If I use a real car company in telling a story about a bank heist, can I be sued for it? What could happen if I do use the company in that way? Say if I say the men drove to the bank in a Ford van, could Ford sue me for using their company name in that way?
In this case I'm pretty sure you should have no problem thanks to what's called "Artistic License". Basically, as an author of fiction, you are entitled to fictionalize elements of the real world in pursuit of your art.
The risk writers run with stuff like this is being accused of something like "defamation". For example: if every single Ford in your book is shoddily built and suffers from debilitating manufacturing defects, Ford might become displeased at the shadow you've cast on their real-world image. Any book that so aggressively mars a company's image that it seems purposefully deleterious starts edging into Defamation territory.
Any statement meant to mar someone's reputation counts as "Defamation". However, as a writer, I would think you'd have an easy time claiming that your statements were in the service of your art, not some anti-Ford agenda.
And just having the bad guys drive Fords? You are 100% in the clear.
Hope this helped!
If you reference any product, whether it is a car, a gun, or a laundry detergent, you need to be aware of the trademark associated with that product. This is basically the "name" part of a "brand name", such as Chevy Malibu.
A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol or design that identifies the source or origin of the product.
The rule for referencing a trademarked brand is simply to capitalize the name to identify the product. For example, you would use "Chrysler Sebring" instead of "Chrysler sebring" or "chrysler sebring".
As to whether or not you could be sued for using that brand name, it really depends on how you use it. If you refer to any product in a negative way, then the company that owns the trademark could take action if they feel that you have tarnished or defamed their trademark in any way. If you are making a positive reference, then they won't mind as long as you remember to capitalize the brand name.
There is a really great article at the Better Novel Project by Kathryn Goldman, a lawyer who represents writers, artists, and businesses to protect their intellectual property. She gives some very good examples that may help you to understand this better.
There are authors writing lengthy fictional series LOADED with "gun porn" descriptions of real world gun manufacturers, scope makers, ammunition loaders, holster makers, etc. Plenty of authors name drop real world cars as well.
In movies and such if they block out a logo or whatever it is probably because they want endorsement $$$ TO FEATURE the logo, not that the film makers would have to pay to use it. So rather than give free advertising to Ford, they just black out the oval logo unless Ford coughs up a few grand.
In my opinion, making up manufacturers for things like cars or guns, in an otherwise "real world" setting, would be very distracting.