Yet with all this incidental detail, the central story of J89 obstinately fails to come to life. Why? The most obvious reason is that the author only arrived on the scene at the end of the process, and has had to reconstruct the design and development phases from inevitably superficial interviews. The Vauxhall top brass is conspicuously absent (which may say something about Vauxhall) and trivial PR flackery all too present.
The second problem is that, even when he is directly involved, Butman never gets under the skin of either characters or company. Consequently the "I was there" approach does not work. None of the characters that he meets comes alive (designer Wayne Cherry is the nearest), and the dramatic feel for the politicking, pressures and personal fears and obsessions that so enlivened Kidder's book is lacking. Descriptions of offices, studios and wind tunnels, and an account of getting lost in Luton on the way to Vauxhall headquarters because of roadworks on the M1, are no substitute.
On the other hand, Butman is not a business or motor industry expert either. So he fails to delve under the surface for answers to some pretty fundamental questions. "Successful" though it is deemed to be, the new Cavalier took seven years from conception to launch - an extremely long time, and a year longer than planned. Why? Who screwed up? Which factions won or lost as a result? How profitable is the car? What lessons did the companies (and rivals) learn from it? Is it a final turning point for GM Europe, for long periods perhaps the most lacklustre collection of American-owned subsidiaries in the world?
It is disappointing that Butman does not ask these questions, let alone provide answers. It is not that "Car Wars" is a bad book. It is breezy, reasonably written (apart from a grating tendency to treat a company as both singular and plural in the same sentence). It has some well chosen pictures - and an index. But it needs either deep inside knowledge or real writing skills to take it to a higher plane. In Germany, Butman notes, the Vectra picked up a magazine award as "Auto der Vernuft" - sensible or rational car of the year. Yes, well, the Cavalier is that kind of car. "Car Wars" is that kind of book.
(Simon Caulkin is a freelance writer.)