FORD is to close one of its main European factories in Belgium with the loss of more than 9,000 jobs.
Exactly half a century after construction on the Genk plant started, Ford told a management council there that production was winding down since slumping European sales has forced a restructuring.
"This is taking us by surprise and is an extremely bitter pill," Christian Democrat union representative Johan Lamers said.
Ford has been under pressure in Europe due to dwindling demand for its models and the overall slide of car sales on the continent due to the debt crisis.
The company expects to lose more than £800,000 million this year in Europe, where it gets a quarter of its sales. Analysts say Ford has more factory capacity than it needs.
The regional authorities in northern Belgium's Flanders are already looking how to recover some of the €57m it committed in 2010 to keep Ford rooted there for years to come.
"It is incomprehensible and a nightmare for those people," said Flanders minister president Kris Peeters. "In October 2010, we negotiated and signed a deal worth many millions. And now they said 'OK, let's close Genk'," he said.
The plant in Genk makes the midsize Mondeo, the S-MAX and the Galaxy car. Ford said it plans to move the production of all three lines to Valencia, Spain.
"The proposed restructuring of our European manufacturing operations is a fundamental part of our plan to strengthen Ford's business in Europe," CEO Ford of Europe Stephen Odell said in a statement.
Ford has been struggling in Europe. Figures from Acea, the European carmakers' association, show European mark sales have dropped 10.8% on a year-by-year basis in September. Ford's drop in sales was even bigger at 14.9pc. Ford Genk represents more than 30pc of the car production in Belgium.