New car registrations for the key plate-change month of March were down 44.4 per cent at 254,684 units, the SMMT has announced.
With car dealerships closed by the government as part of the UK-wide lockdown on March 23, the last few days of this critical month for the motor trade was badly hit.
The SMMT says the fall was steeper than the financial crisis and the worst March since the late nineties when the market changed to the bi-annual plate change system.
The SMMT has downgraded its interim market outlook for the year to 1.73m registrations – a 25 per cent decline on the 2.31m units registered in 2019.
Some 203,370 fewer cars were registered in March compared with March 2019.
Lockdowns in Europe have seen registrations hit badly too, with Italy down 85 per cent, France down 72 per cent and Spain down 69 per cent in March. The countries went into lockdown at varying times.
Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive, said: ‘With the country locked down in crisis mode for a large part of March, this decline will come as no surprise.
‘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.
‘How long the market remains stalled is uncertain, but it will reopen and the products will be there. In the meantime, we will continue to work with government to do all we can to ensure the thousands of people employed in this sector are ready for work and Britain gets back on the move.’
Experts warn April could see new car registrations figures fall by as much as 95 per cent as dealerships remain shut.
Before the lockdown began there was some good news, though, as registrations of battery electric vehicles were up threefold, with 11,694 units accounting for 4.6 per cent of the market. Plug-in hybrids grew 38 per cent.
The best-selling car for the month was the VW Golf, followed by the Ford Fiesta and the Mini in third.
The Tesla Model 3 – more commonly known as ‘other’ in SMMT registration charts – was ninth.
Sue Robinson, director of the National Franchised Dealers’ Association, added:
‘The majority of franchised dealerships’ showrooms were closed for a week or longer in the second half of March which is when a large percentage of new cars are registered. As a result, the decline in new car sales does not come as a surprise.
‘We remain hopeful that the market will recover and franchised retailers will be able to continue their support for consumers on their vehicle purchasing and servicing needs.’
Mike Jones, chairman of dealer profitability specialist ASE Automotive Solutions, said: ‘Coronavirus could not have hit the motor retail sector at a worse time, forcing the suspension of sales for the second half of the busiest month of the year.
‘The overall drop of 44.4 per cent is not surprising given the massive disruption we saw to trading. Digging into the data shows that the vast majority of the UK’s fall took place after the shutdown.
‘Registrations were down just four per cent on 2019 as we came out of the last normal trading weekend on March 23, with only another 43,000 cars registered in the rest of the month.
‘We expected there to be a larger than normal surge in the second half of March, as cars were registered in advance of the WLTP-based road tax increases – however, the final week of March saw an 82 per cent drop in registration levels compared with the prior year.
‘The job for retailers and OEMs is to ensure that this pipeline is kept live, ready to be released once the lockdown is lifted.’
Heycar chief commercial officer Karen Hilton commented: ‘Such a dramatic decline in registrations is proof that Covid-19 will ricochet through the industry for weeks and months ahead.
‘However, the current situation offers an opportunity for dealers to become fully digitally operational and nurture customers online. And we are already seeing this come into practice. Dealers are using this time wisely to accelerate their digital capabilities, which is allowing them to maintain a level of trading at this difficult time.
‘We know more people are looking online than ever right now, browsing and deciding what their next car is going to be when better times return. The heycar site has seen record traffic levels since the country went into lockdown.
‘It will be the used car market that bounces back quicker, with more buyers looking for reliable used or nearly new models, and cars being returned from PCP agreements and part-exchanges entering back into the market.’
In February, the new car market was down 2.9 per cent with demand falling from private buyers.