UK car production in 2020 fell to lowest level since 1984 as industry battled with lockdowns, Covid-19 and last-minute Brexit confusion

Time 4 months ago

UK car production last year fell to levels not seen since 1984, data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) reveals.

The number of new cars built in the UK last year fell by almost a third to less than a million, leading to the loss of thousands of jobs, new figures show, the body said.

Production fell by 29.3 per cent compared to the previous year, down to 920,928 units, with similar impacts on the domestic and overseas markets.


The last time UK production fell under the one million mark was 1984 when 908,906 cars rolled out of British factories.

Commercial vehicle production fell by 15 per cent and the number of engines built slumped by 27 per cent.

The SMMT said a fall in car production of 2.3 per cent in December rounded off a ‘dreadful year’, with auto manufacturers hit by the impact of the coronavirus crisis as well as uncertainty for most of 2020 about a Brexit trade deal.

Global demand for UK cars

Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive, said declared job losses last year by carmakers and firms in the supply chain were around 10,000.


He said manufacturing operations were ‘severely disrupted’ throughout 2020, with lockdowns and social distancing measures restricting factory output, Brexit uncertainty continuing until Christmas Eve and depressed overseas demand.

Despite the impact on trade of the global pandemic, more than eight in 10 of all cars made in the UK were shipped overseas, with the EU remaining the biggest export destination, taking a 53.5 per cent share.

The industry faces 2021 with more optimism, however with a vaccine being rolled out and clarity on how we trade with Europe

Shipments to the US, Japan and Australia all fell, down 33.7 per cent, 21.6 per cent and 21.8 per cent respectively, while exports to China ended the year up 2.3 per cent.

Combined production of battery electric (BEV), plug-hybrid (PHEV) and hybrid vehicles (HEV) increased to 18.8% of all cars made in this country, up from 14.8 per cent a year before.

Just under 173,000 alternatively fuelled vehicles were built last year, with four out of five exported.

Hawes described 2020 as a ‘very challenging year’, but he said there was optimism for 2021 because of the coronavirus vaccine, more clarity on technology and the last-ditch Brexit trade deal, even though it left exporters facing some extra costs.

Commenting on the slump in production, he said: ‘These figures, the worst in a generation, reflect the devastating impact of the pandemic on UK automotive production, with Covid lockdowns depressing demand, shuttering plants and threatening lives and livelihoods.


‘The industry faces 2021 with more optimism, however with a vaccine being rolled out and clarity on how we trade with Europe, which remains by far our biggest market.

‘The immediate challenge is to adapt to the new conditions, to overcome the additional customs burdens and regain our global competitiveness while delivering zero emission transport.’

Independent forecasts say UK car production will partly recover in 2021 to one million, but Hawes said much will depend on the continued impact of the virus, the speed with which showrooms can reopen, and how quickly manufacturers can come to terms with new trading arrangements with the EU, which he described as ‘much more complicated’.

He hoped today’s production figures would reflect the ‘lowest ebb’, but added that significant investment would be needed to return to the figure of 1.7m reported in 2016.

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All UK volume car factories saw declines with Vauxhall suffering the biggest fall in production.

The Ellesmere Port factory built 32,234 Astras in 2020, which was nearly 48 per cent down on 2019’s output.

Nissan’s Qashqai was the UK’s top exported car in 2020, followed by the Mini, Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Nissan Juke, Range Rover Sport, Range Rover Evoque, Range Rover, Vauxhall Astra and the Range Rover Velar.

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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