The steel industry knocked the collective wind out of them late last summer, but aluminum producers straightened up and came out swinging last month at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Two very significant aluminum-intensive vehicles -- General Motors Corp.'s EV1 electric car and Chrysler Corp.'s Plymouth Prowler -- were introduced there, and the aluminum folks worked hard to make sure everyone knew those body structures weren't made of gingerbread. Other important vehicles to the aluminum industry also were pointed out at the,show such as Ford Motor Co.'s new F-150 pickup -- it features an aluminum hood, the highest-volume body panel ever made from the light metal.

The attitude among most aluminum industry executives now is very upbeat, but insiders say that wasn't the case late last summer, when the steel industry showed off a stunning prototype of a steel auto body that is about 30% lighter and $150 cheaper than today's. While still quite a bit heavier than comparable all-aluminum body structures in development, the steel body-in-white's (BIW) low cost promised to dash the hopes of aluminum producers who are trying to convince automakers to save weight by converting conventional steel bodies to their material.

Aluminum body structures can be 40% to 50% lighter than ordinary steel BIWs, but they are far more expensive and require different production methods. Raw aluminum costs alone are several times as much as steel. Lighter weight and even lower-cost steel bodies makes the sales job that much harder.

Many aluminum industry executives apparently were shocked and dismayed by the steel industry announcement, and at first had trouble developing a unified response to the new challenge. With aerospace and defense industry sales weak, most are looking to the auto industry as their main avenue for future growth -- especially in new areas such as vehicle structures.

Alcan Aluminum Ltd., for instance, has invested $140 million in the development of materials and enabling technology for aluminum-intensive vehicles and other end uses for aluminum in autos.

Since those dark days last September, however, it looks like the aluminum folks have gotten their wind back. Like the 32 competing steel companies that got together to fund research for the lightest possible steel-bodied passenger car, aluminum companies seem to be putting aside some of their differences long enough to look at the Big Picture.

This is apparent on Chrysler's Prowler project. Due out in early 1997, the 2,800-lb. (1,270-kg) modern-day street rod uses a whopping 900 lbs. (408 kg) of aluminum, or almost five times that of a typical U.S. vehicle. Its frame, body panels, bumpers, suspension components, wheels and brake rotors all are aluminum. Volume will be small: about 5,000 per year for five or six years, but nevertheless a nice piece of business -- and a great showcase.

"Historically, three major aluminum suppliers -- Alcoa, Alumax and Duralcan -- could have competed for some of the same business," says Gordon Heidacker, procurement manager -- Team Prowler. "However, in Prowler we wanted each supplier to explore their strongest application of aluminum technology." Mr. Heidacker says this enabled the three suppliers the opportunity to develop a different and unique component, but allowed them to share the opportunity to explore advanced technology in aluminum.

This conciliatory attitude also crops up at Alcan Rolled Products Co., which worked with GM to develop the electric-powered EV1, technically the first production vehicle built in North America to feature an all-aluminum structure. (Aluminum-bodied vehicles such as the Acura NSX and Audi A8 have been in production in Japan and Europe, respectively, for several years.)

The EV1 body structure uses a substantially different design approach than Prowler, but instead of sniping at archrival Alcoa's strategy, Alcan officials praise it as another big step forward for aluminum. "We see our efforts as being complementary," says one Alcan official graciously. With that kind of attitude, more aluminum vehicles may not be that far away.