It seemed like a good idea at the time. The federal government would set an example for the rest of the nation by buying low-pollution cars, and it would encourage industry to produce them by providing a guaranteed government market.

Back in January, 1970, two Senate subcommittees listened to three days of hearings on a bill to establish a Low Emissions Certification Board, which would determine what cars would be eligible for the federal program. Despite some skepticism among witnesses, most felt it was a good idea or, at the very least, that it wouldn't hurt.

The Senate passed the bill in March of 1970, but House inaction appeared to doom the measure, until it was included that fall in amendments to the Clean Air Act. The Low Emissions Vehicle Certification Board had five members, representing the Environmental Protection Agency, Transportation Department, General Services Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Postal Service.

The board held an organizational meeting right after it was created, and then whenever an application was submitted--a grand total of three times.

"The emissions standards were so stringent that, practically speaking, they could only be met by electric cars," said EPA's George D. Kittredge, who at the time was executive secretary of the board and is now senior technical adviser in the Mobile Source Pollution Control Office.

Kittredge said the board set the emission standards below those for the diesel engines with the lowest emissions, which at the time were all made by foreign companies. "We thought the standards were achievable," Kittredge said.

"But nobody ever applied for certification except the three applications for electric cars, and they couldn't meet our performance standards," he said. So no cars were ever approved.

Part of the problem was that the financial incentive was too small to lure Detroit into making what turned out to be rather expensive changes in the combustion engine, according to Kittredge.

After about five years of floundering with virtually nothing to do, the five board members wrote Congress to say that the program had been a failure. In 1980 Congress dissolved the board. And in the Federal Register last month, EPA finally got around to announcing that it was withdrawing all regulations connected with the program.

"It was a potentially useful idea, to use federal purchasing power to encourage industry" to develop cleaner automobiles, said Kittredge. "The problem was with the details."