The figures, from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, showed 206,784 new cars were registered last month, a 7.8 per cent increase on the 191,761 registrations in January 1991. Sales to private buyers, which were weak for much of last year, rose by 7.6 per cent, while fleet sales increased by 5.2 per cent.
However, in an unusual development Ford's sales fell during the month from 41,837, to 40,451. Though the US giant continued to occupy the number one slot in the sales league, its share of the market slipped below 20 per cent for the first time in decades, falling to 19.56 per cent in January from almost 22 per cent during the same month in 1996.
The statistics come at a bad time for Ford's unions, which are fighting the company's plans to cut 1,300 jobs at Halewood plant on Merseyside. Ford is thought to have asked the government for pounds 70m in state aid to keep the factory open. It currently builds the top-selling Escort, though the group wants to concentrate production at plants in Spain and Germany.
Last year Ford's share of the UK market also fell below 20 per cent, causing the company's European management to undertake a drastic reappraisal of its activities. European operations lost pounds 180m last year, with much of the cash drain centred on the UK.
Industry experts have blamed British buyers' reluctance to choose "traditional" high-selling makes in favour of imports. Yesterday's figures showed the Escort had fallen from the top selling spot, relinquishing its place to the Mondeo, another Ford offering.
The shift in buying patterns also hit Rover, which saw sales slide from 20,776 to 18,535 last month. Its market share plunged to less than 9 per cent from almost 11 per cent. However, Vauxhall's share of the market rose slightly.
The winners in last month's sales league were continental manufacturers. Renault showed particularly strong growth, raising market share to 7.3 per cent.