General Motors’ UK-based Vauxhall operation plans to raise production at its Ellesmere Port plant in Cheshire by 25% by the end of next year.


Plant director John Burton said the output increase from 160,000 to 200,000 cars a year was needed to meet anticipated demand for the redesigned Astra, due on sale in May, and a planned revised Vectra range.


Burton has been leading a turnaround team at the plant looking at ways of improving productivity and efficiency so the plant can reach ‘world class standards’.


“We have looked at 47 different issues including operating a flexible holiday period system,” he said.


Ellesmere Port, opened in the early 1960s to build the first generation Vauxhall Viva, now makes a third of the Opel-designed Astra models built in Europe, in both left and right hand drive forms. Astras are also built in Belgium and Poland and are exported as far as Australia and New Zealand where they are sold as Holden models. They are also sold as Chevrolets in some markets, notably in South America.


Burton added: “We have a workforce of 4,000 employees operating five days a week using a three rotating shift system and I can run the production line on a Saturday if I need to up production further.”


Ellesmere Port is one of General Motors’ so-called ‘Flexi Plants’ and can build Astras and Vectras on the same production line. Currently it can build 40 cars an hour – 35 Astras and five Vectras.


“We have invested £300 million at Ellesmere Port in the last five years of which £80 million has gone on the new Astra” said Burton.


Vauxhall plans to keep the old Astra on sale in the UK after launching the all-new version in May.


Production of entry-level right hand drive models will continue, to give Vauxhall dealers several budget-prices entry-level models, although assembly will move from Ellesmere Port to a Polish Opel plant.


Priced from just under £10,000, these models will stay in production until a redesigned three-door Astra is introduced in about a year’s time.


Vauxhall sales head Bill Parfitt said: “I expect we can sell 5-6,000 of these vehicles.”


An Astra estate car (station wagon) will joint General Motors Europe’s new Astra range Europe-wide next autumn while the redesigned convertible (with a metal folding roof this time) will arrive early next year.


Since the Astra was launched in the UK in 1980 over two million have been sold there. Over 100,000 are now sold each year and it was the third most popular new car line in the UK in 2003.


The Astra, with both Vauxhall and Opel badges, accounts for 22% of the of the four million cars sold in the segment in Western Europe every year.


GME expects the UK to be the biggest European market for the redesigned Astra and forecasts 48,000 sales this year. Prices will start at £10,995.