Car sales in Britain are the lowest level since 1946 – Axon's Automotive Anorak

11th May 2020
Gary Axon

Ordinarily I wouldn’t be commenting on Britain’s new car sales for the month of April, but at present we are not living through ordinary times with the global COVID-19 pandemic!


With the UK in lockdown for the entire month of April during Coronavirus (along with the vast majority of the rest of the world), it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to learn that British new car registrations last month took a major nose dive, falling to the lowest monthly sales level since 1946, when the supply of new cars to the general public in post-war Britain was severely restricted (despite strong demand), in that ‘export or die’ era.

Unsurprisingly, vehicle sales also plummeted across the rest of the world by alarming levels too during April, with Italy down 97.5 per cent, France dropping by 89 per cent, and so on across the globe. Some, like Spain, the USA and Japan are still yet to reveal their sales statistics.

Back in the UK, with a record sales decline exceeding 97 per cent last month (-97.3 per cent, at just 4,231 sales), April’s new car registrations not only hit a 74-year low, but followed a lousy March market performance when British sales fell by over 44 per cent as the early Coronavirus impact took hold.


April 2020 also recorded a number of significant firsts for the British new car market, with the following notable premiers:

The first time electric cars have taken almost a third of total UK new cars sales, accounting to 31.8 per cent (a high proportion that we will all become increasingly used to over the coming years).

The first time ever that an electric car has taken the top sales position (as well as number two, with three pure-electric models making the Top Ten sales) in the UK

The first time in history that an American-built car has topped the British sales chart (the Tesla Model 3, at 658 units).

The first time in 43-years, since the UK launch of the original Ford Fiesta in 1977, that this popular hatchback has not appeared in the UK Top Ten sales chart.

The first time the electric Nissan Leaf has outsold its popular Qashqai crossover sibling.

The first time a Peugeot 308 has outsold its traditionally more-popular C-Segment rivals; the Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf and Vauxhall Astra.

The ten best selling cars in the UK, April 2020:

  1. Tesla Model 3
  2. Jaguar I-Pace
  3. Vauxhall Corsa
  4. Vauxhall Crossland-X
  5. Ford Tourneo Custom
  6. Peugeot Rifter
  7. Seat Leon
  8. Mercedes-Benz A-Class
  9. Nissan Leaf
  10. Peugeot 308

With new car showrooms forced into lockdown from late March, along with many other businesses in the UK, predictably pre-ordered fleet sales to the business sector accounted for the majority (71.5 per cent) of the grim April sales total (equalling 3,090 cars) with private buyer cars amounting to only 871 units – a year-on-year decline of almost 99 per cent!

The historic Number One sales position of the Tesla Model 3 (the first electric and first American car to top UK sales) was largely due to a ship load of the models arriving on British shores and available for delivery to keen buyers in April, with 658 sold. In second place was the electric Jaguar I-Pace (the Coventry brand’s highest ever sales placing) with 367 examples delivered. A combination of both the new-generation and previous Vauxhall Corsa models came in third position with 264 sales.

The remainder of April’s Top Ten UK registrations look equally unusual, with a few first-time appearances, such as the Ford Tourneo Custom in fifth place (108 units), the Peugeot Rifter in sixth (98 cars), Seat Leon seventh (80), Nissan Leaf ninth (72) and Peugeot 308 in tenth position (67 examples). Top Ten ‘regulars’ included Vauxhall’s Crossland X as April’s forth best-seller (143 delivered) and the Mercedes-Benz A-Class in eighth (72 registered).


For the first four months of the year, so far the British new car market has dropped by 43.4 per cent, with the Ford Fiesta, VW Golf and Ford Focus taking the top three sales slots overall. For the 2020 new car market as a whole, sales are forecast to drop by around 27 per cent to 1.68 million new registrations (2.31m in 2019), the lowest since 1992, when 1.59m cars were sold.

By way of comparison, for April, new light commercial vehicle (LCV) sales also tumbled, but by a marginally less alarming degree; down by 86.2 per cent, to 3,397 new vans and pick-up trucks, with the total sales for the year to-date so far down by 44 per cent to 71,294 LCVs. LCV sales for the whole of 2020 are forecast to reach around 263,000 registrations, a fall of c.28 per cent on last year.

New car showrooms look set to remain closed for the moment, resulting in new car sales inevitably being hit and remaining weak, despite good demand.

Until the dealers open, manufacturers such as Volvo and Vauxhall have recently announced new schemes to buy direct from the comfort of your own sofa and take home delivery of new models whilst staying at home, with more car makers set to follow shortly, so these enterprising initiatives look promising, and should help to shore-up new car sales and the motor industry as a whole. Here’s hoping.

You might also be interested in the best and worst selling cars of 2019!

  • Tesla

  • Model 3

  • Peugeot

  • 308

  • Jaguar

  • I-Pace

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