Luxury automaker Fisker Automotive is buying a shuttered General Motors assembly plant in Delaware to produce plug-in hybrid electric cars, officials said Tuesday.

The California-based company has signed a letter of intent with Motors Liquidation Co. (MLC), formerly known as General Motors Corp., to purchase the Wilmington plant for $18 million after a four-month evaluation period.

Fisker, which recently won approval for $528.7 million in government loans to develop plug-ins, expects to spend another $175 million to refurbish the facility before production of next-generation hybrids begins in late 2012.

Fisker expects Project NINA will create or support 2,000 factory jobs and more than 3,000 vendor and supplier jobs by 2014, with full production capacity of between 75,000 and 100,000 vehicles per year. More than half the cars will be exported, the largest percentage of any domestic manufacturer.

"This is a major step toward establishing America as a leader of advanced vehicle technology," said CEO Henrik Fisker, who described the production of electric hybrids as part of "the most dramatic change in the car industry ever."

"It's important for America that we take the lead in this new technology," he said.

Vice President Joe Biden was among those on hand to announce a new lease on life for the GM plant, which produced the Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice roadsters, as well as an Opel version that was exported to Europe, before closing this summer.

"I refuse to believe that we will not once again lead the entire world in the manufacturing of automobiles," Biden told a crowd of more than 1,000, including scores of union workers. "This factory in Delaware, and the industry, are going to get back up off the mat."

The vehicles to be built in Delaware under Fisker's Project NINA will cost about $40,000 after federal tax credits. They will be able to run mainly on electricity for short trips and a combination of electricity and gasoline for longer ones.

The Wilmington assembly plant, built in 1947, churned out more than 8.5 million cars. It employed more than 5,000 workers in the mid-1980s but ended production with a work force of only about 450 hourly workers.

"This is a great day for three reasons: job, jobs, jobs," said U.S. Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., who replaced Biden in the U.S. Senate.

Fisker officials said the Wilmington site was selected for its size, production capacity, modern paint facilities, access to ports and rail lines and skilled work force.

Mike Hicks, 51, who worked for 32 years in the plant's paint department, was heartened by the news that cars will be built there once again.

"We have a good work force here, and it's always been a top quality plant in General Motors," Hicks said. "I'm glad they're giving us another chance to show what we can do."

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