Ford's Associates First Capital Corp., parent of Associates Corporation of North America, may soon join the growing list of publicly traded finance companies.

In a registration statement filed Friday with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Associates said it may sell up to a 19.8% share, in what would be one of the largest initial public offerings yet by a consumer finance company.

The offering, which could raise more than $1.7 billion, according to one analyst, would come on the heels of a successful offering last week by Contifinancial Corp.

The subsidiary of commodity giant Continental Grain Co. sold 17% of its shares to the public at $21 a share. In its first trading day Friday, the New York Stock Exchange-listed shares in Contifinancial closed at $25.50 a share. The shares climbed another $1.625 to $27.125 on Monday.

The success of the initial offering for Contifinancial, and of a secondary offering for Cityscape Financial Corp. in late December, indicates there could be a strong demand for Associate's shares.

The Associates offering "is going to be one of those deals that lots of people will be focused on," said Joe Jolson, an analyst with Montgomery Securities in San Francisco.

Mr. Jolson said the sale of Associates could come at a price-to-earnings multiple of between 12 and 13 times. At that price, the company could net in excess of $1.7 billion in new capital, making its issue one of the largest initial offerings to come to market.

The announcement comes two weeks after Associates announced record earnings of $708.1 million for 1995. Including foreign operations, net income for the year totaled $723.1 million, a 19.9% jump from $603.3 million in 1994.

Home equity loans accounted for $14.4 billion of Associates' $39.7 billion in yearend receivables. Other consumer loans made up another $6.1 billion of total receivables, and credit cards added $4.8 billion.

The company also reported a large commercial business, with $7.6 billion in truck and truck trailer receivables, $3.8 billion in equipment financings and $2 billion in manufactured-housing loans.

Total assets at Dec. 31, including its overseas operations which would be merged into the company prior to the offering, amounted to $41.3 billion, with $39.7 billion of net finance receivables.

Mr. Jolson said that the possible sale would involve all new shares, leaving Ford's interest in the company intact.

"This is a cheaper way for them to sell shares for growth capital than selling Ford shares at its lower price-earnings multiple," he said.

In a prepared statement, Keith Hughes, chairman and chief executive of Associates, said the offering would not affect the company's relationship with Ford Motor Co.

"This public offering would give Associates an additional performance measurement through the securities markets and at the same time allow us to continue our excellent partnership with Ford," he said.

Ken Whipple, a Ford executive vice president and president of Ford Financial Services Group, added that a public sale of shares "would further strengthen Ford's balance sheet and improve shareholder value."

The company would not respond to questions about the possible offering.

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