On Oct. 22, 1976, Constance Bartholomew's 1973 4-door Lincoln, the transmission set in park, the engine running, started to roll backwards out of the Seven Corners parking lot as she loaded it with groceries.

Her youngest son, Jordan, then only a few weeks old, was sitting in an infant seat in the front. The jolting motion threw Jordan to the floor. Bartholomew ran alongside the car for a few nerve-wracking moments before one the the car's open doors slammed her down. Two wheels of the car ran on her. The wheels turned and the car careened into "about six parked cars."

"He was hurt at that time, but I didn't know it," says Bartholomew numbly, sitting in the living room of her comfortable Falls Church home. She calls to Jordan, now 3.

The boy swivels like a miniature David Niven, his shoulders stiffly, aristocratically, held back. He can't bend his neck, just his waist. Hard nuggets of bone protude from his spine. Jordan suffers from myositis ossificans progressiva , a genetic disease that causes bone tissue to grow at the sites of injuries.When a doctor finally diagnosed the rare condition last fall, he told Bartholomew the disorder "is triggered by trauma."

That sent her mind racing back to Oct. 22, 1976. The link reinforced her determination to fight, a determination that has carried her victorious through a negligence suit against Ford. The company is appealing the decision.

Bartholomew says personal compensation for her injuries has never satisfied her. For nearly four years, the 35-year-old former biomedical technician has fought for a recall of millions of Ford vehicles to correct an alleged transmission defect that may cause them to slip from park into reverse. If ordered, such an action would likely affect nearly 16 million vehicles. It would be the largest recall in the history of the U.S. auto industry.

Ford denies there is any such defect, and a spokesman said: "When a lever is latched it cannot shift out of park on its own."

Nevertheless, Bartholomew and the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety secured an advisory warning from the Department of Transportation (DOT) about the potential dangers of placing certain Fords in park with the engine running.

Having raked through cartons of mail at the Center's Dupont Circle offices, uniting thousands of complainants through a campaign of letterwriting, Bartholomew says she has endured unreturned phone calls, hearing postponements, and unrelenting opposition from Ford. This week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began hearings that will lead to a decision on the recall.

"It's a good thing people tell me I'm strong," groans the excitable, fast-talking Bartholomew. "I need to hear it."

"Mom, if they recall the cars . . . ." 11 year-old Paul Bartholomew begins to ask his mother.

"Don't say if,'" Constance Bartholomew instantly corrects her older son. "We don't say 'if' in this house. We say 'when.'"

Life has mugged Constance Bartholomew in the past few years.

The big smile that spreads over her face at almost any quip doesn't reveal it. Neither does her appearance, the highlights in her teased brown hair, the carefully applied makeup. She seems the fortunate suburban housewife with only ordinary worries. Until she tells her story.

On May 11 of this year -- Mother's Day -- her husband, sam, died of cancer. He was 46. The end followed three years of increasing pain and many operations. Less than a year before Sam's death, she learned she would have to watch Jordan suffer as well -- for many years to come.

Despite Jordan's frequent crying and the growth of his neck until she couldn't button the collars of size 7 shirts that otherwise fit him perfectly, Bartholomew wishfully believed initial medial advice -- that nothing unusual was wrong with Jordan.

"In Jewish, your say tsuris, she grimaces, "I had enough heartaches already." It wasn't until a senior investigator with the National Institutes of Health examined Jordan that his problem became devastatingly clear.

"You can't say 100 percent, but it's very likely," says Dr. Michael Zasloff when he is asked if the car mishap accelerated Jordan's genetic illness, a condition the doctor decribes as one of "continuous pain."

"The swallowing mechanisms are destoryed," he says of the more drastic cases. "All joints of the body are encased by bone. You don't see too many reports of people above 30." Jordan has it pretty bad. Probably, says Zasloff, "he's going to develop a twist of his neck. I believe his neck is going to bend down." If so, life in a wheelchair will follow.

On June 11, NHTSA released a report provisionally concluding that in 16 million Ford cars and trucks with automact transmissions built between 1972 and 1979, the gears can slip into reverse when left in park with the engine on. The report cites 23,428 reports of such incidents involving Fords, compared with 966 among General Motors vehicles and 181 involving Chryslers.

Ford's position, set out June 12 in a statement by Roger Maugh, director of Ford's auto safety office, is that NHTSA's conclusions "are based upon inaccurate and inadequate information and faulty analysis." The company denies its transmissions have any design defect, and additionally claims the transmissions do not differ significantly from those installed by General Motors and Chrysler, a contention engineers for the latter companies have disputed.

Bartholomew's negligence suit grew out of an engineer's report that Bartholomew obtained to satisfy her insurance company. It cited a transmission defect. She wanted to sue, but says the company attempted to dissuade her. "'You have an engineering report ,'" Batholomew says the insurance company representatives told her. "They have a slew of engineers.'"

But when her insurance premium jumped from $400 to $975, she decided to take her case to Fairfax County Circuit Court.

For once, however, things seemed to go Bartholomew's way. At one point in the trial, she remembers, "the doors flew open, and in came a full-sized Lincoln Continental, carried in the air by all these men, with a side removed to expose the steering column down to the transmission." Ford had arranged to bring it in to demonstrate the company's position.

As Bartholomew describes that day, her engineer set the transmission lever as it had been in her car, and put on the brake. "All he did," she recalls, "was hit the side. It jumped out of park and into reverse. He did that that three out of three times. On their car."

At the end of the five-day trial, the jury awarded Bartholomew $50,000 damages, which the judge later reduced to $16,500. Ford has appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

On Wednesday, four years after Bartholomew's accident, nearly 100 people crowded into a room at the Department of Transportation for the recall hearings. In one corner sat 12 Ford Lawyers and executives. At the front of the room was a panel of six NHTSA officials, who for the next three days would listen to testimony on both sides. The ruling, however, is not expected to be made for three months.

Former Transportation Secretary William T. Coleman Jr., now a Washington Lawyer hired to represent Ford in the hearings, called the NHTSA report "sheer fantasy." Ford was not permitted to cross-examine witnesses, and Coleman was upset. The same day, Ford filed suit in U.S. District Court in Delaware, seeking for force NHTSA to release documents so that Ford could interview participants in the NHSTA investigation.

"It isn't that they're [the witnesses] lying," Coleman said, "They think they had the car in park. But it's clear that if they did what they said they did. . . . well, it just can't happen."

Constance Bartholomew was called to testify yesterday morning. On the podium, there was none of the emotion she had displayed a few moments earlier, when she had consoled a teary-eyed mother who had watched her 18-month-old son, trapped in a car that was rolling in reverse, plunge to his death in a pond.

"Ford cannot callously condemn these owners to death because of the defect that is Ford's and Ford's alone," Bartholomew said in her terse, three-minute testimony.

"See, I'm not really a blowhard," she said later. "I just feel like I'm one little person up against the Ford Motor Company. But I have to stand up, I have to represent all those other people."

At home, Bartholomew watches Jordan play with a tape recorder. By September, she says, she must get down to the business of finding a job and putting her family's life back together. She still owes $4,500 for the engineering report that started her off. Only the help of her housekeeper enables her to think of going back to work.

Jordan is crying. Bartholomew rises from her chair and starts to banter with him, talking in funny voices, attacking his tears. Known to medical writers for centuries, his disease affects one of every 500,000 to 1 million people, and there is no known cure. Only the symptoms have achieved textbook certainty.

Constance Bartholomew shakes her head as if to say, no, she's not going to think it all through again, not going to wonder why it has happened to her. In a moment she's up again, promising Jordan the world if he'll stop crying.