As recently as eight years ago the political action committee of the National Automobile Dealers Association was raising and doling out about $40,000 per congressional election.

In the 1980 election it contributed $1,034,875 to congressional candidates, making it fourth-largest among the nation's 2,901 PACs.

At least one reason for this Jack-and-the-beanstalk growth is a used car regulation the Federal Trade Commission adopted last year, and which the NADA wants Congress to kill.

The rule, adopted by the FTC after a five-year study of misrepresentations by used car dealers, would require a sticker listing "known defects" to be placed on all dealer-sold used cars.

The dealers say such a requirement would be the height of "bureaucratic arrogance," in the words of Wendell Miller, president of their 19,000-member association.

Two years ago Congress voted itself the power to scuttle FTC regulations with the two-house veto. NADA is now asking members to make the used car rule the first test of that procedure. Other industry groups are watching closely to see if, as many say they believe, legislators will prove more sympathetic to business than to regulators.

PACs are one reason for this belief. NADA's 1980 campaign contributions of more than $1 million has assured it at least an attentive hearing on Capitol Hill, where it claims that the FTC's rule would put a crimp in the only part of the depressed car market now keeping many dealerships alive.

No one suggests that the political contributions, typically given in chunks of $1,000 to $5,000, have bought any votes, but a clear correlation exists between the dealers' campaign giving and congressional opposition to the FTC rule.

In the House, of 216 co-sponsors of a veto resolution, 180, or 84 percent, received contributions in the 1980 campaign and the first six months of 1981 from NADA.

Members of Congress who got money from the NADA were three times as likely to have co-sponsored the resolution as those who got none, according to figures compiled by Congress Watch, the consumer advocate group founded by Ralph Nader.

The correlation is even more distinct within the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which approved the veto resolution in December. Of the 27 members who supported the veto, 26 received a total of $87,600 in campaign contributions from NADA. Of the 14 who voted no, six received a total of $8,350 in NADA money.

A similar though less distinctive pattern holds in the Senate, where a veto resolution has 46 co-sponsors.

"This is one issue where I'm afraid it looks like campaign contributions just have had an impact," said Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), one of a group of Republicans in the Senate opposing the industry position.

Gorton, a former state attorney general who often grappled with consumer complaints about used cars, said he thinks the dealers lobby has skillfully taken advantage of the access that comes with campaign contributions.

For its part, NADA prides itself on its aggressiveness.

"We're not trying to influence policy, we're trying to influence elections," said Frank E. McCarthy, NADA executive vice president. "We just want to get the right objective players here in Washington so our grass-roots efforts can have an impact."

NADA is careful to aid both Democrats and Republicans, and that policy has paid off. Despite their general tilt toward the consumer side of issues, Democrats, with the notable exception of Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), have chosen not to make much of an issue of the used car consumer protection bill.

In the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, all eight Democratic members supported the industry position in a 14-to-4 vote in favor of the veto.

The ranking Democrat on that committee is Wendell H. Ford of Kentucky, who received $5,000 from NADA and who, as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is responsible for seeing to it that his party's Senate campaigns are adequately funded.

Committee Chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, got $3,000 from NADA. But he was a staunch opponent of the veto resolution, and used a parliamentary device in December that kept the issue from reaching the floor. His strategy was designed to give the consumer lobby some time to build a head of steam.

The two lead sponsors of the resolution, Gary A. Lee (R-N.Y.) in the House and Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) in the Senate, have reintroduced their veto resolutions, and say they have detected no slackening of support. Congress has 90 legislative days to act.