Everybody knows the story. In Greek mythology, Sirens were evil sea nymphs that sang so sweetly that hapless mariners who heard their songs crashed their ships onto the rocks on which they sang. The Greek hero Odysseus was able to pass the island safely because, following the advice of the sorceress Circe, he plugged the ears of his crew with wax and had himself bound to the ship's mast. That way he could hear the Sirens' song without endangering himself or his crew.

The ancient myth has become a metaphor for impulsive, self-destructive behavior, and most of today's corporate captains nod their heads knowingly when the Sirens' song is mentioned in the same sentence as Thailand, Brazil, China and many, many other seductive emerging automotive markets. They heard the Sirens singing not long ago in those markets. Unfortunately, they had no friendly sorceress advising them on how to avoid the dangers. Many found themselves on the rocks when currencies crashed in Asia last July and then pulled other markets such as Brazil down into the vortex. Korea is a mess, so is Japan. India is looking dicey, and China, well China always is dicey.

Even good old well-established Western Europe is getting a little hairy with the implementation of a single currency (the Euro) among participating countries in the European Union. At least Mexico is looking up.

But there's no time to reflect or nurse wounds. While much of Asia-Pacific - touted as an economic powerhouse less than a year ago - remains in a shambles, other emerging markets already are catching the auto industry's ear: Russia, Belarus, the Philippines. And if your OEM customer wants starter motors built in the Philippines, or steering gears in Uzbekistan, you go. Why? Because the only thing worse than being in some of these markets is NOT being there.

"The risk is, if you don't follow your customer into the area, you will lose the business," says Brian Ambrose, an industrial and automotive analyst with Detroit-based KPMG Consulting, which helps suppliers and automakers complete overseas deals. "If you're a Tier 2 supplier, your customer will find someone else who will make that investment."

And when you lose one piece of business in today's era of global component sourcing, you may end up losing everything down the road.

So you put together your crew and set sail. Just don't take anything for granted. Exploring new markets is just as perilous now as it was in the days of Odysseus. Currency shifts are more treacherous than yesterday's wind and tides, and pirates are out there, too. The only difference now is they steal technology instead of treasure.

There are plenty of other problems, too: political unrest, local-content requirements, overcapacity, communication barriers, finding qualified employees, different engineering philosophies and transportation costs.

The most surprising aspect of all this risky globalization is that despite the trouble, almost all of the major automotive suppliers remain undaunted and optimistic about long-term prospects. These latest problems are not the first setbacks they have faced in global markets. In fact, most have been navigating the choppy waters of Asia, Latin America and parts of Eastern Europe for decades.

Key strategies seem to be to not invest too heavily at first, having several customers and multiple products that can be made with the same equipment - and exported if necessary.

"Our overall strategy doesn't mean that we follow the customer over a cliff," says James A. Bertrand, executive director of Operations for GM's Delphi Automotive Systems, which has 208 facilities in 36 countries. Delphi stresses the use of manufacturing cells rather than lengthy assembly lines at most facilities. That allows production to be more flexible and better accommodate wild swings in demand. It's also important to be able to export products to other regions if the domestic market for a factory's products goes sour, he says.

For instance, the battery plant Delphi is building in China will supply not only the local market, but also many markets outside China.

Nevertheless, local content regulations and cultural barriers often can complicate such simple strategies, Mr. Bertrand says. China is very tricky because it's a big country with very strong regional buying characteristics. "Shanghai people want to buy from local Shanghai suppliers," he says.

And just because a market goes sour doesn't mean you have to fold up your tent and go home. "Honestly, we haven't folded up a plant in an emerging market in the last five or six years," says Larry Kazanowski, vice president of business development and planning at Ford's Visteon Automotive Systems, which has facilities in 19 countries. Visteon currently is launching a plant in Thailand, but he does not sound overly worried.

"You just have to be very careful about what you do," he says. "When we are going to make a commitment we will look at several scenarios and ask ourselves what happens if the market goes into the tank. If the job requires 100,000 units per year, then we'll size the plant to produce 100,000parts on two shifts. We'll assume some will run on three shifts, and we'll lay it out so we can increase production quickly."

But good preparation doesn't guarantee the experience will be pain free.

"If the OEM is suffering, they expect us to suffer, too," says Frank P. Boccabella, vice president and general manager of TRW Linkage & Suspension Systems. He's seen his share of ups and downs overseas, and has recently put together a plan to handle the downturn in production in Thailand. "Because our customer base is so extensive, we've been able to get business with another OEM in Thailand, supplementing the loss of production."

Starting out cautiously is important, but that's not always easy to do when your customers and competitors all are racing to a hot new market, says Larry Oman, senior vice president of Automotive Components at Eaton Corp.

"You really have to understand up front that it's a tough struggle. Everybody goes in with a lot of optimism, and sometimes you just have to sit back. "

Just how bad is it out there?

Global automakers and their major suppliers were both surprised by Asia/Pacific's total tiger meltdown last year, and they're still racing to adjust as the malaise continues. Most say the region's devastating currency crisis, which began last July in Thailand, pounced without warning, causing auto sales to plunge 40% or more for the year - from big players in Korea and Japan to up-and-comers in India and Vietnam. With the weakening demand for cars and enormous overcapacity of manufacturers spilling over into 1998, automotive suppliers are bracing for a rough ride ahead.

"Everyone could probably see things not adding up, but the degree caught them by surprise," says Chuck Heine, president of Dana Corp.'s Asia/Pacific operations. "I was in Thailand last week, where they sold 590,000 vehicles in 1996 and are expecting to sell 150,000 this year. That's a huge fallout. It certainly got our attention."

As it is for many suppliers, Thailand is a hub for Dana's ASEAN (Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations) automotive products, as well as the epicenter of the currency quake. One of Dana's projects is to supply axles and driveshafts for light trucks built by the Ford Motor Co./Mazda Motor Corp. Thai Auto Alliance joint venture, where production plans have been chopped from 135,000 to 50,000 units annually.

Mr. Heine remains cautiously optimistic. "We've been overseas for 30 years," he says. "We've seen the ups and downs. It's nothing unusual. We're being prudent with our investments and utilizing our assets the best we can. We're redressing our exports out of the region to Australia, the U.S, and Europe. We have not changed our strategy. It hurts the bottom line, short term, but we're battening down the hatches."

Thai auto sales reportedly fell 75% in January, compared to a year earlier - from 42,975 units to 11,054 for the same month this year. The drop caused Toyota Motor Thailand for the first time in six years to slip from first place in passenger car sales.

General Motors Corp. has put its Thai auto partsmakers on notice to suspend production while the automaker reassesses its operations there. This follows an announcement that GM now plans a two- to three-month delay in the opening of its new Thai production plant. The company already has pared down its investment of $750 million to $500 million in the facility.

And rumor now has it that the automaker may skip the Opel Astra car it planned to build for a cheaper model, though a spokesman says no decision has been made. Yet, economists say market confidence in Thailand seems to be returning, due to financial problems being forcefully addressed by the Thai government. The baht has strengthened by more than 40% since January; the stock market is up 25% in the same period.

The Japanese automakers' battle for survival is the real story in Thailand. Tri Petch Isuzu, the country's No.2 vehicle producer, is raising additional capital, downsizing manufacturing and sales operations and quadrupling exports of engines and parts.

The company also plans to start shipping pickups to Australia. Likewise, Toyota plans to ship 20,000 Hilux pickups to Australia and New Zealand in the second half of the year. To help its suppliers survive, Toyota is accepting price increases ranging from 6% to 20% and is providing pre-shipment payments for parts consignment.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. plans to inject $14.6 million into its cash-strapped Thai parts-supply subsidiaries to boost their capital. The automaker also is pumping $7.3 million into Honda Car Manufacturing (Thailand) Co., in addition to increasing auto-parts exports. Honda in Japan has stopped producing some parts, transferring the responsibility to 27 Thai subsidiaries.

Mitsubishi Motors Corp. wants to consolidate Thai operations by possibly closing three of four pickup production lines. The company already has cut all temporary workers and a substantial number of staff.

Last year Mitsubishi exported 35,000 Thai-made pickups to overseas markets. Japanese major parts supplier Denso Corp. is merging Thai sales and production units, cutting 20 jobs from the current total of 1,200 employees. Combined sales of the two companies fell sharply to $159 million in 1997 from $235 million in 1996.