Ford Credit Co. is taking a major step towards adding vehicle collision insurance to its portfolio of F&I products.

After pilot programs in Florida by Ford in the last few years and GM's Motors Insurance previously, Ford teamed up with Connecticut's huge Hartford Financial Services Group to offer vehicle coverage to all its customers, starting with Florida and adding 10 more states before year-end.

Florida is the kickoff for the nationwide rollout because it is the only state to require F&I managers to be licensed as insurance salespersons. Selling of vehicle owner insurance will similarly require licensing in other states, as well.

While the licensing procedures go on, Ford Credit will begin marketing the insurance product by direct mail to its nearly 17 million U.S. owners of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury cars. Ford's "import" package including Mazda, Jaguar and Volvo will be added later.

James Moritz, Ford Credit's director of insurance operations, says Ford will offer applicants for the new insurance product several inducements to switch from their existing carriers.

These include:

* Premium savings of 10%-15% below national averages

* Guaranteed approvals for coverage, with higher rates but no rejections for poor-risk drivers

* Permission for addition of non-Ford vehicles to policies of Ford owners

* Reduction of deductibles by $100 if Ford dealer body shops are used for accident repairs

* Reimbursement for total loss vehicles in first year or up to 15,000 miles at non-depreciated market value

* Waiver of collision deductibles in crashes caused by other drivers.

Ford Credit plans to extend the insurance program to all states by 2001. A share of premium income will go to Ford Credit, but Mr. Moritz did not reveal the percentage.

Pat Downey, an F&I manager at Bill Graham Ford, an AutoNation-owned store in Bradenton, FL, says addition of vehicle insurance was a "good idea" and "did well" for Motors Insurance when it was offered at a GM dealership he previously worked at in Bradenton.

"Of course," he points out, "every buyer walks in with insurance or they couldn't drive. So we have to convince them to change in mid-stream or when their insurance runs out. But if lower premiums and deductible waivers are offered, that'll help the F&I process along."

The desire of Ford Chairman William Clay Ford, Jr., to promote the "Ford brand" on every product offered in Ford dealerships drives the move into vehicle insurance.

Insurance experts say state exams for qualifying for a vehicle insurance license are less difficult than those for life, home or malpractice insurance.

"Besides," says Angel Ledon, F&I manager for Gus Machado Ford, Hialeah, FL, "you get a neat license certificate to hang up in the office. That gives customers a good feeling about the integrity of the F&I process."