Vauxhall suitor in UK plants pledge

A last-minute suitor for the owner of carmaker Vauxhall is pledging to keep the group's UK plants open as part of its bid, it was revealed today.

Brussels-based industrial holding group RHJ International would retain the group's plants in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, and in Luton, under plans to buy a controlling stake in GM Europe's European arm Opel, which includes Vauxhall UK.

The group - which is related to American private equity firm Ripplewood - revealed itself yesterday for the first time as a competing bidder for the business, confirming it was in advanced talks after discussions had taken place over a "number of weeks".

It is now one of three potential buyers alongside preferred bidder Magna International, the Canadian car parts group, and Beijing Automotive Industry Holding, another late entrant.

Vauxhall employs 5,000 people in the UK, with the Astra model made at its Ellesmere Port site and Vivaro commercial van made at its Luton plant, which is a joint venture with Renault.

A cloud of uncertainty has hung over the UK business after its US parent General Motors filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this summer, forcing it to break itself up and put the European arm up for sale.

But state aid is crucial for any bidder looking to take over the European business and it is thought that governments in the UK and Germany are ensuring there are commitments over workers and manufacturing sites before agreeing to hand over any cash.

RHJ, which owns controlling stakes in a number of automotive parts firms, has already been in contact with both governments and is planning to retain UK and German manufacturing plants. 

It would also seek to return the business to profitability by 2011, and is understood to be preparing to table a formal offer as early as this week. 

Magna is meanwhile reportedly racing to secure a formal deal, having signed a non-exclusive memorandum of understanding in May. It has so far offered 750 million euro (£642.7 million) for 55 per cent of GM Europe and has already handed over 300 million euro of emergency funding (£257 million).

A deadline of tomorrow has been mooted as the cut-off for bids, but it is thought unlikely there will be any decision before the end of the month.

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