To upgrade operations at its consumer finance branches, Ford's giant Associates Corporation of North America has bought 1,100 midrange computers from International Business Machines Corp.

Last week IBM finished the three-month job of installing the AS/400 systems at Associates' 1,400 consumer branches in the United States.

IBM officials said the deal is one of the largest single purchases of AS/400 systems, which are widely used as host computers by community financial institutions.

Although neither party would divulge the price of the installation, IBM officials said that AS/400s typically cost $10,500 to $750,000 each, and that the systems bought by the Associates fall at the low end of the spectrum.

The $33 billion-asset finance company, part of the financial services group of Ford Motor Co., is using the systems to record new loans, process payments, verify payment schedules, and do marketing projects.

The new computers will make it easier for Associates to gain access to and share information, as well as to streamline strategic planning, said officials at IBM. Many users are already reporting faster system response times, they added.

Associates main office and division offices are now able to retrieve data, such as specific financial measurements, directly from AS/400's at individual branch offices.

The new computers have greater performance and capacity than the company's existing systems, originally installed in 1985, said IBM officials.

Larry F. Bowman, executive vice president of technology and processing services at Associates Bancorp, the company's information systems subsidiary, said the new systems will let the company eventually adopt "client-server computing - something that is already being successfully piloted at a few branches in the commercial division."

Although it is a midlevel computer system, the AS/400 fits the client- server environment by providing a platform for applications development in that computing environment, said IBM officials.

"We're pleased to be partners in Associates growth and development by providing them with a flexible platform to propel them into the future," said Bill Zeitler, vice president of marketing for IBM's AS/400 division.

The AS/400 model 200's are connected via 9,600-baud communications lines to a central IBM mainframe at the company's data center in South Bend, Ind.

The AS/400s will assume some processing tasks from the data center and give the company additional processing capacity, according to IBM officials.

IBM will continue to support the new systems by providing customized maintenance and consulting services.

Associates evaluated offerings from both Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. before settling on IBM.

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