Secret talks to revive car production at Longbridge could result in manufacturing restarting early next year.

Martin Leach, the former head of Ford's European operations, and Ed Sabisky, a former finance director at Vauxhall, are in China speaking to the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation.

Their proposal to SAIC involves establishing Longbridge as a base for research and development, as well as a production site for new models. If they get the go ahead, production could resume early next year.

The venture, which is being taken seriously by the Chinese, would be in addition to the production of Rover 25s and 75s in the Far East.

The new plan, which hinges on financial support from SAIC, would be on a much smaller scale than the original deal which was envisaged before MG Rover collapsed.

About 2,000 workers, from the 6,100 staff who previously worked at Longbridge, could be employed in a semi independent British division which would also produce the MG TF sports car.

It is thought the discussions were instigated by Tony Woodley, General Secretary of the Transport & General Workers' Union, who contacted Mr Leach and Mr Sabisky in April.

A source said: "When the original deal with the Chinese collapsed, there was a feeling that despite the financial problems, there was still a business logic behind it.

"Leach and Sabisky had a look at the company, and they are there or thereabouts with the plan.

"They have presented it to SAIC, and if SAIC gives the go ahead, production could optimistically start next year."

The Chinese may have to invest about £100 million into the venture, with extra funds being generated by Mr Sabisky and Mr Leach.

Mr Leach would be the managing director of the new company and Mr Sabisky the finance director.

"There have been fears about lift and shift with overseas bidders coming in and taking away the technology wholesale," said the source.

"This would keep some production in the UK."

The source said: "There is a logic and a credibility about this plan. SAIC wants to be a global player, and having a base in Britain provides a bridgehead into the rest of Europe."

The T & G and SAIC both declined to comment on the negotiations last night.