It may not get any better than this. Ford Motor Co. was the over achiever, fueled by adequate supplies of its F-150 pickup and an impressive $1,050 profit per vehicle. Ford's third quarter should be better than last year's because it is planning to build 11% more vehicles and will only have two new major new model changeovers -- the Expedition large sport/utility and the F-250 pickup, says David N. McCammon, vice president for finance But third-quarter earnings for all of the Big Three will be down from the spring quarter. Ford's $1.9-billion profit exceeded all Wall Street forecasts.




But there are some uncertainties on the near-term horizon. Look for the Fed to hike interest rates later this summer, probably by a quarter or a half percent, Mr. McCammon predicts.

GM's $1.9-billion performance was about what analysts expected. More significantly, the General has boosted its recession-repelling war chest of cash to an astounding $13 billion.

The big question mark is GM's ability to launch new models on time and in substantial volume. They'll have ample chance to prove their mettle in coming weeks. The stable of debuting new vehicles includes the new line of front-drive minivans, the `97 Pontiac Grand Prix, the `97 Buick Century and Park Avenue, a new full-size van and the new Saturn coupe.

So far, all but the big van are on or ahead of schedule, says Chief Financial Officer J. Michael Losh. Chrysler, which still is the most profitable domestic automaker per vehicle ($1,180 in the second quarter), continues perking along. This fall Chrysler will launch its new Dakota pickup. GM won't build enough new minivans before October to hurt Chrysler and, barring an unforeseen collapse of Grand Cherokee and Ram pickup sales, the armada in Auburn Hills is looking at clear sailing. But remember, the national agreement between the Big Three and the UAW will expire at midnight Sept. 14, a fortnight before the third-quarter ends.