The Ford Motor Co. boasted of the safety of its Mercury Capri -- designed with the fuel tank above the rear axle -- two years before the introduction of the alledgedly explosion-prone Pinto, auto safety consultant Byron Bloch testified today in the trial of the automaker on charges of reckless homicide growing out of a Pinto crash 18 months ago.

Bloch, in this third day on the stand as the first of the presecution's expert withnesses said the subcompact Capri is "very, very smiliar" in size to the 1973 Pinto, which was marketed with a fuel tank set below and aft of its rear axle.

It was a 1973 Pinto in which Judy and Lynn Ulrich and their cousin Donna Ulrich burned to death in August 1978 near Goshen, Ind., when their car exploded after a Chevrolet van struck it from the rear. Ford, charged with three counts of reckless homicide in the teenagers' deaths, is the first U.S. corporation tried on criminal charges in a product liability case.

The Capri was one of more than a dozen autos, mostly subcompacts such as the Toyota Corolla, Datsun 510, Opel Kadet and Honda Civic, which Bloch said were designed with fuel tanks above or forward of the rear axle. The consultant had testified earlier that he believed such designs were safer for the maintence of "fuel system integrity."

Bloch also told the jury that in 1978 Chrysler introduced the Plymouth, Horizon and advertised that the car's gas tank was placed forward of the rear axle for safety reasons. He added he though Chrysler similarly placed the fuel tank of its 1978 Omni for safety reasons, "especially in regard for rear impact."

Prosecutor Michael Consentino said the testimony was designed to show that Ford knew enough about fuel system integrity to have placed fuel tanks out of harm's way -- forward of and above the rear axle.

James Neal, Ford chief counsel, later told reporters "we will remove [The] impression" that Ford was the only automaker to locate fuel tanks behind the rear axle.

[Bloch appeared with consumer advocate Ralph Nader at a Washington news conference in August 1978 at which Nadar denounced the fuel system design of General Motor's discontinued Vega's performance was "considerably better" in government crash tests.]

Bloch also testified that after Ford's recent introduction of the Fiesta, the company claimed in a brochure circulated in Europe, under the heading "Safety. What's in it for You," that the auto's fuel tank was fitted forward of the rear axle to "avoid spillage" in the event of a rear-end collision. Bloch said Fiesta brochures distributed in the United States omitted the safety note.

Midway through Bloch's testimony, a misunderstanging arose over a ruling from the trial judge on the meaning of "feasible design alternatives." a

Neal objected when the state introduced into evidence an anti-surge device (which allows fuel to flow into a gas tank but not back out), after Bloch had suggested Ford could have easily added a support structure or protective shield between the fuel tank and the axle bolts.

Neal said he understood the court intended Bloch to give his opinions on 1973 Pinto defects and not to discuss alternative designs that Ford might have chosen. Court adjourned today before the matter was clarified.

The defense is expected to begin what Neal termed a "lengthy" cross-examination of Bloch Wednesday.