Ellesmere Port and the survival of the fitters

The wave of apprehension among engine line employees at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant is understandable. There is always fear of the unknown. In future, they will be paid by a joint venture company which as yet does not exist, or has a name. Similar scenarios are being played out across the world as today’s power-hungry […]

The wave of apprehension among engine line employees at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant is understandable. There is always fear of the unknown. In future, they will be paid by a joint venture company which as yet does not exist, or has a name.

Similar scenarios are being played out across the world as today’s power-hungry automotive emperors sign non-aggression pacts, divide, rule and conquer. Against the backdrop of industrial imperialism, the machine tool operator with a mortgage and a family wonders what it all means to him.

In the case of the Ellesmere Port engine worker, perhaps not a lot in the short term. Over time, though, the story could be less cheerful. The changes are part of the new General Motors-Fiat Auto alliance. The first evidence of their ambitions will come soon, when the groups establish two joint venture companies, responsible for their common purchasing needs and the development and manufacture of powertrains for vehicles sold in Europe and South America.

The engine plant at Ellesmere Port will become part of this company, which will be owned by GM and Fiat. The partnership is destined to produce engines and gearboxes for up to 5.5 million vehicles-a-year and employ 25,000 people in Europe and South America.

The development adds to the considerable commercial and manufacturing presence of the Fiat group in the UK. That presence is far greater than cheap and cheerful economy cars and fast and fancy sports cars. Fiat companies registered sales of £2.6bn in the UK last year and exported goods worth £700m. They employ around 5,000 people in companies like Case New Holland (tractors and farm machinery), Seddon Atkinson (trucks), Magnetti Marelli (automotive components) and Ferroviaria (trains and train maintenance).

The challenge for Ellesmere Port is to remain part of GM-Fiat’s grand strategy over the long term. Aside from Astra assembly, the plant last year made 115,600 V6 engines, which were fitted to some Opel/Vauxhall Omegas and the Cadillac clone known as Catera. They also went into some Saabs and Saturns. Sadly, the Ellesmere Port V6, launched in 1992, quickly garnered a reputation within the corporation for poor quality, reliability and performance.

Put that together with GM’s plan to buy similar V6 engines from Honda starting around 2004, and one begins to wonder about the future of Ellesmere Port. By that time, its V6 will have been in production for 12 years. If Ellesmere Port is to survive, it will have to produce units for both GM and Fiat.

It was always up against powerful competition from plants in Germany and Austria. In the future, it will have to compete for work with plants in Italy and Poland as well.

Richard Feast is editor-at-large for Automotive World

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