Car sales climb for fifth month

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FURTHER tentative evidence of recovery emerged yesterday as figures showed that new car sales rose by 16 per cent in February - their fifth successive monthly rise.

According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, registrations last month were 126,984 compared with 109,414 in February 1992.

This means that car sales have now risen, year on year, in each month since October. The total for the first two months of this year, at just under 292,000, is 11 per cent up on the same period in 1992.

The increase was largely due to private buyers returning to the forecourts rather than heavy purchases by fleet customers.

Industry leaders warned, however, that the encouraging February sales increase did not spell the end of car manufacturers' woes.

David Gent, director-general of the Retail Motor Industry Federation, said that last month's increase should be treated with considerable caution since sales in February 1992 had been the lowest since 1976.

The SMMT also warned that while the UK car market was rising, the reverse was the case in the rest of Europe, with sales down sharply in important export markets such as France and Germany.

'A strong build-up in domestic sales is essential if the UK industry is to compensate for sales which are bound to be lost overseas,' a spokesman added.

French car sales fell 29 per cent last month and analysts are now forecasting that the Western European market will be down by 8 to 10 per cent this year - equivalent to 1 million sales.

Labour's consumer affairs spokesman, Nigel Griffiths, added to the confusion by repeating his claim that the SMMT's figures were a sham.

The techniques being used to distort the figures included the mass registering of cars for sale by dealers, the mass dumping of cars on the rental market and special deals for fleet customers.

The SMMT rejected Mr Griffiths's claims, saying it did not accept the figures were either discredited or phoney. Some cars were being registered before they were sold, but this only happened on an extremely limited scale.

After a poor end to 1992, Ford, the traditional market leader, bounced back, taking 23 per cent of February sales. Vauxhall's market share fell to 16 per cent, while Rover was third with 12.3 per cent.