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Ford Motor Co. reported its first-quarter profits grew 71 percent, and a top finance official predicted the U.S. auto industry's prosperity would last at least until 1998.

"Inflation's low at 3 percent. Consumer income is very good right now. Consumer confidence is good," Ford vice president for finance David McCammon said. "We still believe that there are three or four more good years left in this U.S. economic recovery and even more good years left in the European recovery."The industry's U.S. sales through the first quarter of 1995 are running about 4 percent behind last year's, but McCammon said such variations are normal.

"This first quarter for the industry, we believe, is just one of those potholes in the road to further improvement," he said.

Ford managed to avoid the first-quarter pothole. Its retail sales were higher than last year's and its profit totaled $1.55 billion, or $1.44 per share, compared with $904 million, or 83 cents a share, a year ago.

It was the ninth consecutive quarter of profit improvement for the company. Revenues rose 14 percent to $34.8 billion from $30.4 billion a year ago.