The sales data, from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, was last night being interpreted as further evidence of Ford's shift in policy towards the UK, where it has been market leader since it overtook British Leyland in the 1970s.
In February Ford registered 26,753 cars in Britain, giving it 16.4 per cent of the market, compared with sales of 33,564 in the same month in 1996, yielding a 21.1 per cent slice of the market. Sales of the Escort and Fiesta, which have traditionally vied for top sales spot, were particularly disappointing, beaten into third and fourth places in the league table by the Vauxhall Astra. Sales of the Escort nosedived by 50 per cent.
Jay Nagley, a motor industry consultant from marketing consultants Quadrangle, said: "The Escort has been heavily incentivised to encourage buyers since 1991 and it seems Ford is now pulling back on special offers and this is hitting the model particularly hard."
The winners in last month's figures were yet again continental and Japanese brands, which industry analysts have argued are more appealing in marketing terms to consumers. The market share for both Renault and Peugeot surged by 1 percentage point to 8.2 per cent and 8.5 per cent respectively. Meanwhile the market shares of Vauxhall and Rover both slipped back slightly.
The dire figures for Ford follow a bad month in January and mean that in the first two months of 1997 the company's overall market share has fallen to less than 18.2 per cent. Last year Ford dropped below 20 per cent of the British market for the first time for decades while its European operations sank into losses of pounds 280m, with the UK blamed as one of the main drains on cash. The poor showing for the Escort will come as a blow to workers at Ford's Halewood plant on Merseyside, which manufactures the model, where 1,300 job losses have been announced.