A proud chapter in U.S. automotive history ended today when the last direct descendant of the World War II Jeep, global symbol of hardy American know-how for 45 years, rolled off an assembly line here and into a museum.

As workers and officials of American Motors Corp. clapped in bittersweet farewell, "The Last Jeep," a red CJ-7 Renegade with hardtop and sports stripes along its boxy sides, wheeled into history at AMC's Jeep works here.

"It's a very sad moment, a real passing of something special," said David Vaughan, a quality-control engineer. "My father started working here in 1941, until he retired in 1979. The Jeep plant bore me and and bred me. Jeep has always been part of our life, you know."

Although AMC makes various Jeep-like, four-wheel-drive vehicles, today's final CJ-7 is the last to bear a direct engineering pedigree from the original, all-purpose vehicle first manufactured in 1941 for the U.S. Army, which needed a successor to the horse and the motorcycle for off-road reconnaissance.

More than 2 million Jeeps have been produced since then by several companies, in various military and civilian models. Whatever its manufacturer, the Jeep has been as ubiquitous an American artifact as Coca-Cola and the slogan, "Kilroy was here."

AMC bought the Jeep Corp. in 1970 and has been building Jeeps ever since. The company, partially owned by Renault of France, will begin manufacturing a successor, called the Wrangler, at a plant in Brampton, Ontario, in March. The new vehicle resembles the historic Jeep, but has a wider stance and a lower center of gravity.

"A totally new vehicle, not a freshened CJ," is how AMC spokesman Jerry Sloan described it.

The difference is crucial: Scores of lawsuits have been filed in recent years alleging that the Jeep rolls over easily. Many of these suits have been settled out of court; more than 100 are pending.

"We've never thought it a safety problem," Sloan said of the Jeep.

Nevertheless, U.S. Jeep sales have dropped from a high of 79,296 vehicles in 1978 to 37,656 in 1985. In addition, the Army long since has turned its back on the doorless, quarter-ton utility vehicle and is buying a much larger all-purpose truck, nicknamed the Hummer.

Despite fate and fickleness, applause echoed through the factory today as the Last Jeep moved slowly toward the end of the line.

Vaughan, 31, has worked here 11 years and now helps supervise production on a station-wagon line. Good work, he said, but not like building Jeeps.

During World War II, the Willys Overland Co. and the Ford Motor Co. built nearly 600,000 of the tough little vehicles. Their simplicity, high road clearance and rugged construction made them ideal vehicles for war. They served in every theater, hauling men, weapons, supplies and casualties across rough terrain, fording streams and floundering through mud that bogged down bigger, more powerful vehicles.

Thousands survive to this day in fine running condition in some of the most remote parts of the world. Not to be outdone, the Soviets have a look-alike version of the Jeep. And the Japanese have theirs.

Perhaps the best known bard of the Jeep is editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin. His cartoon of a broken-down Jeep being put out of its misery by a grieving, grizzled Army sergeant holding a Colt .45 automatic pistol to its hood is a World War II classic.

"The Jeep is really a little truck, very hard to drive, but very well engineered," said Mauldin in an interview from his New Mexico home. "It probably killed more American soldiers than enemy fire did. They didn't know how to drive it."

Regardless, the war had not ended when the first civilian Jeep -- the first of what became a succession of CJ models -- rolled off the asembly lines for domestic showrooms. In that year, 1,855 Jeeps were sold to civilians, according to AMC.

The total numbers are not great in an industry that last year sold more than 15 million vehicles domestically. But the 45-year manufacturing span may be one of the longest production runs for a specific vehicle.

The end of production will bring layoffs for about 1,000 workers from AMC's Toledo plant, where 8,700 are employed.

AMC has had barely 2 percent of the domestic auto market and about 13 percent of the specialty market, where four-wheel-drive vehicles predominate. These vehicles transfer power to all four wheels instead of just two, as is customary; the result is better traction.

Jeeps are used for plowing snow and have been known to plow fields. Over the years, and especially in the 1970s when increasingly affluent Americans began buying second and third cars, the rugged image of four-wheel-drive vehicles caught on. Once common to the back country, Jeeps moved into the suburbs and, eventually, downtown.

In a recent survey, AMC said it has found that 95 percent of recent Jeep buyers use the vehicle for everyday transportation, compared to just 17 percent in 1978. At the same time, AMC said, it found that only 7 percent of owners now use their Jeeps for "frequent off-roading," compared with 37 percent eight years ago.

The new Jeep-like Wrangler "has good highway suspension," Sloan said, adding: "The CJ was something of a rough ride."

But, for the men and women who have spent their adult lives building Jeeps, the change is not necessarily an improvement.

"The new one is just not the same. It's for the street, and that's not the same as the real Jeep," said Leo Tussing, an assembly line supervisor.

"Suspension, that's the key," said another worker who claims ownership of five Jeep models. "You could plow hell out of the old CJ. The new one isn't going to do that."

Jeep zealots in California have launched an effort to "Keep the Jeep," but AMC officials said the vehicle's days are over.

"The Last Jeep" will be put on display in a Jeep museum here at the factory -- never to run again.