Worst start to the year for UK car sales since 1970

Britain has suffered its weakest January car sales in 51 years, as showroom closures brought the market to a near standstill.

a car parked in a parking lot

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) said on Thursday that just 90,249 new vehicles were registered across the UK last month, down 40% on last year. SMMT said the new car registrations total was the lowest in January since 1970.

“Following a £20.4bn [$27.7bn] loss of revenue last year, the auto industry faces a difficult start to 2021,” said SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes.

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Sales of diesel vehicles fell by 62%, while petrol car sales dropped 50%. Demand for electric vehicles rose by 8% and hybrid sales grew by 34%.

The headline slump was caused by lockdown restrictions across the UK, which meant car showrooms were shut.

Hawes called for showrooms to be opened as soon as safely possible to help protect jobs and the industry. March is the busiest month of the year for car sales, SMMT said, accounting for 1 in 5 sales in the year on average.

“Lifting the shutters will secure jobs, stimulate the essential demand that supports our manufacturing, and will enable us to forge ahead on the Road to Zero,” Hawes said. “Every day that showrooms can safely open will matter, especially with the critical month of March looming.”

Ian Plummer, commercial director at Auto Trader, said there were signed of pent-up demand in the market suggesting sales could bounce back quickly once restrictions are lifted.

“As we move into the new year there are encouraging signs that the market will pick up, as some very strong lead indicators are likely to flow through into sales in the weeks ahead,” Plummer said.

“Consumer demand for new cars on the Auto Trader marketplace soared last month, we observed a significant uplift in users viewing new cars on our marketplace, which in turn drove record levels of new car leads being sent to retailers.”

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