The total number of registrations of new cars fell 44.4 per cent in March, a steeper decline than during the financial crisis of 2008-2009, as car showrooms closed in line with the government’s guidance for tackling coronavirus.
According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), 203,370 fewer cars were registered this year than in the same month last year, making it the worst March for new registrations since the late 1990s.
In total, 254,684 new cars were registered in the month, with demand from private buyers and larger fleets falling by 40.4 per cent and 47.4 per cent respectively.
Meanwhile the numbers of petrol and diesel cars joining the road were down 49.9 per cent and 61.9 per cent.
The SMMT also cut its sales forecast for this year by 23 per cent to 1.73m vehicles because of the impact of the coronavirus crisis.
The UK’s figures are however considerably better than those of its European counterparts also under lockdown restrictions.
In Italy, registrations fell 85 per cent, and numbers fell 72 per cent and 69 per cent in France and Spain respectively.
March is a particularly important month for car manufacturers as it is one of two months each year in which new numberplates are registered.
SMMT boss Mike Hawes said: “Despite this being the lowest March since we moved to the bi-annual plate change system, it could have been worse had the significant advanced orders placed for the new 20 plate not been delivered in the early part of the month.
“We should not, however, draw long term conclusions from these figures other than this being a stark realisation of what happens when economies grind to a halt”.
Sue Robinson, director of the National Franchised Dealers Association (NFDA), said the figures showed that it was crucial for the government to support automotive businesses through the crisis:
“During these challenging times, it is crucial that the government continues to support businesses in the automotive sector, one that employs over 590,000 people and is a key contributor to the UK economy”.
Deloitte’s UK automotive lead Michael Woodward said: “Like almost every other industry, Covid-19 has had a significant impact on UK automotive”.
“Since the outbreak began, supply chains globally have been under increasing pressure and, following the UK’s current lockdown restrictions, dealerships have now closed their doors and manufacturers halted production”.
However, he added, there were some bright spots in the figures, pointing to registrations of battery electric vehicles, which tripled to nearly 12,000 units during the month – 4.6 per cent of total registrations:
Registrations of plug-in hybrids rose 39 per cent in addition.
Woodward said: “Whilst the inclusion of hybrids in the UK’s incoming ban on new petrol and diesel car sales from 2035 could slow demand in the longer term, sales in February appear undented.
For now, hybrids continue to been seen as a stepping stone to going fully electric. The key to maintaining growth of EVs will be investment in the supporting infrastructure”.