EVERYTHING BEGAN to go wrong for James Salamites the night he left home to perform a simple, good deed: pick up his brother from work.

On his way home, Salamites' car collided with the limousine in which President Ford was riding, a bizarre mishap in downtown Hartford, Conn. That was October 1975.

For Salamites, life has been a series of unexpected jolts ever since.

Obscure one minute and famous the next, Salamites at first thought he might like the attention - the requests for interviews and television appearances. But soon he felt more seared than celebrated, confirming his initial suspicion that getting in the way of a President boded no good.

That occurred to him immediately after the crash, when he proceeded into an intersection that should have been shielded by motorcycle police as the President's motorcade rolled by. Salamites says he was "interrogated" at great length at a police station as if he had done something wrong.

Then came any number of newspaper accounts of the accident that "made it seem it was my fault," such as: "A Connecticut man who slammed his car into President Ford's limousine . . ."

Nor did Salamites' television and personal appearances turn out as he had envisioned.

He went on the Howard Cosell Show but Cosell "ranked me down," which is to say hurt Salamites' feelings by mentioning the beer cans in his car. On "To Tell the Truth," he was identified by all the panelists - "It was too close to the accident. My picture had been in the paper." At an auto show appearance in Hartford, he signed autographs but, upon reflection, decided he had "made a fool of myself on stage."

A call from Ford himself proved small consolation.

"He told me I acted very good on TV, that I handled the situation very well," Salamites says. But he recalls not having much to say to the President. "I was too nervous. I never talked to a President before."

Salamites decided to get away from his hometown of Meriden, Conn., and "all the hassles there" and try to forget what was happening to him. He took a job with a salvage company in Camden, N.J., where a friend of his was working. He found the job "kind of exciting," but he couldn't change his luck.

Driving with a friend at the Jersey shore one night last summer, Salamites says he took a wrong turn off an expressway near Wildwood, stopped at a gas station for a soda and was arrested by two policemen who drove up and charged him with possession of hashish. Salamites denied the charge, which was dismissed. But he wasn't happy about the press coverage.

"When I was arrested it was front page," he says. "When the charges were dropped, it was placed just under the marriage intentions."

Salamites determined to concentrate on work and keep out of all controversy. He seldom left the salvage yard; he even lived there in a small trailer.

Then one day, while out working on a tugboat that was moving a coal barge on the Delaware, Salamites had his arm broken. "One of the winches on the tugboat got loose and my arm was in the way. It was one of those things. I was close to losing my arm. The bone was protruding from the skin, right at the elbow."

Salamites had to undergo an operation. He was interviewed while recovering in a Philadelphia hospital.

"I don't want to be known anymore," the 21-year-old Salamites says. "The accident (the one involving the President) didn't help me. It did me more harm than good. It's caused me a lot of anguish. I've lost friends, my parents have lost friends mainly because of the accident and the drug charge. We're looked down upon.We're not the envy of the street."

Though he prefers not to live there, he's left "The Car" behind. He says his battered 1972 Buick LeSabre, a wreck after being hit by the President's heavily armored limousine, is "in my driveway, rotting." Salamites says he doesn't drive anymore.