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Exit from lockdown & factory delays drive record used car sales in the UK

·3-min read
Thousands of used cars lined up at a site in Corby, Northamptonshire, waiting to be distributed to car dealerships around the UK.
The increase in used car sales tracks the country’s gradual emergence from lockdown, as businesses reopened, demand for personal mobility increased. Photo: PA

The UK marked its best ever second quarter for used car sales, as the emergence from lockdown and factory delays held up the delivery of new cars.

According to The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), UK used car transactions rose 108.6%, following a weak second quarter in 2020, to 2,167,504 units.

The increase tracks the country’s gradual emergence from lockdown, as businesses reopened, demand for personal mobility increased.

Compared to the near standstill of the economy last year, the used car market saw the biggest growth in April, up 307.4% on 2020 with 724,743 transactions in the month, and up 5.0% on pre-pandemic 2019.

All months in Q2 saw significant growth, with May and June up 9.9% and 4.6% on 2019 respectively, the best performance for both months on record.

Watch: New model shortages drive near-record demand for used cars

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Year to date, the rebound in Q2 has pushed the used car market up 33.3% to 3,855,259 units over the first half of the year. However, this remains -4.9% or almost 200,000 units off the 2019 market.

The SMMT data comes following news last week that the UK's new car pipeline has struggled to stand up to COVID-19 and Brexit-related disruptions, causing the worst July for car sales in decades.

Data showed there were 123,296 new cars registered in July, a 29.5% decrease on the same month last year.

The SMMT said the decline was artificially heightened by comparison with the same month last year, when registrations rose dramatically as showrooms enjoyed a full month’s operation following the first 2020 lockdown.

However, the July performance was down 22.3% on the average recorded over the past decade, as the ongoing semiconductor shortage and the "pingdemic" impacted on both supply and demand.

Analysts say the demand in the market is fuelling price inflation.

Read more: Worst UK July car sales in decades as manufacturers struggle to get parts

"We are seeing reports of used cars being sold for well over their recommended retail price, and in some cases, for significantly more than their brand-new counterparts," said Seán Kemple, managing director of Close Brothers Motor Finance.

"For buyers eager to get their hands on a new vehicle, they either face waiting times of up to 12 months for a brand-new model — or they can look to the second-hand market for a slightly different model to drive home sooner; but at a cost."

“Used car dealers face some difficult choices in the current climate. Consumer demand is high, but amidst big supply challenges they’ll need to think carefully about how to stock their forecourt, and how they’re pricing their vehicles during a volatile period."

As for the transition to battery and electric cars — petrol and diesel powertrains still made up 96.4% of the quarter’s used car market at 2,090,396 units.

In addition, increased demand overall has led to an increase in sales of older used cars with only 12.7% of all vehicles sold being three years or under, the lowest on record.

Watch: What is inflation and why is it important?