The number of new cars registered in March plunged by over 44%, as the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK car market and showrooms were forced to close as part of the country-wide shutdown.
Data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) published on Monday 6 April showed that the drop in new car registrations from the month before was even steeper than declines during the financial crisis.
With 203,370 fewer cars registered last month versus March 2019, it was actually the worst March for sales since the late nineties, the SMMT said.
“With the country locked down in crisis mode for a large part of March, this decline will come as no surprise,” SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes said in a statement. “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.”
Automotive plants in the UK and across the EU have been idled since mid-March, as they struggled to keep supply chains flowing, and were battered by a plunge in consumer demand.
The coronavirus crisis hit the car industry at a time when it was already struggling with tariff threats from the US, a slowdown in Chinese market, and the costs of launching electric vehicles to lower fleet emissions and avoid fines.
Hawes said we should not “draw long-term conclusions from these figures other than this being a stark realisation of what happens when economies grind to a halt.”
The SMMT pointed out that the UK is not alone with its dismal car sales in March. Other European countries were posting even bigger sales drops: Italy was down by 85%, France by 72% and Spain down by 69% in March. In Germany, new car sales declined by 38%.
The industry trade body has downgraded its 2020 outlook by 23% to 1.73 million units, 23% lower than its previous prediction for the year.
On the positive side, SMMT said that registrations of new battery electric cars almost tripled in March to 11,694 units, accounting for 4.6% of the market, while plug-in hybrids grew 38.0%.