BRUSSELS, OCT. 2 -- Vice President Bush, in an offhand remark, suggested today that the auto industry in Detroit could use quality-control advice from Soviet tank mechanics.

After meeting with 16 ambassadors to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Bush was asked by reporters what he learned that was "new." He said he had been told by one of the ambassadors -- "Italy, or maybe it was Norway" -- that the Soviets staged a military operation recently involving 350 tanks and "never had a mechanical breakdown.

"That's what I learned that was new, and you might say what's the significance of that and as I told them in there -- hey, when the mechanics who keep those tanks running run out of work in the Soviet Union, send them to Detroit because we could use that kind of ability.

"That's quite an achievement in an operation," he said.

The remark could prove embarrassing to Bush, who has recently suffered a number of political setbacks in Michigan. His just-finished trip to Poland was designed in part to serve as a pitch to the large Polish-American community around Detroit. Bush is planning a stop in Detroit during a tour the week of Oct. 12 to announce his presidential candidacy.

In the remark, Bush sounded critical of the U.S. auto industry. Aides scrambled to explain that Bush had not intended to insult Detroit autoworkers or the industry, and said they were concerned that the comment not be interpreted that way.

Stephen Hart, Bush's acting press secretary, quickly relayed a statement by radio to a deputy, saying that Bush "meant that those quality technicians would be welcomed for the high quality of work that's done in Detroit."

Craig Fuller, Bush's chief of staff, said Bush's comment had reflected his recent meeting with top executives of Ford, who talked to him about their emphasis on quality and how they have improved American cars. Fuller said Bush meant that the auto companies are always looking for good mechanics because of their emphasis on quality.

Owen Bieber, president of the United Auto Workers union, called on Bush to apologize to the nation's autoworkers and the American people "for his foolish comments."

In a written statement issued in Washington, Bieber said, "It's obvious to most people and it should be obvious to Mr. Bush that Detroit more than fulfilled the free world's expectations as the arsenal of democracy in the Second World War and in subsequent conflicts as well.

"It was plain wrong and inaccurate for the vice president to say that U.S. workmanship is poor, but to then suggest that Soviet mechanical abilities are superior adds injury," he said.

Bieber added that Bush "should be spending his time abroad supporting this nation's industries and promoting made-in-America quality."

Bush also gave a speech today at a closed-door meeting of the North Atlantic Council, the group of permanent representatives to the alliance. Bush aides refused requests from reporters for copies of the speech, saying it must remain confidential. Bush said afterward that he had come to "reaffirm our commitment to the alliance and in the spirit of consultation."