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Imports in front as car sales surge

The continuing boom in car imports into the UK fuelled a strong increase in sales last month, though Ford's slice of the crucial British market fell again, manufacturers will reveal this week.

Early indications from industry sources suggest more than 200,000 cars were registered in January, a rise of some 4.5 per cent on the same month in 1996, making it the strongest January since 1990. The official statistics will be released on Thursday by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

However, January was a bad month for traditional high-selling "British" makes. Ford's share is thought to have slid alarmingly to 19 per cent, down from 21.7 per cent in January the previous year. Rover managed just 9.6 per cent of the UK market, more than 1 percentage point down.

One industry expert said: "January will be a real test of Ford's new policy of not distorting the market by registering large numbers of cars to dealers in the last couple of days of each month. If they end up with figures as bad as this it'll prove they've given up buying market share."

The winners in the sales league last month were imported makes such as Volkswagen, which is currently enjoying an extraordinary surge in popularity in Britain, along with Renault and Fiat. Last year imports accounted for 62 per cent of the UK market, up from 58.9 per cent in 1995.

The statistics make bleak reading for Ford unions as workers prepare to vote in strike ballots called over the company's plans to slash 1,300 jobs at its Halewood plant on Merseyside. Union officials from across Ford's European empire meet in Brussels today to discuss the cutbacks at the start of a week of frantic lobbying.

Tony Woodley, national organiser for the Transport and General Workers Union, said: "We are hoping our European colleagues will come out with a common position and will offer to share some of the grief. They've done it before." On Thursday Ford's British unions will meet Jac Nasser, head of the group's European operations, which lost a total of pounds 180m last year.

Mr Woodley will also discuss the cutbacks with Greg Knight, the Industry Minister, this week in the hope that the Government may agree to Ford's request for an estimated pounds 70m in state subsidies to guarantee Halewood's long-term future. The issue has become politically charged as the main parties campaign in the Wirral South by-election.

Yesterday Ford dismissed speculation that it was about to announce the closure of another British plant. Unions believe the Southampton factory, which makes Transit vans, may ultimately face the same fate as Halewood, though no final decisions have been taken by management.