Europe: General Motors and the framework of a fairly new machine. (1 of 2)

Europe: General Motors and the framework of a fairly new machine. (1 of 2) - "Car Wars" by John Butman (Grafton, 224 pages, £16.99).

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

"Car Wars" by John Butman (Grafton, 224 pages, £16.99).

Review by Simon Caulkin.

As a genre, the business documentary has a respectable literary parentage. Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine" and Joe McGinniss's earlier "The Selling of the President" combined "new journalism" (meticulous, participatory, eyewitness reporting) with an acute business eye to create best-sellers out of the development of a computer and Richard Nixon's use of advertising to get himself elected President. "Car Wars" is in this tradition. Subtitled "How General Motors Europe built 'The Car of the Future'", it is an account of the development and launch of the present Vauxhall Cavalier/Opel Vectra, currently the UK's best selling medium car.

You can see why it was a good idea. On the one hand, J89, as the project was known, seemed to seal Vauxhall's return from the car manufacturers' junkyard - a good business story. On the other, the author assisted at the launch (the most expensive in UK automotive history) as part of the communications production team - "I was there". Since, as John Butman says, no new car can be considered without reference to its antecedents and successors, tracing the development process allows - mandates even - detours into company and industry history, economics, the principles of design, and much else.

And this is what we get. Butman promisingly lays out the place of the automobile industry in the world economy, GM, GM Europe and the place of Vauxhall and Opel within the last. He describes the rise of the intermediate car sector, pioneered by the Cortina, then the lineage of the Cavalier itself.

There is much interesting, even useful, information here. In the current Middle Eastern situation it is as well to be reminded, for example, that of the world's 10 largest companies, seven are car or oil companies, and that one third of the latter's output is in the form of petrol; also, that of the top 100 companies, 56 are directly or indirectly involved with the motor industry. Car making is the largest single manufacturing industry in the world.

Likewise, when it comes to design and development, there is some entertaining background to the showbiz aspects of American car design, and tantalising (although undeveloped) reference to the diametrically opposed, Bauhaus-influenced European approach. Butman is also interesting on the history of aero design and some of the bizarre episodes that it led to - Opel's three fearsome rocket-powered cars of the late 1920s, for example. And he has some pertinent, if hardly startling, things to say about future constraints which car designers and manufacturers will be up against. Nothing to quarrel with there.

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