BANGKOK - U.S. automakers and suppliers wanting to take advantage of one of the world's fastest growing auto industries had better head for Thailand. Now!

"You have to be in the market as soon as possible," says Chackchai Panichapat, deputy secretary general of Thailand's Board of Investment. "You cannot let your competitor take all of the market share and dominate all of the partsmakers' capacities."

He laments, however, that the Americans do not appear ready to supply enough right-hand-drive vehicles. "My dream car is a Corvette. I would like to see more American cars here but the U.S. would rather change the world than adapt to the world, whereas the Japanese would put the steering wheel on the back of the car if that's what the customer wants."

Since 1980, vehicle sales have increased five-fold in this kingdom of 60 million, to 480,000 units in 1994. It currently boasts 150 OEM suppliers and 200 aftermarket suppliers. It ranks second only to the U.S. in pickup-truck sales, and its passenger-car market has grown an average of 20% to 25% in the past few years - a trend bound to continue as personal incomes rise and consumers upgrade to cars from pickups.

Key factors fueling the automotive industrial expansion are record domestic growth - about 9% since 1988 - and an unprecedented investment by Japanese and European automakers. The Japanese, who have monopolized the vehicle market for 30 years, were responsible for 91% of last year's total vehicle sales.

Technology transfers from Japan have enabled Thailand to foster a globally competitive parts supply base, and Thai policy legislators intend to develop it into a major component manufacturing center for assembly operations worldwide.

Thailand has set its sights on supplying U.S. automakers on their home turf, as well as in Thailand, as the U.S. Big Three attempt a comeback here after pulling out in the 1970s due to stringent local-content requirements. Chrysler Corp. is assembling the Jeep Cherokee and Ford Motor Co. is building a factory to co-produce 135,000 small pickup truck units annually with Mazda Motor Corp. beginning in 1998. General Motors Corp. is importing cars from its German subsidiary, Adam Opel AG. Pal Singh, GM Thailand's managing director, expects the company to begin local production when its market share reaches 10%, likely by the end of the decade

As U.S. automakers stake out positions in Thailand, their suppliers are following suit. Last month, Thailand's Department of Export Promotion hosted a mission of U.S. suppliers looking to source labor-intensive Thai parts.

Larry Rogers, manager of quality improvement for AlliedSignal Inc., a leading U.S. supplier of braking systems, says his company has identified three key Thai suppliers it plans to work with to develop rubber components to be exported to the U.S.

Rogers says he approached Thai suppliers with 13 brake parts numbers. He expects his company to source eight of the parts from Thailand in volumes ranging from a half million to 11 million units a year, and target prices ranging from less than one cent to 13 cents per part. That's a savings of about 15% to 20% over sourcing the parts in the U.S., where labor and raw material costs are higher.

Rogers says Thai rubber suppliers, in particular, have capabilities that either equal or surpass those of his company's U.S. suppliers, and that vendors of other products, such as stampings and plastics parts, probably will be comparable to U.S. companies in the next three to five years.

Thailand is particularly capable in basic technologies such as casting, machining and forging, and is a major manufacturer of diesel engines.

U.S. automakers and suppliers stand to gain a lot from entering this gateway to Asia. Not only will they access the Thai market, but the entire right-hand-drive ASEAN region - Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Brunei and, added in July, Vietnam - which has ballooned from about 300,000 units in 1987 to over 1 million today.

The region is full of perks such as brand-to-brand complimentation, under which manufacturers can source parts from neighboring nations, import them at half the duty rate and count the parts as local content in the nation where assembly is carried out. Early in the next century, however, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) will be superseded by AFTA (Asian Free Trade Area), which will eliminate high tariffs and other protective measures from the market.

By then, manufacturers' successes will rest solely on market forces, image and the niches they carved for themselves when the time was right. As it stands now, the average Thai citizen has no idea what an American car looks like - a sure sign that the U.S. has a long way to go in the region. But true success in the markets is possible if the U.S. judges the market correctly and is flexible enough to change with the times.