Last week, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders announced that registrations in January were 23.6 per cent higher than a year earlier. However, while sales of light vehicles - weighing less than 3.5 tonnes - were up by 17.1 per cent, the 3.5 tonne-plus market was 64 per cent higher than in January 1994. Higher growth still was registered by the heaviest end of the market. Sales of trucks weighing more than 17 tonnes were up by 77 per cent.
This split has benefited foreign suppliers more than the British, because UK manufacturers have all but abandoned heavy truck production. Home-produced vehicles accounted for 59 per cent of the lighter sector, but only 39 per cent of the bigger trucks. Import penetration at the heaviest end, including "tractors" for articulated lorries, is the highest of all.
A few small British companies produce heavy trucks: ERF, Foden and Dennis sold 379 vehicles between them in January. Meanwhile, the foreign giants Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Scania sold 1,866 trucks over 3.5 tonnes. Volvo assembles vehicles in the UK but, with less than 50 per cent British content, they are classified as imports. The other two import everything.
The two market leaders, Iveco Ford and Leyland Daf, manufacture in the UK and on the Continent, but in each case their heavier models tend to be imports. Leyland Daf is now just a marketing operation for the Dutch and British companies that were rescued separately from receivership in 1993. Before the collapse, the Leyland factory in Lancashire was given responsibility for lighter vehicles, and it is only slowly moving back into the heavier end.
The better performance by heavy trucks is a reflection of the economy, experts say. "It's a sign it's an export-led boom," says Garel Rhys, motor industry professor at Cardiff Business School. "Heavy lorries are used to move goods to and from ports, while vans, which move consumer goods, are still jittery."
David Leggate, of the consultancy DRI/McGraw-Hill, says that hauliers, who tend to use heavy lorries, have been the first back in the market because they can make rapid investment decisions. Retail chains are more likely to move cautiously, he says.
The few UK manufacturers of heavy lorries have not found that the strong recovery has brought easy profits. While the British market started to recover in 1993, continental sales continued to fall through 1994. That encouraged European makers to compete aggressively in the UK.
Peter Foden, chairman of ERF, says: "There has been quite a lot of discounting."
"There is quite a battle going on at the top end of the market," Mr Leggate adds. "There have been very good deals for hauliers."
The strength of the commercial market overall reflects more than anything the sheer depth of the recession. Sales of trucks weighing more than 7.4 tonnes were 63,500 in 1989 - and 28,600 in 1992.
They climbed back to 41,500 last year, but experts believe it will be a very long time before they reach the heady levels of the late 1980s.Reuse content