VAUXHALL’S Ellesmere Port plant is “very much a contender” to build General Motors’ new hybrid electric car.

That was the positive message from the car giant’s European chief executive Nick Reilly when he paid a visit to the North Road factory, which employs hundreds of people from Chester, Wrexham and Flintshire, on Friday.

Mr Reilly, who was in charge of the plant for four years in the early 1990s, has headed GM’s European operation, which includes Vauxhall and Opel and Germany, since late last year when its American bosses took the controversial decision not to sell it to Canadian-owed car parts manufacturer, Magna.

He said the visit gave him the chance to catch up on the progress at Ellesmere Port since he was at the helm.

He spoke of how impressed he was with the many technical innovations which had been made and of the spirit of the 2,000-strong workforce, a number of who he recognised from his time there.

Mr Reilly said: “If these improvements had not been made I might have been here for a very different reason today.”

He spoke of the planned introduction of a third shift at the plant to cope with expected demand for the new Astra estate, which would be built alongside the hatchback model, probably from next November.

On visits to the plant last year Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Business Secretary Lord Mandelson both said they would like to see the new Ampera car, which runs on electricity but also has a small petrol engine, built at Ellesmere Port to help safeguard jobs there.

Mr Reilly said: “We haven’t taken the decision of where the Ampera will be built. We are due to make that decision in about 12 months time but Ellesmere Port is very much a contender.”

He added that he had recently driven the car on a test run of 500 kilometres through Germany – mostly on electric power – and had been very impressed with its performance.

The Ampera had also received a “very positive” reception from everyone who saw it along the route.

Turning back to the Ellesmere Port plant, he said he had noted an “excellent” working relationship between management and workforce.

“They are completely aligned and work very well together,” he added.

Mr Reilly also gave a behind-the-scenes insight into the aborted Maga deal for GM.

He said when it looked like GM’s American parent company would have to sell Vauxhall and Opel to fight its way back from the verge of bankruptcy, the US government had agreed financial assistance – but on the stipulation that none of the cash aid could go outside the States.

However, things changed when GM emerged from its financial crisis quicker than expected and the Obama administration lifted the ban on where aid could be spent.

“The new board looked again at its European operation and decided to keep it and I am very pleased that decision was taken,” he said.

Mr Reilly said there was now “a lot more certainty” about plans for the future in Europe, adding that the recent £270 million of loan guarantees from the UK government was “indicative of the high degree of confidence” now being shown in the company.

He said he was optimistic that other governments would follow the UK in pledging financial support for Vauxhall an Opel.