Analysis: Getting it right - Nissan and why Vauxhall's plant Ellesmere Port plant is 'doomed'

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Workers at Nissan working on the Qashqai at the Nissan factory in Sunderland
Workers at Nissan working on the Qashqai at the Nissan factory in Sunderland Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Many Brits of a certain bent go misty-eyed at the mention of the home-grown motor industry. Ah, the days of the British Leyland Morris Marina.

Of course, the British brands live on (albeit without the [t]rusty Marina) as German, Chinese and Indian companies have bought up, respectively, marques like Rolls Royce, MG Rover and Jaguar Land Rover.

But perhaps more importantly it is names like Toyota, Honda and Nissan which are the standard-bearers of British car mass manufacturing today.

Nissan has unveiled a concept car - the Invitation - at the Geneva auto show, and it will be built at its Sunderland plant when it goes into production.

Peculiar name aside, the Invitation will lead to 500 jobs at the plant itself and three times that number at related companies in Nissan's supply chain.

A general view of the Nissan Factory in Sunderland
A general view of the Nissan Factory in Sunderland Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

So what makes Sunderland so attractive?

Why invest there when the European market is slowing markedly (January new car registrations were down 10 per cent on last year) and rival GM is considering closing some factories like its Vauxhall plant in Ellesmere Port to deal with over-capacity - a problem right across Europe?

The answer lies in a number of happy developments in the UK since the smoky days of British Leyland.

For a start, most of the parts that are assembled to make cars here are made in the UK - that supply chain I mentioned above.

The parts are transported to car factories on good infrastructure like roads and rail, arriving 'just in time' - reliability is key - and are then assembled by a well-trained and flexible workforce using modern platforms (the assembly line system) before being shipped to customers.

Simple, right?

Thousands of cars at the Nissan plant in Sunderland
Thousands of cars at the Nissan plant in Sunderland Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Alas not - otherwise there wouldn't be problems at GM.

The Japanese manufacturers brought new technologies and techniques with them. Their platforms are up to date and very efficient, using relatively few staff (which brings the cost down).

I've spoken to a number of industry experts today and none holds out much hope for Ellesmere.

"It's doomed," said one, adding: "They have an inefficient, old-fashioned platform and a workforce trained to use it and too inflexible to adapt."

GM has a lot of capacity in Europe (Vauxhall, Opel, Volvo and so on), unlike the Japanese companies which are running tight ships over here on a far smaller scale.

Somewhere has to go and Ellesmere may pay the price now for slow adaptation in the past.

What for those that survive? They can certainly take Nissan's plant as the one to beat, although I'm not sure how.

Industry sources tell me it runs at between 90 and 100 per cent efficiency. In other words, the workers there could not churn out a single car more than they are doing already.

A factory breaks even at 80 per cent and some - especially on the continent - are running at around 65 per cent. There's room for improvement.