What is, usually, the best month for new car sales has delivered the industry’s worst March performance for more than 20 years.
Figures from the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) showed just shy of 255,000 vehicles were sold – usually the best month for business because of the plate change to reflect the new year.
The data showed 203,370 fewer cars were sold compared with March 2019 – a fall of over 44%.
It came as would-be buyers were forced to stay at home as the COVID-19 lockdown conditions began, hammering consumer confidence and demand for travel, with showrooms forced to close.
Car factories have also been forced to close down while the social distancing measures remain in place.
The figures pile more pressure on an industry that has suffered a collapse in demand since 2016 – a result of Brexit uncertainty and a crackdown on diesel amid global pressure on manufacturers to turn to all-electric cars.
The figures showed the numbers of petrol and diesel cars joining the road were down -49.9% and 61.9% respectively on the same month last year.
However, sales of battery electric vehicles rose almost three-fold in the month to 11,694 units while plug-in hybrids were up 38%.
The SMMT, which had forecast in January a 2.5% decline in new car sales this year, said March was the weakest since the bi-annual plate change was introduced in 1999.
It downgraded its 2020 outlook on Monday to 1.73 million cars – a fall of 23% on its earlier guidance.
SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes said: “With the country locked down in crisis mode for a large part of March, this decline will come as no surprise.
“Despite this being the lowest March since we moved to the bi-annual plate change system, 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.
“We should not, however, draw long term conclusions from these figures other than this being a stark realisation of what happens when economies grind to a halt.
“How long the market remains stalled is uncertain, but it will reopen and the products will be there.
“In the meantime, we will continue to work with government to do all we can to ensure the thousands of people employed in this sector are ready for work and Britain gets back on the move.”