Ordinarily, a major car media launch event in a key market is mostly a product-focused affair but Vauxhall's 2010 Astra debut, based around its Ellesmere Port plant in north-west England, did not manage to stay entirely on-message.

Communications director Denis Chick insisted, in the welcoming letter left in each journalist's hotel room, that the pending sale of a controlling stake in Vauxhall parent Opel to Magna International was off the discussion agenda - and then immediately brought up the subject in his opening remarks.

"These are difficult times for the business environment and for employees," he told a much wider audience than is usual for a new car launch - business dailies, radio and TV and international news agencies were all present.

"We don't have a new owner yet, there is still a good deal of discussion that needs to take place and we may not see any deal finalised until the end of November."

He said Magna wanted to save EUR265m across all of GM Europe's operations and each country with a manufacturing facility would have to shoulder its share.

Chick said that concerns of a 'political stitch-up' to preserve Opel jobs in Germany at expense of others around Europe were "a union view".

As he spoke, a first day of talks in London between Magna, the government and the key UK auto workers union Unite had just adjourned without any significant outcome to relay to Vauxhall's top HR executive, who had spent the day in the capital to immediately report any developments back to top management.

A senior insider told just-auto times were currently difficult for all Vauxhall workers at every level in the UK. The uncertainty surrounding the Magna deal - when will the MoU and final contract be signed, how many jobs will go, which factories might close, and so on - was taking its toll and everyone now just wanted to see a resolution - and firmly inked deal - as soon as possible.

Despite that 'elephant in the room', the Vauxhall team did their best to remain on-new-Astra-message.

Ellesmere Port plant director Tom Schmidt, a New Jersey native and long-served GM production man, outlined the achievements that put his factory at the top of GM's charts for efficiency and won the new Astra build contract in March 2007.

The 2,165-worker plant is starting with the five door hatchback versions in both right and left hand drive while the estate (wagon), to be called Sport Tourer, will join the line at the end of the year. The current Astravan commercial, on hiatus for the new Astra launch, will go back on line in December and will remain in production exclusively at Ellesmere Port until 2012.

"To win the new Astra we had to go through a tough bidding process within GM and we worked with the Unite union to secure the future of Ellesmere Port. We were able to show that we could beat all the other factories in areas such as quality, safety, reliability, responsiveness and training.

"We have shown we are a leader in cost per car compared with our sister plants."

Plant launch manager Lindsey Wickens outlined how her 82-strong team of hand-picked workers liaised with their Opel counterparts and brought the new car to Job One in 110 weeks.

"We came out first or second in all the areas we were audited compared with the other European factories and that is a reward for a lot of commitment from the workforce."

Both Schmidt and Wickens affirmed the plant's ability to build "any model with any badge" and hoped to get the nod to add the Ampera, the European version of the Chevy Volt.

"We are ready to go on that project. We have the promise of UK government backing, we have the space within the factory and we have the flexibility to make the Ampera," Scmidt said.

Graeme Roberts
additional reporting: headlineauto)

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