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Ignore the motorheads telling us that we all need new cars

6 December 2017

3:07 PM

6 December 2017

3:07 PM

The motorheads are at it again. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), the UK auto manufacturers lobby group, lobbed another rusty torque wrench at the government this morning, announcing that UK new car registrations are down 11.2 per cent year-on-year. The decline is led by a collapse of nearly a third in sales of diesel-engined cars.

Inevitably, some blamed the fall on ‘uncertainty caused by Brexit’. The SMMT itself doesn’t take this tack: instead it points the finger at ‘months of confusion and speculation about the government’s air quality plans and its policies towards diesel cars’. Its suggested remedy is no surprise: ‘fleet renewal is the fastest way to improve air quality’, it says.

Yes, the auto lobby group tells us we should all be going out to buy new cars – perhaps a nice new diesel. Unlike their recent predecessors, which the manufacturers swore blind were environmentally friendly, but were, in truth, environmentally appalling, many of the current crop of diesels really are quite good. Thus, as we watch our current, unloved, diesel cars suffer untimely depreciation to dustball valuations in our driveways, the auto lobby’s advice is: cheer up mate, trust us – after all, we’re as honest as the day is long – do yourself a favour and go out and buy another brand new diesel car.

Ironically, the SMMT is correct – the newest, most efficient diesel cars are indeed unfairly maligned. But carmakers know far better than most businesses how PR disasters can kill sales stone dead – the debacle of the 1958 Ford Edsel launch is the classic business school case study in this genre. Internally, manufacturers must already have accepted it is already too late to resurrect diesel from consumer rebellion.

But, as I’ve pointed out before, there’s another very good reason for Brits to slow down on buying new cars: we’re full to the gills with them. In fact, equal only with much-richer Denmark, whose GDP per capita is nearly a third higher than the UK’s, we have the youngest vehicle fleet in Europe, at 8.5 years, versus the EU average of 10.7 years (car-obsessed Germany is at 8.9 years). Our cars live young, then they die young too: the average age of a UK car at the scrap heap is just 13.9 years. That’s younger than the average car age in almost all the former Soviet bloc EU countries. Even in Finland and Portugal, the average car is only about a year younger, at 12.7 and 12.6 years old, respectively.

The UK auto lobby and the Government both need to accept that Brits bought too many vehicles in the credit-fuelled lead-up to the Brexit referendum, when sterling was probably a little over-valued. Now it’s time for Finns and Portuguese to buy their share, and for Brits to make good and mend the perfectly serviceable vehicles most of us already own. And the auto lobby group’s rusty torque wrench should be returned to its owner.

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