It is one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the British motor industry. Yesterday morning the first Vauxhall Combo Electric van rolled off the assembly line of the sprawling Ellesmere Port factory in Cheshire, the plant that 60 years ago gave the nation the best-selling Vauxhall Viva and for four decades from the 1980s was the self-proclaimed Home of the Astra.
Back in production after a two-year shutdown, Ellesmere Port has made history: it is Britain’s first all-electric vehicle manufacturing plant. It is also the first all-electric plant anywhere in the world for global giant Stellantis, the renamed Peugeot-Citroën French group whose marques after a bout of mergers and rescues include Vauxhall and its old German sister brand Opel, as well as Italy’s Fiat.
The resurrection of Ellesmere Port, however, raises immediate questions over another historic Vauxhall van factory, its plant at Luton, the home of the Vauxhall Vivaro, and whether ministers will step in, as they did in Cheshire, to secure an all-electric future.
The emergence of Ellesmere Port as a symbol of Britain’s attempts to keep up in the electrification of the automotive industry comes after a decade on death row. During the recession that followed the global financial crisis, its then owner, General Motors (GM) of the US, was within hours of pulling the plug before striking a deal with the workforce to cut pay and conditions. Even then uncertainties dogged the plant, first around the future in a post-Brexit world, and then its sale as part of GM’s withdrawal from Europe in a nominal €1 deal with Peugeot Citroën.
The Astra is long gone but Ellesmere Port is now producing small electric vans, the Vauxhall Combo Electric as well as the Peugeot e-Partner, the Citroën e-Berlingo and the Fiat e-Doblo. They are all essentially the same van with different finishes for different consumers in different markets.
From next year, passenger versions of those vans, people carriers badged Vauxhall Combo Life Electric and Peugeot e-Rifter, will also go into production aimed at larger families and the wheelchair-accessible market.
A shadow of the former heydays of the Viva and the Astra, the operational part of Ellesmere Port now takes up just a third of the plant compared with previously. The workforce stands at 1,000, all kept on and retrained during the run-off of the Astra and the transition to an all-electric plant. On two shifts they will be producing 50,000 vehicles a year, a fraction of the volumes in the 1970s but with the potential to add a third daily shift.
That the Ellesmere Port plant is back in production at all may come as a surprise after Stellantis’s global chief executive, the enigmatic Carlos Tavares, said bluntly that Brexit was a disaster and had led his board to completely reassess the group’s interests in the UK.
At the official reopening of production at Ellesmere Port, James Taylor, managing director of Vauxhall, indicated the decision to keep going was pragmatic. “Vauxhall has a 30 per cent share of the electric commercial vehicle market in the UK, a figure that goes up to 50 per cent if you include all the Stellantis brands,” he said. “Demand is strong and we need to keep up,”
The models coming out of Ellesmere Port are all made at the Stellantis factory at Vigo in Spain.
Brexit brings wrinkles, however. The battery cells for Ellesmere Port vans are from China. Rules of origin on car components are part of a trade and co-operation agreement between the UK and the EU and mean that Ellesmere Port vans for export to Europe could attract cross-border tariffs, making them 10 per cent more expensive. Ellesmere Port won’t get its own gigafactory but will depend on EU-based battery cell plants being developed by Stellantis.
The focus now moves on to Luton. Any van driver acquiring an electric Vivaro — and there are big fleet operators of the zero-emission vehicles like BT and British Gas — will know that they are not buying British, as the vans are assembled in France. To date Luton has been left building diesel Vivaros. But a crunch is coming as Stellantis has ruled that all Vauxhall models will be all-electric by 2028.
The company is understood to be pressing ministers to provide the sort of support for Luton that it did at Ellesmere Port, reckoned to be £30 million of taxpayers’ money out of a total £100 million refit. But Stellantis is being made all sorts of “green deal” offers to build the electric Vivaro in other European jurisdictions and the UK government will have to counter such moves.
Commenting on the reopening of Ellesmere Port, Kemi Badenoch, the business and trade secretary, said: “It is a very visible demonstration that this government has got the right plan for the UK’s automotive industry.”