How can we tell? No, it's not the inspiring Chrysler ad featuring Clint Eastwood that ran at halftime during the Super Bowl. And it's not even the profits that have returned to the accounting ledgers at all three American automakers.
Here's how we can tell that Detroit is truly on the mend: General Motors (GM) and Ford (F) are sniping at each other again.
Twinkies, a Rain of Frogs, and a Missing Ford Pickup
The sniping between the two giants started almost 100 years ago. The latest renewal of the ribbing, however, was teed up with a cheeky ad. One of GM's Super Bowl commercials was conceived as a "good-humored" (their words) riff on the idea that ancient Mayans had predicted that the world would end in 2012.
The ad starts with a trashed urban landscape, and piles of rubble from which several Chevy Silverado pickups emerge. One by one, the trucks drive past ruined buildings, a giant robot, and a crashed flying saucer, to a clearing where the drivers get out. One asks, "Where's Dave?"
"Dave drove a Ford," one of the other drivers says, and all shake their heads sadly as Twinkies are passed around and frogs begin to rain from the sky.
It's a silly, fun ad in the great American tradition of silly Super Bowl ads, one of several new spots prepared by GM for last Sunday's festivities. But Ford didn't take kindly to the suggestion that its vaunted F-150 pickups weren't Apocalypse-proof.
That's Not Funny
"Ford demands that Chevrolet immediately cease and desist from making any unsubstantiated and disparaging claims regarding Ford's pickup trucks," said a letter from one of Ford's lawyers to GM last week, before the Super Bowl.
Ford's lawyers also wrote to NBC, asking them not to run the ad -- a demand that NBC, like GM, apparently ignored.
GM marketing chief Joel Ewanick seemed delighted by the controversy. He said that the automaker stood by its key claim -- that its trucks were the most dependable and longest-lasting. "We can wait until the world ends, and if we need to, we will apologize," he told The Detroit News. "In the meantime, people who are really worried about the Mayan calendar coming true should buy a Silverado right away."
It sounds like pouting and arch fun. But there's actually a serious -- read: big money -- issue at stake.
Seriously Now, Who Makes the Best Pickup?
Ford's F-series pickup isn't just the company's best-selling product line, it's the best-selling vehicle in America, period. It's a very profitable product, too, meaning that its success is a huge driver of Ford's overall success -- including the hefty profits the automaker posted for 2011.
Seen in that light, it's clear that Ford objects to much more than being the butt of a joke. What really concerns Ford is GM's claim, made in the ad and repeated by Ewanick, that the Silverado is "the most dependable, longest-lasting full-size pickup on the road."
Ford's letter noted that the F-150 received top marks in crash testing, better than the Silverado's, and said that GM had "no basis" for any suggestion that the Silverado is either safer or more durable than its flagship truck.
GM thinks otherwise, of course, and will probably keep saying so in public. It's a safe bet that we haven't heard the last of this squabble. However, if you've been rooting for the revival of the American auto industry, that's probably a good thing.
At the time of publication, Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owned shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford and General Motors, as well as creating a synthetic long position in Ford.