Registration data, which was being collated last night, suggests that unless manufacturers dump thousands of cars on dealers at the last minute, around 475,000 new cars were sold last month, compared with 469,000 in August 1990. Manufacturers had predicted a much more buoyant August,with a forecast rise of around 5 per cent to 490,000.
The figures dash hopes that sales could surge through the 500,000 barrier for the first time since 1989. They also suggest the recent improvement in consumer confidence has not been sufficient to bring a sustained boost to the car market.
Ford had a particularly bad month with its share of the total market dropping to 18.5 per cent. Vauxhall's slice was just 13 per cent, with industry sources suggesting demand for the Vectra, the replacement for Cavalier, had not matched expectations. However, Rover's sales brought its share to around 10 per cent.
By far the biggest winner in August was Volkswagen, which registered 27,000 cars, grabbing 6 per cent of the entire market. VW has seen huge interest from private buyers in its Polo "super-mini".
Alan Pulham, from the National Franchised Dealers Association, said: "If you price a product right people will buy it and Volkswagen are definitely pricing their cars right.They've corrected the main problem they had, which was that their cars were perceived as being too expensive."
Yesterday industry analysts suggested the outcome was not as bad as it seemed, partly because August this year included one less selling day than last year. "It still gives us the second-biggest August ever. That takes us over 1988's total," Mr Pulham said.
Another factor was the lower number of so-called "pre-registrations". Manufacturers can inflate the statistics in the last few days of the month by registering cars to dealers, so they count as a "sale" in the data before they find a genuine buyer. On the penultimate day of August 1995, 45,000 cars were registered, 10 per cent of the month's total, though most had not probably been "bought".
"In a way it's a more rational August this year," said Jay Nagley, an expert on the car market with Marketing Systems. "The sales look more genuine this year. There's some evidence that Ford and Vauxhall have cut back on attempts to force the market and sales to rental companies are lower."