Ford and General Motors last week pulled off an outrageous coup: They pushed a weak- spined government regulatory agency into a tentative decision to reduce the federal fuel- economy standard for 1986 model cars from 27.5 miles per gallon to 26 miles.

Unless public indignation rises, forcing transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole to reverse a ruling by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, this cop-out will lower the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard mandated by a 1975 congressional act. In turn, this would short-circuit what has been a brilliant energy-conservation drive, a key factor in depressing oil prices and OPEC power.

Ford and General Motors told the NHTSA that unless the agency bowed to their demand, they would curtail production of bigger, high-performance cars that are selling well -- and eating up more gasoline. The cost, the Ford and General Motors lawyers said, could be more than 100,000 jobs.


Ford and General Motors -- like Chrysler and Japanese and European car-makers -- have had 10 years' notice that they would be required to get average consumption down to 27.5 miles per gallon by this time. Chrysler, which strongly supports the standards and is put at a competitive disadvantage by the ruling, reportedly has spent close to $5 billion in obtaining the necessary fuel economies.

Nonetheless, the two biggest producers appear to have sold their sob story to NHTSA. It issued a preliminary ruling that Ford and GM would suffer "severe adverse economic consequences" if they obey the law. It's not the first time that the agency, operating in the Ronald Reagan-inspired deregulation atmosphere, has acted to take the industry off the hook.

Soon after Reagan took office, NHTSA began to sabotage a decision made earlier that fuel-economy standards in the post- 1985 period would have to be even tougher "to assure that this country minimizes its reliance on imported oil."

Instead, the agency abruptly announced on April 16, 1981, that "market pressures are adequate" to curb petroleum use in the national interest. It's been downhill ever since. Clarence M. Ditlow III, director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, ticked off NHTSA's anti-conservation steps in testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee:

*Semi-annual reports the companies had been making on their progress towing fuel efficiency were abandoned, and the agency made plain it had no interest in pursuing fuel-economy standards beyond 1985.

*Standards for light trucks -- advertised by the car companies as substitutes for passenger cars -- were relaxed for 1984 and then for 1985 models. The latter step, Ditlow said, "we believe to be illegal since it was done after the model year . . . only to relieve GM and Ford of paying penalties."

*NHTSA accepted GM and Ford excuses that they don't have the technology to meet tougher mileage standards. Chrysler Executive Vice President Robert S. Miller Jr. told the Senate Energy Committee on May 14, 1985: "Chrysler will meet the 27.5 MPG standard in 1986. Therefore, the standard must be technologically feasible. . . . So what's going on here? The technology is there, as Chrysler has proven."

What's going on? The answer is spelled M-O-N-E-Y. The major factor in the refusal of GM and Ford to match the mileage performance required by law, according to Ditlow, is the deferral of plans to replace old rear-wheel drive cars introduced in the mid- 1970s, with more efficient front-wheel drive cars of the same size.

It's not just "consumer demand" for rear- wheel drives that keeps the Ford LTD and Crown Victoria, or the Chevrolet Malibu and Caprice in production, says Ditlow, but the big bucks that go with each sale. With the investment costs on these cars long-since recovered, "these models are virtual cash cows," each yielding as much as $1,500 in profit.

Relaxation of the oil crisis doubtless has diminished the need for fuel efficiency in the eyes of some auto buyers. But the NHTSA, pre-Reagan, foresaw that a nation determined to conserve oil could not simply rely on the market, fulfilling whatever happens to be consumer demand. It noted that consumers continued to purchase, and the industry happily supplied, gas-guzzlers even after the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo.

A conscientious NHTSA said that it comes down to an issue of lead time: It takes about five years for the industry to put the technology of greater fuel efficiency into commercial applications. Now, by bowing to Ford's and GM's greed, easing the current standard, and abandoning the effort to do even better in the next decade, the Reagan administration, is once again playing into the hands of the oil cartel and exposing the whole nation to needless economic and political risks.