Attorneys for the state of Indiana and Ford Motor Co. will face off this week in an 84-year-old rural courthouse here in a case that could broadly redefine responsibilities of American corporations for the products they make.

Opening arguments are expected to begin late today or tomorrow.

Ford is the first American corporation to face criminal charges stemming from the design of its products. The state will argue that between 1971 and 1976 the huge automaker sold the economy-size Pinto, knowing that the car's gasoline tank was prone to explosion during rear-end collisions. The prosecution also will allege that Ford neither took steps to correct the design flaw nor notified Pinto owners of potential hazards. In specific charges, the state will accuse Ford of "reckless homicide" in the deaths of three young Goshen, Ind., women killed in the fiery, rear-end crash of a Pinto in August 1978.

The flamboyance of the opposing lawyers, the possibility of a precedent, in the outcome and the trial's unlikely location in one of Indiana's most sparsely settled counties make for a plot reminiscent in style if not in content of the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial."

State's attorney Michael Cosentino, a 43-year-old part-time prosecutor from Elkhart County, leads a ragtag army of law students, law professors and other volunteers on a shoestring budget of $20,000.

Cosentino is a righteous, tough-talking courtroom performer who, associates say, doesn't like to lose, Speaking for himself, he said he feels a bit like David taking on Goliath.

The Ford defense is led by former Watergate prosecutor James Neal, another country lawyer who doesn't like to lose.

"If you play three sets of tennis with Jim Neal," his law partner, Aubrey Harwell, once said, " and he beats you the first two rounds, but loses the third, Jim will demand a rematch. No matter what time it is. No matter how late it is."

A master of southern sarcasm, Neal, who once won a conviction of Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa on a jury-tampering charge, has served Ford well thus far. He has won several procedural points in pretrial hearings, and has ribbed Cosentino almost endlessly in court.

Ford is sparing no expense, and Neal will have at his disposal a trial fund of at least $1 million. (Neal has already spent $20,000, the equivalent of Cosentino's entire budget, on a opinion sampling of Elkhart city residents The judge ordered a change of venue to Winamac.)

Joining Neal in working out of a two-story rented store front is local counsel Lester Wilson, for 22 years a law partner in the Winamac firm of Harold Staffeldt, the judge in the Pinto trial.

The trial could break new ground in the years-long effort of consumer groups to force firms to assume more responsibility for harm caused by defective products. Ford has argued that the prosecution is, wrongly, out to tear down the traditional barriers between civil and criminal litigation. Cosentino argues that redefinition of the barriers in needed to aid consumers in dealing with large, powerful corporations. A manufacturer that knowingly sells a dangerous product, he says, should be criminally liable for any injuries or deaths resulting from the defect.

The trial also could shed new light on the issues of federal safety regulation and the right to states to write product safety codes tougher than federal standards.

Selecting the jury proved difficult in this rural county of only 12,500 residents.

"There are only so many people you could put on the [jury] list," said 23-year-old Sara White, a pharmacist at Sterling Drugs, across Main Street from the Pulaski (pronounced plull-ASK-eye) County Courthouse.

"For the most part, I think people have been reluctant to form an opinion about the case because they thought they mignt be put on the jury." said White. "And if they did form an opinion, they'd probably fib about it if they did get that chance to serve. I wanted to be asked."

Consider the experience of Charles Lee, the first prospective juror to be examined. Throughout his questioning by both attorneys, Lee insisted that he had and open mind on the Pinto case. Retired, with plenty of free time, he was eager to serve, and was surprised when told one side had kept him off the jury.

But afterward, in an interview, Lee said he had "wanted to do everything I could" to convict Ford. He said he had read an article in a consumer magazine that contended the Pinto was unsafe.

Winamac has been caught up in this historic trial, like it or not. Stories abound of townsfolk offering rooms or services to visitors -- most of them journalist -- for highly inflated prices. There is some gouging -- one local car dealer is charging $100 a night for apartments he usually rents for $265 a month.

But by and large this small town is trying to take the media extravaganza in stride. The most recent issue of the eight-page Pulaski County Journal, one of the two competing county weeklies, didn't even mention the pending trial.

One teen-ager said she could tell something big was going on because "we see people we don't recognize."

While Ford would stand to lose only $30,000 in fines if convicted -- $10,000 for each of the three deaths -- the company would almost certainly face a new rash of civil suits from victims of burns suffered in Pinto crashes.

The Association of Trial Lawyers of America said late last year that at least 50 Pinto-related civil suits were pending in various courts around the country. Ford settled at least six other suits out of court, including three that involved payments of more than $1 million to plaintiffs.

In the most celebrated civil suit, a 19-year-old California man was awarded $128.5 million by a state jury. He was burned over 90 percent of his body by a fire that resulted from the crash of his Pinto.A judge later reduced the award to $6.3 million, and Ford is appealing.