SUNNYVALE, CALIF. -- Rick Lehrbaum knew he was onto something one day in 1983 when a phone call from someone unloading used computers for $1,000 each brought an instant legion of buyers.

Lehrbaum, then an engineer for Telesensory Systems Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., told co-worker David Feldman that might be a market for inexpensive computers.

Little did he know that Feldman had a business plan ready to go. All he needed was a product.

The plan formed the basis for Ampro Computers Inc., the Sunnyvale company of which Feldman is now chief executive and Lehrbaum is vice president of engineering.

Seven years later, Ampro has become a leader in embedded systems -- little computers built to be the brains of other machines. They are in everything from automobiles to vending machines to life-support systems.

Building on Lehrbaum's original idea that small and cheap could be beautiful, he sketched out a plan for a computer on a board and handed it over to Feldman, who designed the printed circuits.

"I was just going to sell it through the mail or through little ads in the back of Byte magazine," Lehrbaum said.

Feldman, a former social worker who turned to designing circuits, had been reading up on entrepreneurship. Lehrbaum taught him to use WordStar and he wrote a business plan.

"He said, 'Don't worry about the money. You design the product, I'll handle everything else,' " Lehrbaum recalled.

"And that's the way it's been ever since," Feldman said.

The first board, which was sold through ads in Byte magazine, "took off like a rocket," Lehrbaum said. Popular with systems integrators, engineers and hobbyists, it sold for about $349. All the user had to do was add a power supply, disk drive and terminal.

Users liked the "Little Board" because it was innovative, cost-effective and reliable. Feldman and Lehrbaum hear regularly from people in the business whose machines built on their fledgling product are still running.

As the personal computer market boomed in the mid-1980s, Feldman said, "We realized we could not compete with IBM and Apple." Instead, they began to talk to original equipment manufacturers and concentrate on the market for embedded applications.

The latest version of the Little Board is a complete 386-AT compatible, the equivalent of a motherboard and four expansion cards with four megabytes of memory. About half the size of a piece of typing paper, it sells in quantity for less than $1,000.

Because the boards use EPROM memory chips for storage rather than magnetic media, such as floppy disks or hard drives, their failure rate has been low even in high-temperature applications such as blast furnaces, where temperatures top 148 degrees Fahrenheit.

In another project, two 386 Little Boards power the navigation system in a prototype Oldsmobile Trofeo.

The system displays maps and directions on a color touch screen monitor on the dash. If you ask it how to get to a certain address, it will show you a map, tell you when to turn right and, through a cellular phone hookup to local traffic control authorities, route you around tie-ups on the way.

The project is a joint venture between General Motors Corp., a large rental-car company, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Automobile Association of America, Feldman says.

Ampro's second-generation product, introduced Oct. 10, is called the CoreModule. A PC-XT compatible about the size of a piece of toast, the unit sells for less than $100 in large quantities.

Expansion boards or "mini-modules" for both the Little Boards and the CoreModule units provide video capacity, a modem and other features. They fit onto the original boards, snapping in like Lego blocks.

In an era when computers have shrunk to fit on first desk-tops and now lap-tops, Ampro's founders are seeing the possibilities for their products expand exponentially, from aerospace to office machines.

"We're kind of riding the wave" of smaller and smaller products, Lehrbaum said. "In fact, we're encouraging it. The smaller the product, the larger the number of potential applications."

Ampro's sales have increased from $1.6 million in 1986 to about $10 million this year. They've managed this kind of growth without any venture capital, Feldman said.

"We intend to be a $40 million {to} 60 million company in the next two to three years," he said. "And we'll be hidden in your car and your refrigerator and the medical equipment that saves your life. And you'll never know.

"But we'll know."