Rick Kolster took his wife and three children to Michigan for a vacation a couple of years ago and the automobile trip was a disaster.

"We had a Plymouth Duster and it was too crowded," explained Kolster, sitting on the concrete steps in front of his suburban house and holding a pair of lawn shears.

"We went absolutely wild. We got everything in the car but it was very, very cramped - four suitcases, two cribs, the minimum amount of toys, cookies, candies . . . Maybe five hours into the first day we were all screaming at each other, so we pulled into a Holiday Inn to regroup. It wasn't two of three months later that we got this thing . . ."

Kolster's gaze shifted to a gigantic station wagon sittin gin his driveway - a gas-guzzler.

Like many families, the Kolsters are living close to the edge of their resources, and their story shows one way that the energy crisis many be forcing changes in American life-styles. Giving up their large car would be a blow to them.

Dozens of interviews with families in the Washington area also show that large numbers of people who can afford to have more than one car are buying small cars, particularly foreign imports.

On the other hand, there are those who want to keep their big cars because they think them safer. And there are many families like the Kolsters, large enough to need a big car and who are suffering because of increasing gas prices.

For almost everyone even the relatively affluent, the energy crisis has become a dollars-and-cents matter that touches daily living.

The Kolsters live in Dale City, a suburban enclave about 25 miles south of Washington. Because of the distances to shopping and jobs, life in their neighborhood, as in much of suburban America, is completely dependent on automobile transportation.

On a typical weekend, two or more cars were parked in front of most of the low $40,000 houses in the pleasant neighborhood. At several houses, however, there was only one car - and it was usually a large station wagon.

"Most people I know of here have two cars," said Kolster, although he pointed at a VW beetle nearby and said it belonged to a family that owned only that car plus a motorcycle.

Kolster said his family needs two cars, too, but as a Vepco service rep he can afford only one. He is able to share the car with his wife because he goes to work in a five-member car pool and drives only once a week.

"Well, I'm spoiled, obviously," he said. "I can spread the kids out (in the station wagon). When they're upset you can keep them away from each other."

Kolster and his wife have been looking "kind of half-heartedly" for another car because gas mileage on the station wagon is "so bad I don't even measure it."

He said that when the price of gas goes up he will be affected, but added, "As to how sensitive I am to that, whether it'll be 75 cents or $1 a gallon before I had to do something, I don't know."

The Kolsters have not been happy with the new cars they've seen and heard about. Kolster is concerned that cars are becoming smaller, and he's heard that the kind of intermediate wagons that he is interested in may not have a second rear seat in the future. If this is true, Kolster said, he might as well buy another sedan, which is less expensive than a wagon.

"I'm a little bit beside myself to know what to do," he said.

Consider a more extreme case than the Kolsters:

"President Carter is socking it to us, that's what he's doing," said Catherine Mitchell with vehemence.

Mitchell is a tall, strikingly handsome woman who lives on the edge of poverty in a southeast Washington public housing project. Her life is a struggle to keep from topping over the edge.

Her automobile seems to be one of the few things that stands between her and disaster because she uses it in the 60-mile round-trip commute each day to a suburban hospital where she is a nurse' assistant.

Her salary there, $141 a week after deductions, is just barely enough to scrape along on as she supports herself and her three children in the tiny row house that, with a good deal of pride, she keeps spotlessly clean.

Rising gas prices and the necessity to buy another car after their old one broke down have already cut substantially into the Mitchells' food outlays.

"I stopped smoking cigarettes and when I go to the store we don't buy sodas, candies and cookies - no goodies," she said.

Born and raised in the country, Mitchell grew up on full-course meals. Now, she said, "We're down to sandwiches and a salad." She can rarely afford meat, and manages to buy only one gallon of milk for her thirsty children every two weeks.

Mitchell is a tall woman at 6-feet-2 and her children are also tall. They need a big car, but this increases their susceptibility to rising gas prices and causes her to be critical of Carter's proposal to raise gas taxes.

"Oh my God. Oh that thing eats the gas," she said of her Ford Gran Torino. She spends $20 a week on gas, never daring to put more than $5 worth in at a time, however. Gas is such a valuable commodity now that neighborhood children often steal it, she said.

On top of her weekly gas expense, Mitchell spends $40 a week for food and $27 for housing, leaving about $27 for clothing, auto repairs, emergencies and the miscellaneous expenses of daily living.

She already has spent $42 for a tuneup and about $200 on tires for the car, which she bought second-hand early this year.

Mitchell said that if gas prices go higher, "I may as well go back to the country and pick peaches."

Many of the people interviewed thought the energy crisis was a little phony and wondered why, if things were so bad, there is plenty of gas available at high prices. Many were also critical of President Carter's proposals for higher gas taxes, a gas-guzzler tax and rebates for cars that get good fuel economy. Congress killed the higher tax and rebate proposals and put off pentalties on gas-guzzlers until 1979.

Consumption of motor fuel in 1977 is expected to exceed the record figure set in pre-embargo 1973 by 4.4 billion gallons, a 5.7 per cent increase over last year.

While the Kolsters and Mitchells seem to be stuck with their big cars, others want to keep them for safety reasons.

"As long as they're making the big cars, I'll buy 'em," said S. Thompson of Anacostia, who owns a big Buick Electra. Thompson is a truck driver and said the job has taught him how dangerous small cars are.

"You can't see 'em in the mirrors," he said. "I'd rather have a gas-guzzler than end up out there on a slab somewhere because someone couldn't see me in one of those little cars."

Other people either are not so sensitive to the safety question or are convinced that small cars, if driven carefully, are safe enough. Small-car sales in Washington and thoroughout the country are a phenomenon.

"We have nothing in stock, the cars are sold before they get here," said Honda salesman Jack Wasell of Herson's in Rockville.

Croyste Toyota in Marlow Heights has similar problems in stocking enough cars. "You could make a hundred grand a year selling the customers who walk out of here," said salesman Bob Martin. "We can't get the cars."

Salesman Martin said that many enthusiastic customers are "replacing two big ones with two small ones."

Selling the small cars is not without problems, the salesmen said. Many people come in to look, then decide they don't want to compromise on comfort.

Still the potential customers decide that the small imports are not safe enough, or that it is bad to buy foreign rather than American-made goods.

The salesmen argue back. Martin tells safety-conscious customers that "five years from now there won't be that many big cars on the road."

Wassell tells the America-firsters that his own father worked in the steel mills for 36 years but that, "It's to the point you can't look at it that broad-scope any more. You have to thing, "I'm paying for the gas."

Many people who are buying small cars don't need to be talked into it.

Ken Cross and his wife were looking at Datsun Pickup trucks one recent Sunday in Marlow Heights. They said they were thinking of replacing their 1972 Ford van, which doesn't get very good mileage, with a fuel efficient foreign pickup.

Bruno Bujno of Rockville, a hospital administrative officer, has one large car and two small ones. He said that if he ever gets rid of the big 1974 Pontiac, which gets only 12 to 14 miles a gallon, he'll buy a Honda Accord.

"I'm trying to talk my wife into it," he said. "I definitely believe the foreign market has it over the American market . All these standards we're calling for by 1985 are already here in foreign cars."

Bujno's son, a medical student, talked him into buying his first small car in 1974 - a Honda. "'Dad,' he argued, 'the energy crisis is coming up and all indicators are that you'll have to have a smaller car." He talked me into it." Bujno also has a 168 VW beetle.

Talmadge W. Little of New Carrollton said he considered the safety question before he bought a Honda Civic for his daughter, but decided the car was safe enough. For one thing, he said, the engine is in front and he thinks that makes the car safer than, say a VW with the engine in the rear.

Little also hesitated briefly over the question of buying a foreign car because of the difficulties of getting parts.

His neighbors had a Honda they were "crazy about," and also, he said, "the cost of gas was probably the overriding factor." His daughter can fill the Honda for $5, he said.

Some families, like the Henchs of Montgomery County, have never owned large cars. They occupy their own niche in the American tradition, and the usual staple of such an arrangement - the VW beetle - is itself a kind of American classic car.

"We've always been a small-car family," said Carroll Hench. "I'm 30 and my husband is 31. We got married very young. We haven't had a lot of money and cars have been the last thing. They get us where we want to go."

The family's 1965 VW beetle was parked outside along with a newer Datsun B-210, one of the most fuel-efficient foreign imports.

The Henchs said they have never really considered buying American rather than foreign cars.

"You start to get leary (of American small cars) when you pick up a paper and read about the recalls," said Carroll Hench. "If we have capitalism and it's so great, why can't we (build good small cars)?"

Other families have searched out more exotic answers to the problem of high gas prices.

Claire J. DeVine of Montgomery County bought a $479 moped, which is essentially a bicycle assisted by a small motor. But hthere have been problems.

"I bought it last year to ride back and forth to work," said the mother of three, "but I haven't done it yet. I almost got run off the road . . ."

DeVine tinkered with the idea of buying a real motorcycle, but it didn't seem quite right. She settled on the moped, impressed, that it gets 150 miles a gallon.

Now she is slightly discouraged. "Let's face it," she said, "I'm all for getting back to bicycles and mopeds, but it's hard in this area where people have to go so far to work."

Many people, like Shirley Thompson of Arlington, have turned to fullsize motorcycles. "I ran up a huge gas bill one month," she said, "so I bought a 125 Yamaha."

She has since graduated to a 350 Honda which she uses to scoot back and worth to work in downtown Washington. She reported that her gas problems are solved, but now she must contend with cold weather and exhaust fumes spewing in her face.

The Clifton Wilson family of Arlington has developed a unique lifestyle that centers around their bicycles. While the Wilsons said they have done this primarily to satisfy their need for independence from the hectic necessities of the car culture and to bring their family closer together, they also were prompted by rising gas prices.

"I'm determined to go two weeks on a tank of gas," said Joice Wilson. "We consciously avoid using the cars. Most of our activities are right here in the area."

As a result, she said, the family has saved a "tremendous amount" on gas. Wilson estimated that he saves $400 a year on gas and parking by commuting to his downtown job as a chemist with the U.S. Food and Drugh Administration.

Spencer, 14, Jill, 8, and Kevin, 11, also all have their own bikes. The family seemed a picture of domestic bliss as they sat around their cozy living room one night telling how they rode everywhere on their bikes - to church, soccer games, PTA meetings.

The Wilsons have a 1968 VW with only 35,000 miles on it, a station wagon that is used for some shopping trips and also for long camping trips.

"I would love to see us go back to the time when we walded and lived close enough to work where it would be a very brief commute - the good old days," said Wilson. "I think that would help to enhance the quality of life in this country. But people are so tied to their cars. You can't force people out of their cars . . ."