Today, in its 50th year as one of the UK’s most prolific car plants, Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port factory has released dramatic footage of a vehicle sign-off like no other, while celebrating the five-millionth car to be produced at the Cheshire plant.

News of the landmark car will be an extra boost for the near-1,800 workforce at EP, who build a new car every two minutes, and is currently gearing up for production of an all-new Astra later in 2015. As the lead manufacturing plant in Europe for the new model, Ellesmere Port is taking on an additional 300 staff next month as part of a £140 million investment by parent General Motors, which will secure the plant’s future into the middle of next decade.

Vauxhall started building its compact cars at the Cheshire plant in 1964, and has been responsible for all Viva models (a nameplate that’ll return to the brand next year), the Chevette and all six Astra models from 1982. In all, an average of 100,000 units has left the plant in each of the last 50 years.

But like its sister plant in Luton ( Ellesmere Port can also reveal  footage of its extreme car sign-off process, which has evolved from clandestine ‘testing’ in the factory during the Sixties and Seventies, to one of the most comprehensive quality validations in the motor industry.

In 1964, when the first Viva HA rolled off the line, Ellesmere’s workforce was as passionate and skilled as it is today, but one employee – known simply as ‘Ellesmere Pete’ – developed a finely-honed test process, which is now used as a rubber-stamp by the factory on all the vehicles it makes.

Pete works during the plant’s downtime, and uses EP’s vast Body Shop to put randomly selected Astras through a variety of tough tests. Suspension components are only signed off after Pete has jettisoned an Astra into mid-air and had it land safely, while steering geometry is analysed by completing a half-circuit of the body-shop on two wheels.

But while the process has always remained the same, from the earliest Viva HA’s right through to modern day, Pete admits to some favourite test-drives around the plant. ‘The Firenza Droopsnoot was a cracker. It had so much poke that the biggest challenge was not clipping some of the machinery as you drifted it between production lines. And when I got my hands on the first Astra GTE back in ’82, it was by far the fastest thing I’d put through the stillage-chicane in Body Shop. I could hit 60 on a good day.’

Ellesmere Port’s current Plant Director, Stefan Fesser, was sceptical about the testing when he arrived in 2013. ‘Of course, Ellesmere Pete is a legend in GM circles, but I wasn’t convinced until I saw the breadth of his high-speed testing in the plant, and the detailed reports he generates. And you know what? After fifty years, he still does a fantastic job of validating the great quality that comes with every car we produce. Long may he continue.’

To view Ellesmere Pete at work, from 1964 to 2014, please click on the following link:

Today’s Astra range is as popular and diverse as ever. With power outputs ranging from 100PS through to 280PS for the VXR model, it almost always features in the UK’s top-five best sellers and is available as a 3-door GTC coupe, 5-door Hatch and Sports Tourer estate. Both the Hatch and Sports Tourer are built at Ellesmere Port, with 76 per cent of total volume going to export.​

​Cars featured in the film:

1964-66 Viva HAs

The HA Viva marked Vauxhall’s return to the 1.0 litre class and was an instant sales success, with 100,000 cars produced in just over one year. Initially available in two trims, the car was first manufactured in Luton, before production re-located to the all-new Ellesmere Port plant in 1964. In 1965 two new versions were introduced - the SL and the 90 - and by the end of the year the 1/4 millionth HA, rolled off the line. In March 1966, the HA was replaced by the new HB model.

1975 Firenza HP (‘Droopsnoot’)

In 1973, Vauxhall rationalised its Firenza range, and the HP (for ‘High Performance’) model was created. Based on the Magnum Coupe, the HP had additional aero appendages at the front, giving rise to the model’s nick name: ‘Droopsnoot’. This was the first Vauxhall with a five-speed gearbox, and its 2.3-litre slant-four engine had hand-finished combustion chambers, inlet tracts and valve throats to liberate an extra 21bhp. As a result, the Droopsnoot became the first Vauxhall to crack 0-60mph in less than 10 seconds.

1980 Chevette HS2300

Since GM was reluctant to support a works team, Vauxhall devised a plan to fund the rally programme through DTV, or Dealer Team Vauxhall, and the Chevette HS was the production car that was spawned to homologate the competition HSRs. The HS had a Vauxhall-designed 16-valve twin cam cylinder head and Getrag gearbox, while its body structure was near-identical to the standard Chevette. The HS was capable of 0-60mph in 8.8 seconds and 117mph. While the HS was actually finished at Vauxhall’s Luton plant, the base Chevette was built at Ellesmere Port.

1984 Astra Mk 1 GTE

The Astra GTE Mk. 1 marked Vauxhall’s first foray in to the relatively new ‘hot hatch’ segment, which had been dominated by the Golf GTi since the late Seventies. Basedon the 1980 Astra Mk. 1, its fuel injected, naturally aspirated 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine produced 115bhp, giving it a power-to-weight ratio of 115bhp per tonne, and a top speed of 115mph. Acceleration from 0-60mph was a highly competitive 8.5 seconds.

1993 Astra Mk 3 GSi

With a top speed of 122mph and 0-60 time in 9.5 seconds, the GSi was based on the Astra’s third-generation model. The Mk 3 Astra marked a big leap in quality, refinement and passenger safety. New manufacturing techniques meant that this Astra needed 30 per cent fewer parts than the previous model, and along with class-leading technology at the time, like Electronic Traction Control and ABS, the Mk 3 was a real innovator in its class. 

2014 Astra 2.0 CDTi

Ellesmere Port’s current Astra, now in its sixth guise, was launched in 2009 to universal acclaim, with exceptional cabin packaging, a large range of petrol and diesel engines and the choice of Hatch, Sports Tourer and three-door GTC body styles. The second biggest-selling vehicle that Vauxhall sells, today’s Astra is almost always in the top five most popular cars sold in the UK. The most powerful car in the Astra range is the 280PS VXR, which is capable of 155mph and a 0-60mph time of 5.9 seconds.​