Despite the black clouds of recession, the auto industry will put its best face forward during the next two months with its usual series of wintertime auto shows.

Just as it has for most of this century, automakers will show off their best products in brightly lighted, elaborate displays.The first two shows begin Jan. 12 in Detroit and Los Angeles, and by the time spring rolls around, major exhibitions will have been held in Chicago and New York.

But underneath the glitz and glamour, automakers are facing their darkest days since the early 1980s, when Chrysler Corp. brushed with bankruptcy, Ford Motor Co. wondered if it would survive and General Motors Corp.'s dominance began fading.

New car and truck sales are in a tailspin, partly because of sagging consumer confidence, worry about conflict in the Mideast and an economy gasping for help. Through November, total car and light truck sales in the United States totaled about 13.2 million, down nearly 5 percent from last year.

If automaker executives are correct, the industry will take another 5 percent hit in its sales rate next year.

Each of the Big Three have predicted dire financial results for 1990's fourth quarter, and it appears Chrysler could wind up losing money for the full year. It would be the first annual loss posted by an automaker since 1982, when Ford took a $658 million loss.

But none of that will be visible at the shows. In fact, it will be well hidden behind fake waterfalls, a simulated test track and dozens of "concept cars," or not-for-production vehicles made to show off an automaker's technical and design expertise.

Ford said it has redesigned its 1991 Detroit exhibit, doing away with turntables and leggy models, opting instead for more consumer-oriented actors talking about the company's cars and trucks.

That's not to say the Ford show will be without glitter. There will be a 40-foot-wide curtain of cascading water as a backdrop in the center of the display.

GM will have a simulation of a test track at its exhibit, which also will feature displays emphasizing environmental efforts.