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Britain’s cars are getting older but van ownership reaches historic highs, finds SMMT

  • Number of vehicles on UK roads fell in 2020 – the first time in over 10 years
  • Poor new car uptake blamed for rise in older cars on UK roads, but number of new vans rose
  • Superminis still Britain’s favourite type of car

Time 3 weeks ago

The number of vehicles on UK roads fell last year for the first time since 2009, new figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) reveal.

SMMT Motorparc data shows vehicle numbers fell to 40,350,714 in 2020, the first fall since the global financial crisis of 2009, while the average age of cars on UK roads is now the highest on record at 8.4 years due to low new vehicle uptake during the coronavirus pandemic.

Van uptake, however, has grown to the highest level in history, accounting for 11.4 per cent of all vehicles on the road, the SMMT said.


The latest parc data illustrates that, for the second consecutive year, there were more than 35 million cars registered on UK roads (35,082,800), although that figure represents a modest 0.2 per cent dip as Covid impacted new volumes entering the market.

Light commercial vehicles (LCVs) – the only vehicle type to see an increase – saw 1.7 per cent growth over the past year, up to a new record high of 4,604,861 vehicles.

Meanwhile, the number of heavy goods vehicles on our roads declined by 3.1 per cent to 589,445 units.

Bus and coach numbers saw the most significant fall at 10.7 per cent to 73,608, as the pandemic dramatically reduced already-declining passenger numbers causing fleet operators to pause new fleet purchases and take unused vehicles off the road.

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With showrooms closed for large periods of 2020 due to lockdowns, fewer new cars were registered, resulting in the oldest average car fleet since records began.

The average car on UK roads was built in 2011, while almost 10 million cars have been in service since 2008 or earlier.

While this is testament to the durability and quality of modern vehicles, an ageing fleet risks stalling the UK’s attempts to reduce emissions, warned the SMMT.

Meanwhile, the number of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) on UK roads increased by 114.3 per cent to a record high of 199,085, while plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) also saw their numbers increase by 35.2 per cent to 239,510.


With the pandemic putting the brakes on new vehicle uptake in 2020, the average car on our roads is now the oldest since records began some 20 years ago, as drivers held on to their existing vehicles for longer

However, combined, they represented just 1.3 per cent of all cars on our roads.

Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) saw their numbers grow by a fifth to 621,622 cars, while petrol car volumes remained stable, down 0.2 per cent, with diesel falling 2.3 per cent. Combined, internal combustion engine (ICE) models accounted for 97.1 per cent of the total parc – or 34,018,599 units.

Britain’s favourite car types are still the supermini and lower medium segments which account for six in 10 cars in service, at 11,620,733 and 9,256,839 units respectively.

Dual purpose vehicles remain a distant third, with 4,619,061 in use but now account for 13.2 per cent of cars on the road, as consumer tastes and demand shift.

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Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive, said: ‘With the pandemic putting the brakes on new vehicle uptake in 2020, the average car on our roads is now the oldest since records began some 20 years ago, as drivers held on to their existing vehicles for longer. The technology is changing, however, albeit slowly.

‘Despite massive growth last year, just one in 80 vehicles is a plug-in electric car – while nearly 10 million petrol and diesel cars dating back to before 2008 remain on our roads.

‘Encouraging drivers to upgrade to the newest, cleanest lowest emission cars, regardless of fuel source, is essential for the UK to meet its ambitious climate change targets.’

James Batchelor's avatar

James – or Batch as he’s known – started at Car Dealer in 2010, first as the work experience boy, eventually becoming editor in 2013. He worked for Auto Express as editor-at-large and was the face of Carbuyer’s YouTube reviews. In 2020, he went freelance and now writes for a number of national titles and contributes regularly to Car Dealer.

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