U.K. March Car Sales Plunge Most Since Late 1990s on Coronavirus

(Bloomberg) --

U.K. car sales dropped the most in two decades in March as the coronavirus pandemic brings the auto industry to a halt in countries in Europe and the Americas.

New car registrations plunged 44% to 254,684 during the month, according to a statement Monday from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. The drop is worse than the 2008 financial crisis and hasn’t been seen since the late 1990s when consumers held off purchases en masse to wait for the nation’s switch to a bi-annual registration plate, it said.

The monthly plunge prompted the auto lobby to downgrade its outlook for the year, predicting a 25% drop from 2019 to 1.73 million registrations. It plans to publish another update later this month.

Damage to the European car industry from the spread of Covid-19 is piling up. Carmakers and parts suppliers have scrapped their outlooks, while the drop in passenger car registrations in March was sharper in France and Spain, falling 72% and 69% respectively.

In the U.K., diesel and gasoline-powered cars bore the brunt of the monthly decrease, with companies choosing not to replenish fleets and the public forced to hold off on purchases because showrooms were ordered shut by the government to halt the spread of the virus. One bright spot was electric vehicles, with battery-driven car purchases rising almost threefold to 11,694 vehicles, the SMMT said.

“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,” Mike Hawes, chief executive officer of the SMMT, said in the release. “We should not, however, draw long term conclusions from these figures other than this being a stark realization of what happens when economies grind to a halt.”

Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. are among car-makers that have temporarily halted production in the U.K. The industry was already reeling from the uncertainty surrounding Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Nissan warned in February that a question mark hangs over its Sunderland site, which makes models that account for the bulk of the Japanese carmaker’s European sales.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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