When Washington's Perpetual Savings and Loan Association topped $1 billion in assets for the first time three years ago, it was after 97 years in business.

For one of the area's younger financial businesses, the First Variable Rate Fund, it took just five year to march past the billion-dollar level of assets.

The savings and loan, now called Perpetual American Federal, has been growing pretty rapidly in recent years, too. Assets now exceed $1.5 billion and Perpetual sent shockwaves throughout the local banking and savings industry last week with its bold move to acquire Washington-Lee Savings and Loan in the Virginia suburbs.

If the Federal Home Loan Bank Board approves Perpetual's takeover of First Financial of Virginia Corporation, the parent firm of Washington-Lee, District-based Perpetual would become the only bank or savings institution with full-service customer branches in the city and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

Area banks, meantime, are attempting to provide more of their customers in the various jurisdictions with financial services through establishment of cooperative automatic teller machine networks to get around the current ban on interstate branching.

As much as any single factor, First Variable and the industry it represents, the money market mutual funds, are the driving force behind what is becoming a financial services revolution in Washington and the whole country.

Assets of these funds rose $3.7 billion in the week ended last Wednesday to $176 billion--the 26th consecutive weekly gain and third largest on record.

The Fund for Government Investors, Washington's oldest fund, was started in 1974 and it recently passed the billion dollar barrier, too.

The overall money fund organization, which operates under the name Calvert Group, has grown from 40 employes to 120 in the past 12 months. As a result, Calvert Group had to find a new location for its operating and administration divisions, which have been in a Calvert Street townhouse.

Last week, Calvert Group started moving 100 employes to the Air Rights Plaza in Bethesda. A branch and corporate offices at 1700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW will continue and the fund is studying other sites in downtown Washington.

First Variable Rate Fund was set up to invest only in U.S. government backed obligations in 1976 by D. Wayne Silby and John G. Guffey.

Because of growth in the business, the Calvert Group managers of this fund established their own transfer agent and shareholder servicing functions through creation of a company called Fundlink Information Services.

More recently, the Calvert Group established a tax-free reserve money market fund. This fund invests in municipal bonds and had the highest weekly average yield, as compared with other tax free money market funds, for the past six months.

More interesting than this record is Calvert Group's plans for the future. In an interview last week, Silby and Guffey emphasized their willingness to cooperate with area banking institutions as they expand services to customers. But they also were very clear in stating their intention to expand business on their own, if the banks here don't want to cooperate.

New funds and investment programs will be proposed, including a money market fund tied to a banking account--with money flowing back and forth depending upon a customer's withdrawals and deposits. A stock and bond fund is likely and one investment vehicle may emphasize social-purpose investments.

The goal for 1982 is to become a firm with a full range of investment funds to be ready for competition from such national institutions as Sears, Roebuck and big brokerage companies, they said. New emphasis will be place on institutional accounts, corporate cash management services and profit-sharing plans. Indeed, Calvert Group is studying the possibility of setting up its own discount stock brokerage business.

"We still feel the traditional focus will be on banks, and we are not looking to having a prime responsibility of taking care of customers, but if the banks don't move" to develop relationships with other institutions as suppliers of credit, "we can," Silby stated.

"We can provide a complete package of financial services to Washingtonians . . . the real question is whether we will get together in this community or wait for the New York banks to come down and eat us up," he asserted. "We want to be a partner, to cooperate, and we're willing to play a No. 2 role, but not to someone who is also No. 2 to Citicorp."

That is tough talk, but the public obviously has latched onto money market funds as an important element of their daily life, to benefit from high returns on money they kept in non-interest bearing checking accounts only several years ago.

The revolution is on and it appears today that money market funds will be among the survivors. Some S&Ls and banks will make it, but only those with leaders that are wide awake, such as those who head Perpetual American in Washington. Today, many financial industry leaders are asleep--allowing their trade associations to fight for interest-rate ceilings, as one example. All is fair in war, but those who play with out-of-date ideas will lose.