Lawrence Herbert hoped to close a multimillion-dollar deal on his color formulation and quality-control system when he flew to West Germany on January 21, 1977.

Instead, the president of Pantone Inc., of Moonachie, N.J., spent the night in a pitch-black solitary confinement cell in Cologne, wrongly accused of stealing a Hertz rental car on an earlier European trip in 1974.

By the time the mix-up was resolved, Herbert says a meeting he had spent three months arranging was ruined, and the deal for Pantone, a company with almost $4 million in revenues in 1980, had fallen through.

Herbert is suing the French and German subsidiaries of Hertz for $923,000 -- $523,000 for money spent on promoting the computerized system in Germany and other European countries and $400,000 in personal damages. "To be arrested with machine guns -- it really frightens the hell out of you," Herbert says.

Hertz, according to Herbert, made two errors that led to his false arrest: In 1974 it mistakenly listed as stolen a Mercedes-Benz Herbert rented to drive equipment from Frankfurt to Paris. After Herbert notified Hertz that he had returned the car, Hertz failed to cancel an international warrant for his arrest. Herbert was unaware of this warrant until his arrest at the airport two and a half years later.

Hertz refuses to discuss details of the suit, which is pending in the Federal District Court in New York City. Lloyd's of London, Hertz's insurer, will be managing the defense. Irving Kagan, vice-president and general counsel for the Hertz Corp., did say that Hertz takes "all reasonable measures" to prevent a false arrest, and he knew of no other case similar to the one Herbert describes.

In 1978, Herbert rejected a settlement for $15,000 -- the amount he had spent on legal fees just to get out of Germany. He hopes his suit will make Hertz more careful. "I have to take the company to task for this one," he insists.

Responds Kagan: "One man tripping and falling on the street doesn't make that a problem. To make it seem a potentially disastrous situation for traveling businessmen is inappropriate." Kagan estimates that 85% to 90% of Hertz's car rentals are for domestic business travel.