When 1,200 workers were laid off at Nissan's Sunderland plant earlier this year it marked a new low in the economic downturn, and another sad chapter in the industrial decline of a region that has long been regarded as something of a bellwether for the UK's wider industrial fortunes.
Little wonder then that the firm's plans, announced last week, to now use the same plant to manufacture batteries for electric cars have been greeted with such delight.
The Japanese carmaker's planned £200m investment is certainly good news for the local economy, where it's expected to create around 350 new jobs. But coming a week after Toyota announced plans to manufacture its new Auris hybrid petrol-electric vehicle in Derbyshire, it's also been seized on by the government as further evidence that low-carbon motoring could be big business for the UK.
Hot-footing it up Sunderland to welcome the decision — and perhaps persuade Nissan to go one step further — Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson used the occasion to confirm plans to establish a 'low-carbon economic area' in the North East, which could see charging points installed across the region, and the creation of a training centre to teach about the manufacture and repair of green cars.
So far, the carmaker has stopped short of promising to build electric vehicles in the UK and as it is reportedly eyeing up a number of other European sites, we should be wary of getting too carried away. But as things stand, it would certainly make sense for it to build its cars close to where it builds its batteries. And with its ZEV electric car slated for a 2012 UK launch, Nissan clearly believes there's a UK market for the technology.
Intriguingly, Nissan also chose last week to unveil technology that it believes could crack one of the big stumbling blocks to electric motoring and enable the rapid charging of batteries. Based on inductive charging — the same technology that charges your toothbrush — the carmaker's prototype system is further proof that the hurdles to electric motoring are far from insurmountable.
July 27cover story
looks at a far more traditional end of the UK automotive industry: the development of the engines behind the resurrection of the Norton motorcycle, the SuperLeague racing car and Bloodhound SSC.
And while the throaty roar of a 200mph speed demon may be a world away from the zero-emissions dreams of the North East, it is also a potent reminder of why the UK became an attractive place to build cars in the first place.
Jon Excell, Deputy Editor