Back in the late 1950s, U.S. car designers were obsessed with tailfins. General Motors Corp. Chief Designer Harley Earl reportedly got the idea of putting fins on cars one day when he saw fighter planes parked at an airport.

The car-buying public loved them, and competitors soon followed GM's lead. Soon, lots of cars were trying to imitate airplanes with fins. Starting out subtly in the late ’40s, they became styling elements that grew bigger and more garish almost every model year.

Competition got so intense by the late ’50s that William L. Mitchell, Mr. Earl's successor, reportedly was desperately afraid of being “outfinned” by the competition.

Legend has it that Mr. Mitchell spied a prototype Chrysler running around a test track with huge tailfins and immediately ordered a redesign of the ’59 Cadillac that had even bigger ones.

The result was one of the most original — and outrageous — designs that has ever come out of Detroit: the now classic ’59 Cadillac. For better or worse, those fins showed the kind of creative oomph that Detroit could deliver when it pulled out all the stops. In the 40 years since the car was introduced, fins have grown from mere styling elements to icons symbolizing the U.S.'s industrial might and the flamboyance and excesses of the 1950s.

Imagine if Mitchell had taken the more modern-day approach and just sued Chrysler, claiming trademark infringement.

Now the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak. DaimlerChrysler Corp. apparently fears it's Jeep Div. is being “outgrilled” by GM's upcoming H2 “baby Hummer,” which is based on the Chevrolet Tahoe (see Auto Talk, p.35).

DCC filed a federal lawsuit in mid February contending that the grille on the H2 is too similar to Jeep's and will confuse consumers. It alleges trademark infringement and asks the court to block GM's use of the grille and seeks unspecified damages.

GM, which acquired the Hummer brand name from AM General two years ago, filed a competing lawsuit, and contends that AM General received a trademark for the grille in 1996 and should be allowed to use it.

I can't fault DC for aggressively defending the Jeep franchise. It is one of the best — and best-known — brands in the world, and preserving it is crucial to the automaker's survival.

But in their zeal to protect the franchise, DC's lawyers sometimes have stepped over the line and done more harm than good. Some year's ago they had the nerve to sue a small restaurant named “Jeep's,” even though it was named after the owner, not the SUV.

In the news reports I saw, Chrysler Corp. was portrayed as a dumb, greedy, corporation bullying an innocent small business.

I remember wondering at the time if GM and Daimler-Benz might then sue Chevy Chase and Mercedes Ruehl for trademark infringement.

Well, DC lawyers have stepped over the line again.

They claim that most SUV owners recently surveyed thought the H2 was a Jeep. Really? I've been an automotive journalist for more than 20 years — I really do notice such things. Even so, it never crossed my mind that the H2 was trying to steal some brand equity from Jeep with its flat, seven-slot grille. I've never heard anyone else mention it, either; not in print and not in private.

That's probably because the real Hummer, which the H2 is designed to look like, features a flat, 7-slot grille. GM designers were not working with a blank slate.

Look, just because car and truck buyers sometimes are impulsive in their purchases does not mean they are dumb. They are not going to be fooled — one way or the other — by a plastic fascia or grille. Volkswagen is finding this out now in Europe, as savvy consumers see through its overly aggressive platform strategy (see cover story, p 46).

I know all about the concept of building brand equity, but as a consumer — and an SUV owner — I can tell it has little to do with the slotted piece of plastic on the front of my truck.

And if this industry seriously believes it does, then we are in worse trouble than I thought.

I have the following suggestion for DC: Instead of wasting millions on a lawsuit that makes you look whiny and desperate, do what GM did to you in 1959: create a new design that makes everyone forget about the other guy.