The remarkable ‘swings and roundabouts’ situation unfolding in this year’s monthly SMMT new car sales figures had me reaching for my filing cabinets, seeking similarly tumultuous times in years gone by.

With grumbles about September 2017 sales being way down for the first time in years, while a record 562,337 cars were sold only five months earlier in March, what better place to look than exactly twenty years ago – in August 1997. 

This was the month when Britain’s new car sales broke the half million barrier for the very first time, with  SMMT data showing 525,539 cars sold – and another 505,312 in August 1998. These figures were the peak of 30 years of steady sales growth, driven higher each year by the then-familiar annual August registration plate suffix – and ultimately prefix – letter change. This sequence began in 1967, when the changeover date was permanently moved from January 1st, where the system had begun in 1963 with the “A” suffix. 

Early in the 1990’s, advertising pages began carrying announcements of dealer openings at midnight on August 1st, “…so owners could drive away their new cars as soon as possible…” It still happens, though nowadays its largely symbolic: back then, buyers coveted the perceived one-upmanship of the latest number plate on the drive, fuelling August-registered sales growth. Simultaneously however, concern grew across the industry at the practical difficulties involved in handling over three times the usual number of new cars – and associated trade-ins – at a time when most staff preferred to be on holiday. 

The record August 1997 sales volume brought matters to a head, and the government accepted industry proposals for two registration letter changes annually, in March and September. When enacted in 1999, all the problems associated with annual changes simply vanished.

That August, under 75,000 cars were sold – though it was still the second best year ever for new car sales – after 1989. The changeover that year resulted in shorter, 6-month lives for remaining plate prefixes T, V, W, X and Y, increasing the pressure for a new registration format: it began in September 2001 with “51” series plates.

Looking back to those heady days of August 1997, SMMT “top ten” figures reveal a remarkable consistency in best selling makes and models – when model lines were more rigidly conventional, and ranges noticeably less diverse than today.

Twenty years ago, if you were fortunate enough to rate a company car,  there was still a good chance it would be chosen by the fleet manager on the basis of arcane running cost analysis – and allocated on pay grade within a strict company pecking order. If it was a particularly enlightened company, you might get to choose between two models in the same pre-ordained band –  the latest Fiesta Encore 1.2 16v, or a Corsa 1.2 Merit say… Though times were already changing, for most, genuinely free choice was some way down the road. 

The industry’s big names were beneficiaries of the “bulk buying” patterns – so the top spot in August was Ford Fiesta, selling 30,635 examples, followed by the Escort on 24,081 units, and the Mondeo’s 23,794. Vauxhall’s Vectra, Corsa and Astra followed, while the Renault Clio, Peugeot 306, Rover 400 series and Volkswagen Polo rounded off the top ten.

All bar the Polo also featured in the “year to date” top ten: the Rover 200 took its place. Ford’s 18.11% share gave comfortable market leadership between January and August, its nearest competitor being Vauxhall, with 13.5%.

Rover group’s 9.85% market share put it 3rd in the league table that August – but the start of a spiral into oblivion was just over the horizon. 

Overall the market was shifting slowly upwards: in 1997, premium products from the major German car makers were beginning to capture the motoring public’s imagination, helped along – amongst other things – by those changing company car buying attitudes, and some astute manufacturer marketing. In the first 7 months of 1997, Audi sold 26,033 cars, accounting for 1.26% of the market, while BMW moved 50,659 units for 3.13% – putting it ahead of Honda, and very close to Toyota’s figure. Meanwhile Mercedes-Benz sold 30,104 units, taking 1.86% – just outselling Volvo. Significantly though, even by August, all three German marques were well ahead of the penetration they achieved the previous year. 

These were the early stirrings of a premium car revolution, which, with occasional modest setbacks, has been advancing ever since. Twenty years on, the January to August 2017 SMMT figures show all three manufacturers with over 6% UK market share – each having moved well over 100,000 cars this year.

Mercedes-Benz is performing strongly, leading the trio with 7.01% of the UK market. Even taking the vagaries of September into account, this is very different competitive territory compared to 1997: Honda has fallen well behind – and all have easily outsold Nissan and Toyota so far this year, being poised to close in on Vauxhall and VW, both of which currently command around 8% of the UK market.    

Though the old saying “comparisons can be odious” was probably never truer than when considering new car sales, comparing the figures of 20 years ago with recent sales clearly demonstrates two things: the remarkable amount by which marque fortunes can change over time – and that the new car market really does move in mysterious ways.

If one thing stands out, its that despite much easier access to convenient finance for private buyers, Britain’s market hasn’t seen the overall growth that might have been expected given 20 years of product improvement, innovation, advancement – and latterly diversity.

Sure, the mother of all economic downturns, now almost ten years ago, played a part… but analysis of key new car sales figures from the last 20 years certainly reveals some interesting trends… which we could look at another time.

© Davd Moss

Dave Moss
Dave Moss

Dave Moss has a lifetime connection with the world of motoring. His father was a time-served skilled engineer from an age when car repairs really meant repairs: he ran his own garage from the 1930’s to the 60’s, while Mum was the boss’s secretary at a big Austin distributor. Both worked their entire lives in the motor trade, so if motor oil’s not in Dave’s blood, its surely a very close thing.

Though qualified in Electronics, for Dave it seemed a natural step into restoring a succession of classic cars, culminating in a variety of Minis. Writing and broadcasting about these, and a widening range of motoring matters ancient and modern, gathered pace in the 1970’s and has taken over since. Topics nowadays range across the modern motoring mainstream to the offbeat and more arcane aspects of motoring history, and outlets embrace books, websites national and international magazines, newspapers, radio programmes, phone-ins and guest appearances. Spare time: hard graft on the garage floor attending to vehicles old and new. Latest projects: that 1968 Mini Cooper S has finally moved again after 30 years, and when the paint is finished, the 1960 Morris Mini 850 will also soon be ready for the road again…

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