Coronavirus halts UK car buying as sales collapse 97% in April

Published: 05 May 2020

► Confirmed April 2020 figures
► Car buyers stay at home
► Lowest month since WW2

The true extent of the coronavirus carnage in the car market is borne out by shocking official sales figures, revealing that new-car registrations collapsed by 97% last month.

Data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) shows a near-total stop of activity in car dealerships up and down the land, as the Covid-19 pandemic shut businesses and the country stayed at home.

Registrations had already fallen 44% in March 2020, but the nationwide lockdown announced on 23 March meant that car buying effectively ground to a halt the following month.

UK road traffic falls to 1955 levels during Covid-19 lockdown

April 2020: the month the car market ground to a halt

The SMMT data shows that only 4321 cars were registered last month, mostly fleet purchases that were already in the system and fulfilled by remote means. Hardly any private purchases were realised at all, with only a few keyworkers ploughing ahead with a new car.

April 2020 new car sales figures UK

To put that in context, in the same month last year 161,000 new cars were registered by UK dealers. It’s the lowest monthly sales figure since February 1946, when the UK’s car market was much smaller and the country was rebuilding from the devastation of the Second World War.

It’s an apt memory, as for many companies the pandemic feels like another war that’s ripping their business plans apart.

How do UK car sales compare with other European countries?

The catastrophic British registration figures are in line with our EU peers: sales in Italy plummeted by 97.5% in April and French sales fell by 88.8% in the same period.

Most experts agree that the new car market will bounce back and there will be some pent-up demand, but a new car purchase is unlikely to be a priority for those on furlough or made redundant. Most observers agree that economic conditions will be extremely tough, as the country teeters towards the worst recession since the 1930s.

Although paused, the car market is expected to bounce back quickly to satisfy pent-up demand

Official SMMT forecasts have been reined in, and the industry now predicts 1.68 million new-car sales in 2020, the lowest since 1992. Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive, 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.

‘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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The car events and races disrupted by Covid-19

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By Tim Pollard

Group digital editorial director, motoring news magnet