The state of the liner shipping industry today: rate erosion. Overcapacity. Sagging profit.

Yet through one of the most tumultuous periods that liner shipping has seen in years, one segment has managed not only to tread water, but prosper. Ocean carriers specializing in the shipment of automobiles - spurred by new markets in Africa, Asia, South America and Eastern Europe - are flourishing through a combination of time-tested business smarts and acclimation to the new world of logistics.Carriers used to take the cars ''wherever the manufacturers told them,'' said Robert Minton-Taylor, a marketing consultant who advises Sweden's Wallenius Lines. ''They chased cargo wherever. Now with consumer demand, the car carriers are operating on schedules. The carriers are asked by the manufacturers to become a part of the production line. Car carriers are becoming logistics companies.''

Car carrying is a business with a handful of players, eight to be specific, handling more than $100 billion worth of cargo a year, approximately the gross domestic product of Finland or Denmark. The current world car-carrying fleet stands at just over 300 vessels. Last year, those vessels delivered more than 6 million vehicles around the world.

Of those, more than four of every six vehicles were exported from Asia; 1.2 million vehicles moved outbound from Europe; and a half-million vehicles were exported from the United States.

In sharp contrast to container shipping, where a surge in vessel supply has caused rates to plunge in a number of major trade lanes, the small auto-carrying community has managed to maintain balance in the market.

''The balance of supply and demand for these vessels has been kept basically in check,'' said Roy Winograd, vice president of marketing for HUAL North America Inc., one auto carrier. He warned, however, that a serious shortage of vessels could develop if new vessels are not launched and older vessels are not allowed by insurers to sail beyond the current lifetime of 15 years.


The faltering among Asian economies has spared the car-carrying business, said Ingar Skaug, president of Wilhelmsen Line. Wilhelmsen has operated in the region for more than a century - 102 years in Australia alone, where the company claims almost 100 percent of the business.

''It's bouncing back faster than we anticipated,'' Mr. Skaug said of the Asian markets. ''Evidently the effect was not that big. I am less concerned now than I was three months ago.''

To deal with the expected growth in vehicle shipments, Mr. Skaug said Wilhelmsen plans to order new ships within weeks in Europe, South Korea or Japan. Just last year the company introduced three new ships, bringing its fleet to 35.

''It's a favorable time to build. The whole situation in Asia suggests we can get a good deal,'' he said.

So how does a company so well-positioned prepare for the future, especially when only 50 to 60 customers represent the backbone of its business?

Wilhelmsen's strategy to act as a logistics partner rather than simply an ocean carrier underscores the change in thinking throughout the car-carrying industry.

Bjorn O. Tonsberg, president of Wilhelmsen Lines (USA) Inc., said: ''We try to get into a partnership agreement so we can be a part of their future plans. We want to discuss the solutions for tomorrow.''


Wilhelmsen wants to operate on three fronts with logistics managers: It wants to know what the customer sees as its future products; it wants to offer a portfolio of solutions; and it wants to provide those services for the customer.

That's precisely the recipe shippers crave, said Chris Hager, traffic manager for Grove Worldwide Manufacturing, a Shady Grove, Pa., manufacturer of cranes and other construction equipment that use the roll-on, roll-off ships used by car carriers.

''The ship lines and the ports have to be aware of our special needs. This is something you are going to see more of,'' he said.

That means knowing where an axle on a future automotive model will meet a drum, and where the D-ring on the ship should be welded so the tie-down does not scratch.

''We design our ships so the rings and tie-downs are in the proper position,'' Mr. Skaug said. ''We do not leave the slightest mark on the cars, none at all.''

The strategy appears to be paying off.

''1997 is going to be the best year we have ever had,'' Mr. Skaug said.

While year-end numbers have not been released, Wilhelmsen's results earlier in 1997 offer a revealing glimpse of a prospering company.

Net operating income in the first eight months of the year soared to $62.3 million from $37.8 million a year earlier.

Others in the vehicle-shipping industry likewise are hurtling toward the next century with solid business prospects, in part because so many once-sleepy economies are springing to life.

South Africa is back as a regional manufacturer, with automobile plants opening near Port Elizabeth on the Indian Ocean. And automakers, taking advantage of lower labor costs, increasingly are opening plants in Brazil and Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

Hyundai Merchant Marine of Seoul is helping other car- and vehicle-carriers by chartering space on Europe-to-Asia services.


Sweden's Wallenius this month took delivery of a new 5,850-car, 13-deck vessel, the sixth new ship among nine the company ordered.

Wallenius, with 39 ships and an estimated 16 percent share of the market, will put the Don Quijote into round-the-world service by summer.

In a related development, the Port of Baltimore says it has installed an electronic-sensing system to locate stolen cars that commingle with cars to be legally exported from Baltimore's car-ship terminals.