Detroit automakers aren’t letting up on a long-standing rivalry, even as they pivot to take on Tesla

Ford CEO Jim Farley speaks at the launch of the all-new electric Ford F-150 Lightning pickup truck at the Ford Rouge Electric Vehicle Center on April 26, 2022 in Dearborn, Michigan. The F-150 Lightning is positioned to be the first full-size all-electric pickup truck to go on sale in the mainstream U.S. market. 

Bill Pugliano | Getty Images

DETROIT — Even as the Detroit automakers change and adapt to compete with electric vehicle leader Tesla, some things in the Motor City stay the same.

General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler) are all steering toward electric vehicles, seeking to catch Elon Musk’s car company in sales. Yet the long-standing rivalry between the three U.S. automakers remains alive and well. That’s especially true in the hotly contested full-size pickup truck market, which is a major profit driver for them.

Take, for example, the events of last week: As Ford prepared to celebrate the launch of its F-150 Lightning Tuesday at a plant in Dearborn, Michigan, both GM and Stellantis sought to steal the limelight from their archrival and its highly anticipated electric pickup.

A day before the event, amid a blitz of stories on the F-150 Lightning, GM seemingly out of nowhere confirmed the Chevrolet Corvette will be offered in both hybrid and all-electric models in future years. The announcement, which industry onlookers had been expecting for some time, was light on details, but it got GM in the Lightning’s news cycle.

Stellantis’ Ram Trucks brand was more transparent about its intentions, when the brand released a teaser video on social media of its upcoming electric pickup, saying, “Time to steal some thunder.”

Ford said it’s no surprise its competitors are trying to troll the F-150 Lightning, which is arriving on the market at least a year or so ahead of the Chevy and Ram electric pickups.

“The F-150 Lightning is one of those rare product launches that transcends the auto world and becomes a cultural moment, and it’s been called a tipping point for America’s transition to electric cars. Of course, others are going to try to get in that slipstream,” Ford chief communications officer Mark Truby said in a statement to CNBC.

A GM spokesman declined to comment on the timing of its announcement, but said “it’s only natural the world pays attention when we confirm Corvette is going electric,” while touting the company’s other upcoming EVs. A spokesman for Ram declined to comment.

‘It’s bloodthirsty, and it’s beautiful’

Last week’s announcements are just the latest examples in a long-held tradition of the companies trying to one-up each other or get in on a conversation. Automakers have hordes of public relations and marketing experts whose jobs include making sure their vehicles get talked about.

“This rivalry started, I think in 1931. Don’t act like it’s a new thing,” said Jason Vines, a former auto PR executive known for over-the-top debuts at auto shows. “It’s bloodthirsty, and it’s beautiful.”

Vines, who at various times worked for Ford, Chrysler and Nissan, said when he was part of the launch for the Dodge Challenger for Chrysler, Chevrolet crashed the event with a new Chevrolet Camaro on a flatbed truck.

In 2016, Chevy launched a national ad campaign targeting the durability of Ford’s aluminum truck bed, literally poking holes in it with tools and other things. And four years earlier, during a Super Bowl ad about the predicted Mayan apocalypse, Chevy drivers survived, while “Dave,” a Ford owner, didn’t make it.

Vines said executives at the automakers live to beat their Motor City competitors.

Such corporate rivalries aren’t unique to the automotive industry, but the passion some car owners have for the brands they drive arguably is unique. It’s also big business in merchandising as well as making for long-lasting brand loyalty among buyers.

GM seems to have specifically enjoyed taking shots at Ford’s best-selling F-Series pickups, including the F-150 and its larger siblings, which Ford has touted as a $42 billion franchise for the automaker.

The all-electric Chevrolet Silverado at the New York Auto Show, April 13, 2022.

Scott Mlyn | CNBC

That fierce rivalry also helps explain why auto brands will offer lucrative incentives to entice buyers to switch brands. It also drives innovation, according to Vines.

“The beauty is, that’s great for the American consumer. These folks, these men and women, are bloodthirsty on building the best product they can to steal away customers from each other,” Vines said. “That’s a beautiful part of our industry. We’re searching for the customer.”

In some cases, the rivalries date back decades and live on through generations.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, whose grandfather worked for the company, has always been passionate about the companies he’s worked for during his career. Notably, in a 2011 book, “Once Upon a Car” by New York Times reporter Bill Vlasic, Farley is quoted as saying he planned to enjoy beating “Chevrolet on the head with a bat.”

Farley, who later apologized for the comments and has publicly shown respect for his competitors, was head of the automaker’s marketing department at the time: “We’re going to beat on them, and it’s going to be fun,” he is quoted as saying in the book. “I hate them and their company and what they stand for. And I hate the way they’re succeeding.”

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, attends the annual Allen and Co. Sun Valley media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, July 12, 2019.

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

While GM executives haven’t been as public about their opinions of Ford, the automaker’s top executives — CEO Mary Barra and President Mark Reuss — both had parents who worked for the automaker. And they have exclusively worked at the automaker during their careers.

Getting back to Tesla

Michelle Krebs, an executive analyst at Cox Automotive, said that the Detroit automakers need to focus less on each other if they want to succeed in EVs. Hyper focus on one another and underestimating newcomers is part of the reason they lost their stranglehold on the U.S. market, he said. It’s also how Tesla has been able to dominate the EV market.

“While there’s this intense focus, particularly with GM and Ford, you always know if one has planned a big announcement, the other is going to try to sabotage it with a different announcement,” she said. “But at the same time, you know, the rest of the world is carrying on and being competitive.”

The Detroit automakers have definitely taken notice of Tesla, which Farley himself trolled last week at the Lightning event, noting the pickup is capable of charging a Tesla. He also alluded to Ford’s truck being thousands of dollars less expensive than “competitors’ trucks, whenever they actually go on sale” — a dig at the long-delayed Tesla Cybertruck.

“We plan to challenge Tesla and all comers to become the top EV maker in the world,” Farley said, adding the company is determined to be the top-selling automaker for EV pickups and challenge Musk’s company in sales.

Of course, over at GM, Barra has a different point of view: “I am very comfortable, because when people get into [our vehicles], they are just wowed,” Barra told CNBC last year. “So we will be rolling them out and we’re going to just keep working until we have No. 1 market share in EVs.”

(With inputs from CNBC)