Rows of faulty new Cadillacs and Chevrolet Caprice cars filled the repair lots of General Motors Corp.'s Clark Avenue assembly plant here.

The bad news was that GM was having quality problems at the factory. The good news was that the company was not shipping the cars to dealers in their less-than-perfect condition.

Not many years ago, GM would have shipped the bad news.

The cars, some with ill-fitting doors and others with scratched paint, would have been sent to showrooms around the country, where the scratches would have been waxed over after the errant doors had been pounded into place.

Consumers would have paid an extra price for all of that "dealer preparation" -- only to have the scratches reappear after the wax wore thin and for the poorly fitted doors to rattle after several close encounters with bumpy roads.

"What really blows the minds of people today is that we won't ship cars if we don't have the quality right," said GM spokesman Clifford D. Merriott. "There's no doubt that, 10 years ago, we would have shipped those cars."

"Ha! Ten years ago?" said M. L. Douglas, president of United Auto Workers union Local 22. "It's more like two years ago. Those cars would've been on the truck," Douglas said. "But people are beginning to realize that we just can't do things like that anymore."

Douglas's union local represents 6,500 workers at the 64-year-old Clark Avenue plant and another 3,000 at the spanking new, super-high-technology Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center, a nearby facility operated by GM's Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac (BOC) Group.

The union and GM agree that the born-again concern for quality at GM and other domestic auto makers is the product of deep-seated fear. There has been a rebellion in the U.S. marketplace during the past decade, an uprising led by consumers who would rather buy foreign than buy schlock with a "Made in U.S.A." label.

Domestic auto industry analysts say that the result has been an overall improvement in domestic automotive quality since 1975. By 1995, all car companies doing business in this country will have equal product quality, the analysts say.

But some auto makers, chiefly the domestics, will have lost big shares of the U.S. market permanently because of their past failures, according to analysts at Chicago-based Arthur Andersen & Co.

Foreign auto makers, through a combination of import sales and U.S. production of their cars, will control at least 37 percent of the domestic auto market by 1995 compared with 27 percent of the market in 1983, according to the Andersen analysts.

U.S. companies have been trying to halt the erosion on their home ground with massive dollar investments in quality improvement programs -- an estimated $40 billion between 1978 and 1983, said Ted Sullivan, automotive group manager for Massachusetts-based Data Resources Inc.

But the big money, so far, has done little to boost consumer appreciation of domestic car quality. Most U.S. consumers still believe that the foreigners are doing a better job of making cars, as evidenced by surveys conducted by Data Resources and J. D. Power & Associates, a California-based market research company.

For example, in a recently released Power survey of customer attitudes about 1984-model cars, only one domestic, Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln Continental, finished in the top 10 models rated "best" for overall quality. Lincoln Continental finished 10th with 108 points, eight points over the average score of 100.

One GM make, Buick, also finished with an "above-average mark" in the Power survey, coming in 13th with a score of 108. Cadillac, GM's flagship line, finished 16th with a score of 96.

About 20 percent of U.S. car buyers thought domestic companies had better products than the foreign competition in 1978, a figure that has been almost unchanged by the domestic auto makers' investments in quality. Some 21 percent hold that belief today, DRI's Sullivan said.

"A person who bought an American car with lousy quality in 1978, and who replaced that car with a good-quality foreign product, is not likely to go back to American cars anytime soon," Sullivan said. And he said that raises another question: "What difference does it make if a car is 10 times better this year than it was last year if the customer doesn't perceive it?"

The difference is that today's customer is more likely to be on the lookout for bad quality, said John J. Grix, spokesman for GM's BOC Group. That is why the company temporarily shut down some operations at the Clark Avenue plant earlier this month and sent 3,400 workers home until the bugs were worked out and the necessary repairs were made on the cars in the repair lot, Grix said.

Operations at the Clark Avenue and the modern Detroit-Hamtramck plants show some of the pressures on U.S. auto makers to produce a quality product.

The problems at Clark Avenue stemmed from what UAW and GM officials called "routine" difficulties involving a "model changeover" -- the installation of new tooling for 1986 cars, including three models formerly built at other GM plants.

The model changeover problems were aggravated by another factor -- 1,200 new workers who were brought into Clark Avenue to replace more experienced employes who had been transferred to Detroit-Hamtramck. Some UAW members charged that, despite GM's publicly stated commitment to job training, the new workers had not been trained properly. GM officials and Local 22 President Douglas denied that charge.

Union and company leaders said that many of Clark Avenue's problems can be linked to the factory's age. The plant is a dinosaur. It is part of one of the few remaining operations in the U.S. auto industry where car bodies are made in one place and then trucked to another asssembly site for mating with the chassis.

In this case, the bodies are made at GM's Fleetwood Body plant here and then transported about seven inner-city blocks to the Clark Avenue assembly facility. The system is fraught with inefficiencies and opportunities for error and post-production damage. That does not mean that poor quality is the inevitable result. It does mean that more time, effort and money are needed to ensure the final quality of the product, GM and UAW officials said.

"The Clark plant is an anomaly in this system because of the way it's set up, because of the old rear-wheel-drive cars it makes and because it's only the customer who is keeping it alive," Merriott said. He said that GM plans to shut down the plant in 1989. But union officials are skeptical. GM has planned to close the plant before.

Consumer demand and GM's need to consolidate production of most of its remaining rear-wheel-drive cars gave Clark Avenue its latest reprieve. The plant, once the sole assembly location of GM's Cadillacs, now produces the aging Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, the Chevrolet Caprice sedan and station wagon, and the Oldsmobile Delta 88 station wagon.

GM officials say they had planned to stop assembling those gas-guzzlers in 1985. But consumer demand has remained high for the big, rear-wheel-drive cars, partly because consumers believe they are the best cars produced by GM, said John D. Hemphill, vice president of Power & Associates. "The full-size cars generally get higher quality ratings than the rest of the domestics, because they have been in production for some time. Those cars are also selling to an older group, people with a median age of 50," Hemphill said.

"The "under-40" consumer market, the so-called Baby Boomers, will be the toughest test for GM and other domestic car companies, Hemphill said. Quality expectations and overall buyer sophistication are highest in that group, he said.

The Detroit-Hamtramck plant is producing cars designed to persuade the Boomers that domestic cars can compete with foreign nameplates in terms of quality. The new $600 million, 3.3-million-square-foot facility assembles the front-wheel-drive Cadillac Eldorado and Seville, the Buick Riviera and the Oldsmobile Toronado. Components of the cars glide through a series of computer checks, are welded together and painted by robots -- and are stopped in their assembly-line tracks if flaws show up in their construction.

As a result of the constant, automated, on-line checking, there are no repair areas as such at Detroit-Hamtramck. There are no storage areas for bad parts, either. The whole place, geared to produce 60 cars an hour, would stop running within two to four hours after a shipment of faulty, critical parts.

Detroit-Hamtramck is set up on a just-in-time supply system -- which requires the right part at the right time at the right place to keep the lines moving. That means late parts, or bad parts, could halt production.

"That forces us to do something about a problem right away," said Earl Harper, Detroit-Hamtramck plant manager. "How long do you think it's going to take us to fix a problem if we have to shut down a multimillion-dollar plant?"

Still, Harper agrees with Sullivan and other analysts that all of the computers and robots and quality checks and employe-involvement programs are meaningless if buyers do not like the cars that come out at the other end. "The customer doesn't give a damn about your programs, and he shouldn't," Harper said. "All he cares about is the car he buys. Ultimately, everything we do has to come down to that." CAPTION: Picture/one: Employe Tim Bolan works on a Chevrolet in the repair department of General Motors Clark Ave. Avenue plant in Detroit. ; Picture /two: Robot transport carries auto parts to various locations in Detroit plant. ; Picture /three: New car bodies move through the Robogate System as robotic arms do the welding work on the assembly line at a General Motors plant in Detroit. A Drive for Quality Born of Fear New Techniques Improve GM Cars, but Do Customers Know? By Warren Brown Washington Post Staff Writer

DETROIT -- Rows of faulty new Cadillacs and Chevrolet Caprice cars filled the repair lots of General Motors Corp.'s Clark Avenue assembly plant here.

The bad news was that GM was having quality problems at the factory. The good news was that the company was not shipping the cars to dealers in their less-than-perfect condition.

Not many years ago, GM would have shipped the bad news.

The cars, some with ill-fitting doors and others with scratched paint, would have been sent to showrooms around the country, where the scratches would have been waxed over after the errant doors had been pounded into place.

Consumers would have paid an extra price for all of that "dealer preparation" -- only to have the scratches reappear after the wax wore thin and for the poorly fitted doors to rattle after several close encounters with bumpy roads.

"What really blows the minds of people today is that we won't ship cars if we don't have the quality right," said GM spokesman Clifford D. Merriott. "There's no doubt that, 10 years ago, we would have shipped those cars."

"Ha! Ten years ago?" said M. L. Douglas, president of United Auto Workers union Local 22. "It's more like two years ago. Those cars would've been on the truck," Douglas said. "But people are beginning to realize that we just can't do things like that anymore."

Douglas's union local represents 6,500 workers at the 64-year-old Clark Avenue plant and another 3,000 at the spanking new, super-high-technology Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center, a nearby facility operated by GM's Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac (BOC) Group.

The union and GM agree that the born-again concern for quality at GM and other domestic auto makers is the product of deep-seated fear. There has been a rebellion in the U.S. marketplace during the past decade, an uprising led by consumers who would rather buy foreign than buy schlock with a "Made in U.S.A." label.

Domestic auto industry analysts say that the result has been an overall improvement in domestic automotive quality since 1975. By 1995, all car companies doing business in this country will have equal product quality, the analysts say.

But some auto makers, chiefly the domestics, will have lost big shares of the U.S. market permanently because of their past failures, according to analysts at Chicago-based Arthur Andersen & Co.

Foreign auto makers, through a combination of import sales and U.S. production of their cars, will control at least 37 percent of the domestic auto market by 1995 compared with 27 percent of the market in 1983, according to the Andersen analysts.

U.S. companies have been trying to halt the erosion on their home ground with massive dollar investments in quality improvement programs -- an estimated $40 billion between 1978 and 1983, said Ted Sullivan, automotive group manager for Massachusetts-based Data Resources Inc.

But the big money, so far, has done little to boost consumer appreciation of domestic car quality. Most U.S. consumers still believe that the foreigners are doing a better job of making cars, as evidenced by surveys conducted by Data Resources and J. D. Power & Associates, a California-based market research company.

For example, in a recently released Power survey of customer attitudes about 1984-model cars, only one domestic, Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln Continental, finished in the top 10 models rated "best" for overall quality. Lincoln Continental finished 10th with 108 points, eight points over the average score of 100.

One GM make, Buick, also finished with an "above-average mark" in the Power survey, coming in 13th with a score of 108. Cadillac, GM's flagship line, finished 16th with a score of 96.

About 20 percent of U.S. car buyers thought domestic companies had better products than the foreign competition in 1978, a figure that has been almost unchanged by the domestic auto makers' investments in quality. Some 21 percent hold that belief today, DRI's Sullivan said.

"A person who bought an American car with lousy quality in 1978, and who replaced that car with a good-quality foreign product, is not likely to go back to American cars anytime soon," Sullivan said. And he said that raises another question: "What difference does it make if a car is 10 times better this year than it was last year if the customer doesn't perceive it?"

The difference is that today's customer is more likely to be on the lookout for bad quality, said John J. Grix, spokesman for GM's BOC Group. That is why the company temporarily shut down some operations at the Clark Avenue plant earlier this month and sent 3,400 workers home until the bugs were worked out and the necessary repairs were made on the cars in the repair lot, Grix said.

Operations at the Clark Avenue and the modern Detroit-Hamtramck plants show some of the pressures on U.S. auto makers to produce a quality product.

The problems at Clark Avenue stemmed from what UAW and GM officials called "routine" difficulties involving a "model changeover" -- the installation of new tooling for 1986 cars, including three models formerly built at other GM plants.

The model changeover problems were aggravated by another factor -- 1,200 new workers who were brought into Clark Avenue to replace more experienced employes who had been transferred to Detroit-Hamtramck. Some UAW members charged that, despite GM's publicly stated commitment to job training, the new workers had not been trained properly. GM officials and Local 22 President Douglas denied that charge.

Union and company leaders said that many of Clark Avenue's problems can be linked to the factory's age. The plant is a dinosaur. It is part of one of the few remaining operations in the U.S. auto industry where car bodies are made in one place and then trucked to another asssembly site for mating with the chassis.

In this case, the bodies are made at GM's Fleetwood Body plant here and then transported about seven inner-city blocks to the Clark Avenue assembly facility. The system is fraught with inefficiencies and opportunities for error and post-production damage. That does not mean that poor quality is the inevitable result. It does mean that more time, effort and money are needed to ensure the final quality of the product, GM and UAW officials said.

"The Clark plant is an anomaly in this system because of the way it's set up, because of the old rear-wheel-drive cars it makes and because it's only the customer who is keeping it alive," Merriott said. He said that GM plans to shut down the plant in 1989. But union officials are skeptical. GM has planned to close the plant before.

Consumer demand and GM's need to consolidate production of most of its remaining rear-wheel-drive cars gave Clark Avenue its latest reprieve. The plant, once the sole assembly location of GM's Cadillacs, now produces the aging Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, the Chevrolet Caprice sedan and station wagon, and the Oldsmobile Delta 88 station wagon.

GM officials say they had planned to stop assembling those gas-guzzlers in 1985. But consumer demand has remained high for the big, rear-wheel-drive cars, partly because consumers believe they are the best cars produced by GM, said John D. Hemphill, vice president of Power & Associates. "The full-size cars generally get higher quality ratings than the rest of the domestics, because they have been in production for some time. Those cars are also selling to an older group, people with a median age of 50," Hemphill said.

"The "under-40" consumer market, the so-called Baby Boomers, will be the toughest test for GM and other domestic car companies, Hemphill said. Quality expectations and overall buyer sophistication are highest in that group, he said.

The Detroit-Hamtramck plant is producing cars designed to persuade the Boomers that domestic cars can compete with foreign nameplates in terms of quality. The new $600 million, 3.3-million-square-foot facility assembles the front-wheel-drive Cadillac Eldorado and Seville, the Buick Riviera and the Oldsmobile Toronado. Components of the cars glide through a series of computer checks, are welded together and painted by robots -- and are stopped in their assembly-line tracks if flaws show up in their construction.

As a result of the constant, automated, on-line checking, there are no repair areas as such at Detroit-Hamtramck. There are no storage areas for bad parts, either. The whole place, geared to produce 60 cars an hour, would stop running within two to four hours after a shipment of faulty, critical parts.

Detroit-Hamtramck is set up on a just-in-time supply system -- which requires the right part at the right time at the right place to keep the lines moving. That means late parts, or bad parts, could halt production.

"That forces us to do something about a problem right away," said Earl Harper, Detroit-Hamtramck plant manager. "How long do you think it's going to take us to fix a problem if we have to shut down a multimillion-dollar plant?"

Still, Harper agrees with Sullivan and other analysts that all of the computers and robots and quality checks and employe-involvement programs are meaningless if buyers do not like the cars that come out at the other end. "The customer doesn't give a damn about your programs, and he shouldn't," Harper said. "All he cares about is the car he buys. Ultimately, everything we do has to come down to that."Picture/one: Employe Tim Bolan works on a Chevrolet in the repair department of General Motors Clark Ave. Avenue plant in Detroit. ; Picture /two: Robot transport carries auto parts to various locations in Detroit plant. ; Picture /three: New car bodies move through the Robogate System as robotic arms do the welding work on the assembly line at a General Motors plant in Detroit.