They may not have reinvented the wheel, but engineering students from across the land and Canada have modified just about every other component of the standard automobile in search of the ultimate in energy efficient vehicles.

Two hundred and fifty students from 32 universities were brought together here at the General Motors proving ground for a week-long series of tests by Student Competitions on Relevant Engineering Inc.(SCORE), a non-profit organization based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

When awarding points, auto industry judges considered interior space, endurance over 100 miles, emission levels, acceleration and efficiency urban driving performance and several other characteristics.

For the second time in five SCORE competitions, a Canadian team walked off with top honors when the results were announced Friday night. The University of Manitoba's entry took first place in the diesel-powered category and second in energy efficiency with a highway mileage rating of 60 miles per gallon.

The Manitoba car, built from the ground up, is wing-shaped with a four-seat passenger compartment on top.

Design approaches reflected the present uncertainty on fuel trends. Ten cars were powered by gaoline engines. There were four diesels, two straight electrics, three hybrid electrics, five alcohols, three gasohols, three hydrogens, and two propanes.

"SCORE competitions focus on engineering research and development and require the participants to put their ideas and innovations into working prototypes," said the group's 25-year-old part-time president, Robert A. McGill, a Tufts University graduate student in mechanical engineering.

Each team made off with a portion of the $310,000 purse put up by government and industry. For the most part, the teams were on their own in meeting design and construction costs.

The objective of the competition, SCORE'S fifth nationwide program since its inception in 1971, is to "encourage the development of an energy-efficient vehicle that will meet the transportation needs of a single car family of the future," McGill said.

But beyond that," McGill said, "our purpose is to help the kids apply their theoretical background to real-life, nationally relevant problems."

Oakland University's Gene Polan, a senior mechanical engineering student at the Rochester, Mich., school, feels that the competition succeeds in that respect.

"We're learning in a different way. Textbook meanings didn't begin to set in until we actually started to work on the car [a Pinto body powered by methanol]. We're learning things we'll never forget," Polan said.

Gary Butler, a co-captain of the University of Pennsylvania team, said his school's engineering program is theory oriented and that he accordingly relished the opportunity to get some "hands on" experience.

His team split a Honda Civic in half, lengthened it by 30 inches, converted a gasoline engine to a Rabbit diesel, and put it all back together as a "Dachs-Honda." It gets about 36 miles per gallon on the open road and seats six comfortably. Butler estimates the Pennsylvania entry represents a 60 percent improvement in fuel efficiency over any six passenger car on the market today. Cost? About $18,000.

Many students discovered that the transition from drawing board to test track wasn't accomplished with the ease they anticipated. "It worked perfectly in the lab, but we couldn't seem to make it work on the car," said more than one bleary-eyed student mechanic of one feature or another.

The teams learned fast that when the deadline rolled around last week, either the car was finished or it wasn't. There was no two-week extension to complete the term paper, no possibility of taking an incomplete and finishing the course next semester.

Duke University's team worked for nearly two years to design and build its DEVIL (Duke Efficient Vehicle for Innovative Learning), a three-wheeled gasoline and hydraulic powered vehicle. However, it was not able to compete in the final test event because of a week-long series of mishaps. As Duke captain Chris Relyea lamented, "The purpose was to demonstrate ideas, not to design a car for mass production. It sure looks a hell of a lot easier than it really is."

There was no doubt about the students' enthusiasm, though. They worked until dark in the rain making last minute repairs, and shouted with joy when a good handling time or dynamometer test (for urban driving efficiency) was turned in.

The teams here were vying for a lot more than the first place trophy and clippings that went along with it.

"We have to prove that the trend away from traditional textbook learning toward project oriented education is a worthwhile means of teaching future engineers.We have to prove it to our professors, our sponsors, and most of all, to ourselves," said Robert Kimball, the man in charge of the University of Minnesota's car.

If the industry executives who watched the tests at the proving ground, which GM provided for the competition, did not learn much from the entries, they said they had learned something about the students.

"Look at them," said one GM official, "they're really serious about this. They're really working at it. Their attitude and ingenuity and readiness to tackle problems are impressive. They're reaching for the unknown -- the most heartening observation a professional engineer can make."