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Taking quotas off Japanese cars might not flood US market

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American consumers in the market for Japanese cars have had their share of frustrations over the past few years: waiting lines and high prices, to name two. If only import restrictions weren't in place, they lament, then Americans could buy all the Japanese cars they wanted.

From a series of statements made by US Trade Representative William Brock last week, it appears that Japanese voluntary import restrictions could fall by the wayside in 1985. But instead of sending a navy of cheaper imports across the Pacific, Japan would only gradually increase market share here and would stick with its high-profit-margin cars, analysts predict.

In a Washington Post interview last week, Mr. Brock said that ''our reluctance (to extend the quotas) is a mile wide and a mile deep.'' He was irritated by the recent announcement of large bonuses paid out by General Motors and Ford to groups of its executives. If the industry is healthy enough to pay these bonuses (totaling $262.3 million), he asked, ''then why does it need protection?''

A spokeswoman with the trade office said Mr. Brock was expressing a personal opinion. So was Malcolm Baldrige, secretary of commerce, when he also recently questioned the necessity of Japanese auto restrictions. Mr. Brock is the chief trade negotiator, but trade decisions are discussed among the President's Cabinet members, with ultimate policy approval made by Mr. Reagan, a strong advocate of free trade. No definitive statement supporting Brock's remarks has come out of the White House yet.

But ''it is Brock's style to check with other people before he talks, so I'm sure he consulted with several Cabinet people and members of the Senate Finance Committee,'' says Harald Malmgren, a former US trade official in Washington. ''Let's say it reflects a Washington mood at this time.'' All of this discussion is a bit premature, though, he says, since the voluntary restrictions won't run out until next spring, after the election, and many other trade issues will be important topics around election time. In Mr. Malmgren's opinion, Brock's comments are ''a shot across the bow''' to test reaction.

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