Sales of new cars in the UK tumbled to the weakest September total for more than two decades as the global shortages of semiconductors hit the sector, but it was a record month for electric vehicles amid panic-buying at the pumps.
Overall, 215,312 new cars were registered last month, the lowest September figure since 1998, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). Compared with September 2020, when Covid-19 restrictions curtailed economic activity, 34% fewer vehicles were sold.
September is normally the second-busiest month of the year for the industry, but with the global chip shortage holding back car production, sales were down almost 45% compared with the 10-year average before the pandemic. Mike Hawes, the chief executive of the SMMT, said the headline figures were “desperately disappointing” and further evidence of the impact the shortage of semiconductors, especially from Asia, was having on the industry.
The biggest falls were in diesel and petrol car sales, down 77% and 47% respectively. It was a different story for electric cars, with 32,721 registered last month, 49% more than in September 2021 and nearly as many as 2019 as a whole, the SMMT said. The Tesla Model 3 was the bestseller last month.
Demand for electric cars jumped as a shortage of lorry and tanker drivers led to fuel shortages and widespread panic-buying at the petrol pumps in the last week and a half.
James Fairclough, the chief executive of AA Cars, said: “For those already thinking of going electric, the sight of electric vehicle drivers breezing past long queues at service stations during September’s fuel crisis may have been a clincher.”
Battery-powered electric cars make up 15% of the new car market, up from 11% in August, while plug-in hybrid cars have taken a larger share of 6.4%. This means that more in five new cars sold in September was zero-emission.
Hawes called on the government to step up investment in charging points. “The rocketing uptake of plug-in vehicles, especially battery electric cars, demonstrates the increasing demand for these new technologies,” he said.
“However, to meet our collective decarbonisation ambitions, we need to ensure all drivers can make the switch – not just those with private driveways – requiring a massive investment in public recharging infrastructure. Charge-point rollout must keep pace with the acceleration in plug-in vehicle registrations.”
Overall, demand from private buyers fell 25% but a bigger fall was recorded in large fleets, down 43% year on year. New car sales so far this year are only 5.9% better than 2020 figures, and down 29% on the pre-pandemic decade-long average.
Seán Kemple, the managing director of Close Brothers Motor Finance, said it could be March next year before there was a real recovery in car sales.
“The ongoing chip shortage, compounded by rocketing manufacturing costs, continues to present challenges for dealers, manufacturers and consumers,” he said.
“Consumer demand is there, but choice is stifled. Buyers are turning to ‘nearly new’ options, a growing trend where vehicles up to 12 months old are outstripping the price of their new counterparts. This is something we’ve never seen before in the car market and will likely never see again. The supply chain pressures are unlikely to ease up this side of Christmas and with secondhand vehicles going for premium prices, customers looking for a car are left in an unenviable position.”