March is traditionally a crucial period for car sales, accounting for around 20% of the annual total because it is the month when the first of the year’s two batches of new number plates are released.
Since the UK switched to issuing new plates every 6 months (March and September) in 1999, monthly sales have only exceeded 465,000 once, in March 2004. So this latest number - 464,824 to be exact - is being greeted with ill-concealed delight by industry figures, who see it as confirmation that the economy is now firmly speeding along the road to recovery.
‘We expect the market to continue to perform positively for the rest of the year’ said Mike Hawes, chief exec of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which issued the report.
The month also produced the biggest-ever rise in sales of alternatively fuelled and electric vehicles, up 63.8% to an admittedly still-modest 8,713. Perhaps those much-vaunted electric cars really are about to take off at last.
But is the news as good as it seems? Perhaps not. The strength of UK car sales over the past year or so has been surprising, given the depths to which sales plummeted in the aftermath if the 2008 crash. Around 75%of new cars I the UK are sold via financing deals, leading to questions over debt and the sustainability of the boom.
Of course one man’s credit-fuelled bubble is another’s confirmation of consumer confidence. Compared to the parlous state of most of the Eurozone, where car sales remain extremely sluggish, the UK market does look decidedly more glass-half-full. Although they are still a way off pre-crash averages, as this graph shows:
There are also signs that - as BMW board director Ian Robertson told MT recently - the purchasing pattern of the British car buyer is changing. The rise of attractive finance deals promoted by manufacturers keen to shift as much metal here as possible, is turning us from a nation of car buyers to a nation of car renters. Punters now look for leasing and Personal Contract Purchase plans with the lowest monthly rates rather than at the windscreen sticker prices on the forecourt.
But if the way we are buying cars is changing, the cars we buy aren’t much. In 2004, the bestsellers were the Ford Focus, the Vauxhall Corsa and the Ford Fiesta. So far this year, they are the Ford Fiesta, the Ford Focus and, you guessed it, the Vauxhall Corsa. Plus ca change.