THE new Vauxhall Astra cars rolled off the production line in Ellesmere Port to a massive round of applause.
Bosses and workers at the manufacturing plant in North Road raised the roof as a silver Astra became the first of the new range to be driven away.
This latest generation of the popular family cars represents a huge vote of confidence in the Port.
Vauxhall has invested £80m in assembling them in the town, alongside the larger Vectra, on the same dual-purpose production line.
The new Astras, which become available to the public from May 1, were unveiled to the media. Civic leaders will get to see them at a special event in April.
Rick Wagoner, chief executive and chairman of General Motors, Vauxhall's parent company, was on hand on Friday to witness the launch.
Flying back from Europe, he had stopped off in the UK for a few hours before jetting back home to Detroit, USA. He toured the plant, chatting to workers, before overseeing the first Astra to come off the line.
This was then driven slowly by quality controller Maria Jump through a large paper banner reading 'Go Drive - New Astra - Ellesmere Port March 2004'.
This was greeted with cheers from Mr Wagoner and the surrounding workers.
He said afterwards: 'This is a big moment for us, Vauxhall and the entire plant. It's a huge vote of confidence in Ellesmere Port and all the hard-working people here.'
Mr Wagoner added: 'We have invested £80 million here in Ellesmere Port.
'It follows our decision to build two different products on the same assembly line. This gives us more flexibility and it also demonstrates our confidence in the skill of the workforce.' Being a 'Flex' plant means that volume can be switched between the new Astra and the Vectra, according to customer demand. The plant produces right and left-hand-drive Astras and Vectra five-door hatchback models.
It aims to produce around 190,000 cars a year, although it's annual capacity can rise up to 200,000 if needed.
Cars built in the Port are badged as Vauxhall for sale in the UK but named Opel for the rest of Europe. Holden Vectras are built for export to Australia. Half of all the cars produced in the town are for export.