War and Peace at Ford and GM Friendly rivalry or spitting contest? Boys will be boys. No, that's not a sexist remark. In this case, it is specifically boys, the grown-up variety.

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. are tough competitors, but they seldom take off the gloves in public. Or private, for that matter. You'd think they were buddy-buddy at social gatherings, munching shrimp and sipping toddies together like old pals.

Even before GM spun off Delphi Automotive and Ford followed with Visteon, the Big Two bought a lot of stuff from each other. They've also traditionally teamed up in numerous other ways, from battling Washington's regulators to jointly establishing Covisint, the new Internet-based automotive components purchasing auction.

Many current and retired executives of each company live in the same neighborhoods, whether it's Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Pointe, Naples or Scottsdale. They serve together on boards of community organizations and belong to the same country clubs. Lately, however, the world's No.1 and No.2 automakers have been jabbing each other like kids on a playground. Ironically, the feuding centers primarily on issues both outfits historically have fought vigorously. They waged losing fights, starting in the mid-1960s, over vehicle safety regulations, environmental edicts (exhaust emissions and factory and workplace health standards) and fuel-economy mandates.

Now they're battling over who has the safest, cleanest and most fuel efficient vehicles, which should bring a smile to the legislators and regulators who put the heat on them.

GM President and CEO G. Richard (Rick) Wagoner recently described the barbs passing back and forth as "a friendly rivalry, rather than a spitting contest." Still, look at these very recent examples:

LIGHT-TRUCK FUEL ECONOMY: As the biggest sport/utility vehicle (SUV) and pickup manufacturer, Ford obviously has the most to lose if these vehicles keep getting hammered for poor fuel economy. So Ford announces it will increase light-truck mileage by 25% and cut their exhaust pollutants as well within five years. That fits neatly, of course, with Chairman William C. Ford Jr.'s avowed concerns for the environment. GM Vice Chairman Harry J. Pearce, a legal hard-liner who's not shy when he thinks facts are being skewed, implied that Ford was grandstanding. GM already bests Ford in light-truck corporate average fuel economy (CAFE), he snapped, and will increase the advantage between now and 2005.

Ford President Jacques Nasser said he was surprised by Mr. Pearce's blast, saying Ford is simply charting its own course. Mr. Wagoner made this observation: "Harry's always been a stickler for the facts, and I think his comments reflect our view as to where we are today, and I think he thought it was important to make sure that was clear."

SUV SAFETY: Ford announces it will equip 2002 Explorers, and later all of its SUVs, with an electronic stability enhancement system, clearly a move to allay concerns over SUV rollovers and handling. Once again, GM lost little time in proclaiming it's already the leader in this technology with 400,000 units - although none yet on SUVs - sold since 1997. GM uses the technology in nine passenger-car lines and is adding it to the Cadillac Escalade SUV this fall as standard equipment.

FAULTY FIRESTONES: Because most of the 750 accidents and 62 deaths so far attributable to faulty Firestone tires have occurred in Explorers, Ford is taking the brunt of negative publicity surrounding the massive 6.5-million tire recall announced in August. Typically, the treads separate from the casing, sending vehicles out of control. Included are Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. Ford and Firestone are replacing the tires as quickly as possible.

To assure its own customers not to worry, GM says it has had no problems with Firestone tires used on 500,000 1999 and 2000 pickups and SUVs. Although GM doesn't say so, it suggests its specifications may be tougher than Ford's: "The Wilderness tires on GM vehicles are different from those found on other manufacturers' vehicles because they were engineered and tuned to meet GM's specific and unique performance requirements," says GM.

For its part, DaimlerChrysler AG hasn't come out swinging in any of these frays except to say that it, too, leads in light-truck fuel economy. DC, incidentally, escapes the Firestone firestorm: In the 1990s it narrowed its tire suppliers to Goodyear and Michelin.

DC, or perhaps more accurately the old Chrysler, figures at least outwardly in the attack/counter-attack mode the Big Two have waged in recent months: Their top public relations vice presidents both arrived after long Chrysler careers.

Steven Harris moved over to GM not long after the Daimler-Benz AG takeover in 1998. Jason Vines, who joined Ford as PR veep earlier this year after a stint with Nissan, worked for Mr. Harris at Chrysler.

Mr. Vines could not be reached at press time, but Mr. Harris shudders when he's asked if a "PR war" is brewing between the two automakers. "I don't see it that way," he says, "and I've told the staff that's absolutely what we don't want. We want to be aggressive and positive, but the last thing we want is a war of words."

GM's position on the Firestone debacle "was strictly reactive," he says, "so we basically answered questions. We explained we used different specs and sizes, but that wasn't (a dig) at Ford; we're not privy to what Ford is doing." Mr. Harris says GM last December underscored its goals for boosting light-truck fuel economy, but the message got lost in the holiday shuffle.

Part of the problem is that much of the news these days focuses on technology, with everyone eager to explain their achievements to the media and public, he says. It doesn't pay, he adds, to chortle when the other guy has problems. "We're not going to shout too loudly because we all have (negative) issues from time to time." Nor is there any personal animosity involved, says Mr. Harris. "Jason, Steve (DC's U.S. PR vice president, Steven Rossi) and Tony (Cervone, another ex-Chrysler PR exec now on Mr. Harris's staff) are good friends. We're going to compete, but there's nothing malicious involved."

Spoken like one of the boys.