New car production was down by almost 30 percent in the UK last year, with coronavirus lockdowns and social distancing measures taking their toll. That’s according to figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), which betray the worst year for car manufacturing since the mid-1980s.

The SMMT data shows 920,928 new passenger cars were built on these shores in 2020, down 29.3 percent on the 2019 total of 1.3 million. It’s the lowest output the UK has seen since 1984, and it’s a result that’s blamed almost exclusively on the coronavirus pandemic.

When the first lockdown was announced in March, factories ground to a halt, and output was pretty much obliterated overnight. In April, just 197 new cars were built – a reduction of 99.7 percent compared with April 2019 – and it was a similar story in May. By June, however, factories were back up to around half their pre-coronavirus outputs.

First Range Rover built under social distancing

Since then, the sector has struggled to regain its pre-pandemic output levels, with further lockdowns, reduced demand and even on-site social distancing measures all impacting production. In December, production was down a mere 2.3 percent compared with the same month in 2019, but even such parity with the previous year’s figures could not repair a pretty depressing year for those in the industry.

But the SMMT says coronavirus wasn’t the only issue facing the sector last year. With the Brexit deal not ironed out until Christmas Eve, the organisation claims the “uncertainty” surrounding the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU “depressed market demand in key export destinations”. However, demand was down at home, too, with output for both domestic and export markets falling by around 30 percent.

“These figures, the worst in a generation, reflect the devastating impact of the pandemic on UK automotive production, with Covid lockdowns depressing demand, shuttering plants and threatening lives and livelihoods,” said the SMMT’s chief executive, Mike Hawes. “The industry faces 2021 with more optimism, however, with a vaccine being rolled out and clarity on how we trade with Europe, which remains by far our biggest market.

“The immediate challenge is to adapt to the new conditions, to overcome the additional customs burdens and regain our global competitiveness while delivering zero emission transport. We will continue to work with the government to attract investment in battery production and supply chain transformation as we transition to smart and sustainable mobility, supporting jobs and driving economic growth nationwide.”

Nissan LEAF production in Sunderland, UK