UK electric and hybrid car sales hit record levels in March, traditionally the biggest month of the year for motor dealers, as demand for greener vehicles surged despite overall trade remaining lower than before the pandemic.
Sales of battery electric cars and plug-in hybrids accounted for a combined 13.9% of the market, up from 7.3% a year earlier, in a sign of the accelerating switch to cars with lower carbon exhaust emissions, according to preliminary data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).
Buyers picked up 22,000 electric cars and another 17,000 plug-in hybrids, which combine a battery with an internal combustion engine.
Car number plates change in March, meaning many buyers hold off until then in order to keep a higher resale value. However, the pandemic has depressed sales for more than a year, and the latest data shows last month’s numbers were still down about 37% below average March levels of 450,000 between 2010 and 2019.
The market has improved compared with March 2020, when the first lockdown began, with new car registrations rising 11% last month to 284,000.
Car dealers have managed to eke out increased sales during lockdowns by bringing in new ways of shopping, including click and collect. The lobby group estimates that the car industry has lost £22.2bn in sales over the past year, but is hoping for a bounce-back as showrooms reopen.
Sales data will be flattered for the next few months by comparisons with the early stages of the pandemic in spring 2020, when all dealerships in the UK were forced to close. In April 2020 – the first full month of lockdown restrictions – sales dropped by 97% to their lowest level since the aftermath of the second world war.
Mike Hawes, the SMMT chief executive, said there was optimism in the industry that sales would recover after the toughest year in modern history for the automotive sector.
“We know we will see record-breaking growth next month given April 2020 was a washout, but a strong and sustainable market is possible if customers are attracted to the choice and competitive offer the industry is able to provide within the safest of showroom environments,” he said.
Dealers will be allowed to welcome customers into shops on 12 April in England, the largest UK market, when non-essential shops will reopen.