags - $99 for the Impala this year. "For a little sticker," he said, shaking his head.

The Tyrees have been married two years and have a 7-year-old child. They live in Mrs. Tyree's parents' house but would like a place of their own. In short, their lives are in flux and the car expenses are very much on their minds.

"I've thought about getting a small car ever since Carter came out with that (proposed) tax," said Tyree.

"I'm thinking about a small car, too," said his wife, "but they're so expensive. It's not worth it."

Tyree is sure, however, that if he does get a small car it will be a foreign make. "People I know with American small cars say they're not dependable, not worth a damn."

For another thing, having the two cars gives the Tyrees the freedom to drive to work when they want and it means that neither of them is ever stuck at home without a car.

On the other hand, Mrs. Tyree said somewhat wistfully, "I feel we'd be better off without a car. I think it's pressured into us that the American family has a car . . . If we didn't have a car, we'd be settling in (our own) home now . . ." Fun

"We'reknown throughout the area for this car, bragged Janice Abert, 17, as she patted her tiny Subaru 360 Deluxe on the hood.

"Everyone laughs at it," said her twin sister. "We were going to paint it red with black spots."

The 1970 car is so tiny - just 925 pounds - that it seems to wrap itself around its occupants like clothing. Yet the two young blondes zip around Northwest Washington on shopping trips and claim it is roomy.

Their father, an economist at the National Center for Resource Recovery, said he bought the little car for $275 a year and a half ago when the girls were coming of driving age, meaning he had five licensed drivers in his pleasant house on Rock Creek Park.

The car holds five gallons of gas, goes up to 55 m.p.h., and is easy to park. The model is no longer sold in the U.S., but Abert said he thinks that about 8,000 were sold in the Washington area in the early 1970s.

"We had a party one time and our friends hid it in the bushes for us," said Susan.

"People stare at you and say, "Where'd you get that?'" said the father. "They say, 'That's the car of the future!'" Trucking

Mike and Lucy Williams, a young Germantown couple, have just joined the increasing numbers of Americans who are buying a pickup truck as a second or third family vehicle.

Record sales of light trucks are expected this year, and much of the market growth results from personal rather than business use, according to industry sources.

"I just like 'em," explained Williams. "We do a lot of camping. She's in Girl Scouts and they use it a lot. I haul equipment in my work . . . We always vacation with 10 or 12 people, and we put all the equipment in the pickup."

This saves on the number of cars in the vacation caravan, Williams reasoned, and so probably represents an overall fuel economy despite the lower gas mileage of the pickup.

Mike and Lucy were married in January. He's a printer. She has a Camaro that she uses as a University of Maryland student and part-time hospital worker. Mike sold a beloved 1973 Monte Carlo to get the pickup.

The pickup is a powder-blue beaut with V-8, automatic transmission, power sterring. AM-FM radio and electronic ignition. "We noticed when we were buying it that almost everything was automatic," said Lucy. "It used to be that almost nothing was automatic (on pickup trucks.)" One Car

"So I figure next time I buy a car I'll let someone other than GM rip me off," said John Gallagher as he contemplated his red 1974 Vega wagon that uses a quart of oil with every second tank of gas and has a special oil filter that costs $18 to replace even when Gallagher does it himself.

"I think it either has a slow leak or burns oil or a little bit of both," said Gallagher. He said he mentions the excess oil use every time he takes his car to the garage, but that each time the mechanics fail to fix the defect.

Gallagher, 28, lives with his wife and one small child in an apartment complex just off the Beltway in Prince George's County. They chose the place because there is plenty of room for the child to play, but it is isolated and so they depend on their car.

Gallagher and his wife drive 1,800 to 2,000 miles a month shopping, visiting friends and going to and from work and school. A technical director at the Prince George's Publick Playhouse. Gallagher also uses the car in his work.

"The only reason I'd ever get a second car would be if my wife needed to hold down a full-time job," said the easy-mannered young man. "I'm against used cars because you're buying someone else's problems. If I bought a second car I'd get the smallest one I could find and use it simply to go back and forth to work."

When he thinks about it, the problems of safety and high gas prices whipsaw him. "I wouldn't want to drive a Honda on the highway," he said, because it's too small to be safe. "But God," he said after a pause, "you only get 10 to 12 miles a gallon on these big cars."

The Vega had seemed a nice compromise in 1974 when Gallagher was a graduate student in drama at Catholic University and his wife-to-be lived in far-off New Jersey.