New car registrations fall 97% amid coronavirus outbreak

Coronavirus lockdown unsurprisingly sees new-car sales hit hard, with just 4,000 cars sold in April as dealerships shut up shop

The UK’s new-car market contracted by 97 per cent in April as the coronavirus lockdown closed dealerships, falling to levels not seen since 1946.

Just 4,321 new cars changed hands last month, compared to 161,064 in April 2019. Online and distance sales made up for only a tiny percentage of normal volume,with 71.5 per cent of sales going to fleet buyers, and many of those 4,321 sales being made to keyworkers in need of a new car.

April's figures brought with them further anomalies, such as the fact the Tesla Model 3 was the UK's best selling car, with 658 examples finding homes – although this pales into insignificance when viewed in conjunction with April 2019's figures, which saw 5,606 Ford Fiestas change hands. Another sign of the times was that tast month month the Mercedes Sprinter van outsold all models of car, with 814 Sprinters registered – presumably by delivery drivers and firms.

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With the UK automotive industry supporting 820,000 jobs and being worth £101 billion to the economy, industry bosses urged Government to make dealerships among the first businesses to be allowed to open.

Continental showrooms have been cautiously reopening in recent times, with German dealers opening late last month, and French forecourts told they could restart on 11 May. The UK, being slightly behind our Continental cousins with regard to the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, is likely to be similarly delayed in easing lockdown measures. French registrations were down 88.8% down last month, while the Italian market fell 97.5 per cent. 

April’s registration data follows March’s steep drop, which saw 44.4 per cent fewer new cars registered as the lockdown began on the 23rd of the month. One interesting trend was that while sales of conventional cars contracted by around 95 per cent, electric vehicle sales only dropped by just 9.7 per cent.

Last month the SMMT revised its annual outlook, predicting 1.73 million new cars would be registered in 2020, down 23 per cent on predictions. But, in-line with its policy, April’s data prompted the organisation to further revise this outlook, predicting 1.68 million registrations cars would be sold this year. 

It’s not just new car sales that have been hit hard by coronavirus. Car factories in the UK and further abroad have been shut down to stop the spread of the disease and, while a number of firms such as Bentley have tentatively started production again, maintaining social distancing and safe working conditions provides significant headaches for manufacturers; Ford’s guide reopening its factories runs to 64 pages, for example.

Mike Hawes, chief executive of the SMMT, said, “With the UK’s showrooms closed for the whole of April, the market’s worst performance in living memory is hardly surprising. These figures, however, still make for exceptionally grim reading, not least for the hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on the sector.”

Hawes added: “A strong new car market supports a healthy economy and as Britain starts to plan for recovery, we need car retail to be in the vanguard. Safely restarting this most critical sector and revitalising what will, inevitably, be subdued demand will be key to unlocking manufacturing and accelerating the UK’s economic regeneration.”

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