Disastrous April car sales mark the end of an era

Cars falling like dominoes
Just 4321 new cars trickled off the forecourt last month, compared to 161,000 a year ago Credit: The Telegraph

The meagre figures represent a depth not plumbed by the industry since 1946

The latest statistics from the car industry make for shocking reading, and not just because 264 people in the UK bought a Vauxhall Corsa last month.

The newest model, while actually reasonably pleasant to drive for once, is spoilt by a “sea of plastic” in a “dated interior”, at least according to Top Gear, which gave it a 6/10 rating.

Not even that can distract from the revelation that April’s car sales were the worst since just after the Second World War. Just 4,321 new cars trickled off the forecourt last month, compared with 161,000 a year ago. That’s a fall of 97pc.

The last time they were this bad was February 1946, when Britain was still in the throes of rationing and only just beginning the mammoth task of rebuilding its shattered economy.

When the worst of the coronavirus pandemic has passed, every major industry will have its own horror stat to look back on, a moment that triggered a collective gasp of breath and the sudden realisation that the world may have changed for good.

Retail sales recorded their largest fall on record in March. April’s are expected to be much worse.

The energy industry is grappling with an oil price that has crashed from $70 (£61) a barrel in January to below $20 in April, and in the US fell below zero for the first time in history.

Airline traffic plunged as much as 99pc last month. Ryanair’s Austrian Lauda subsidiary didn’t carry a single passenger.

Meanwhile, take your pick of grim economic news. The private sector has just posted its worst contraction since records began in 1998, prompting IHS Markit to predict the UK is entering a recession “far deeper and more widespread than anything seen in living memory”.

There will be a dramatic acceleration of existing structural trends. Forget “managed decline”. Companies will wake up and find the world they lived in before has vanished for good.

The high street is already dying, but those retailers that have too many shops in fading town centres, and have been slow to embrace the internet, home delivery, and click and collect, will be swept away.

Faltering chains like Oasis and Cath Kidston were gone within weeks of the outbreak. Those cling on will have to go for broke, embracing new models and trying to crack new markets.

In a world where Shell is cutting its dividend for the first time in 80 years, then it’s fair to assume that the oil industry is already preparing for demand to peak earlier than expected, hastening investment into wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources.

The prediction of New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern that the country won’t have open borders for “a long time to come” offers airlines and tour operators a chilling glimpse of a future of mass market overseas travel gone for good.

For the car industry, this all means one thing: a rapid shift towards electric. There will be a move to play down the latest figures as a blip, but don’t count on buyers returning, not when a quarter of the workforce has been furloughed.

Meanwhile, April’s best-selling model was Tesla’s model 3, albeit boosted by the clearance of a major order backlog stretching back several years, but still, it’s a symbolic moment for a sector clinging on to petrol and diesel models.

Manufacturers can whine all they like about a lack of infrastructure holding back electrification but demand has begun to outstrip supply. Once the market is established, then governments will be forced to catch up with a proper charging network and incentive schemes.

Carmakers are loath to give up on the combustion engine, but those industries that don’t quickly re-engineer may soon discover there’s very little left.

Get your broadband in order first

What unfortunate timing. Just as two giants of telecoms rush to seal a £24bn mega-merger, customers of both providers have been struggling with an all-too familiar problem.

“Service disruption on O2 Mobile Network” said an email yesterday. Meanwhile, Virgin Media users were up in arms after another extended bout of broadband issues.

Regulators ought to take a dim view of such a cost-cutting tie-up when the two sides are incapable of keeping their networks up and running as it is.

It’s looking grim for Gatwick

As the airline sector’s prospects darken by the day, it is becoming abundantly clear that Gatwick Airport will be one of the biggest losers. Both BA and Virgin Atlantic are threatening to pull out.

It is tempting to think that others will rush to fill the vacuum, but don’t count on it. The disappearance of two rivals strengthens Easyjet’s existing dominance and makes it harder for others to mount a challenge.

The prospects for Britain’s second largest airport look pretty grim.