The battle between Toyota Motor Sales and Mid-Atlantic Toyota, the Maryland-based distributor of Toyota vehicles, is getting curiouser and curiouser.

Fourteen members of Congress now have joined the fray, which began last June when Toyota Motor Sales announced plans to take over Mid-Atlantic's operations inOctober. Both sides agree that Toyota Motor's right to acquire the Glen Burnie, Md., company is spelled out in a 1987 agreement between Toyota Motor and Mid-Atlantic. Indeed, after some initial reluctance, Mid-Atlantic officials have agreed to honor that part of the agreement.

The current flap is over what Mid-Atlantic's people call Toyota's "gag order" preventing them from using political pressure to prevent a takeover. Toyota's lawyers put that language into the contract because, in the past, Mid-Atlantic has appealed to the Maryland General Assembly and to Congress to prevent Toyota from exercising its takeover options under the deal.

So, what was once a business dispute has now become a "free-speech" issue, in which Mid-Atlantic and its congressional defenders are alleging that the "gag order" prevents an American company from having access to its elected officials.

Toyota officials are generally mum on the topic, saying they will await the outcome of an Aug. 13 court hearing on the matter. It will be interesting to hear how Mid-Atlantic's lawyers explain why they agreed to the so-called "gag order" in the first place when they signed the 1987 contract.