Facts and Figures : Britain’s best-selling cars (1965-1999)

Chris Cowin looks at how the Top 10 evolved over the last 35 years of the 20th century, a period which saw the motoring landscape change tremendously.

It’s inevitably a bit of a ‘data dump’ with each year itemised in figures at the end. However, a few observations warrant highlighting at the start.


Best-selling cars: The winners lined up

The 1100/1300 range topped the UK best-seller charts for many years. Unfortunately, for most of that time, the overall market was weak, so fewer were sold than once forecast. Advert shown from 1972

How you count them

There are some alternative rankings for the Top 10 models, especially in the earlier years of the series, which reflect how different approaches have been taken to ranges such as the Rootes Arrow (Minx, Hunter etc.) and the small Triumph saloons of the 1970s, while some lists combine Ford Orion with Ford Escort and so on. Sales figures for the outgoing Farina range (Morris Oxford etc.) were lumped together with the Austin Maxi while the two overlapped. But there’s little dispute over what the big sellers were down the years.

Strong seller, weak market

The BMC 1100/1300 (ADO16) was typically treated as a single model despite its many badge-engineered variants, and it held the top place on the podium every year except one between 1964 and 1971. However, that doesn’t mean it was quite the sales success once hoped for, as those years coincided with a period when the British market was depressed, as seen on the chart below. So, even being Number One couldn’t shield the ADO16 from patches of weak demand (late 1966 especially) which explains a lot of the problems of BMC in the 1960s. The company had planned on building many more of both ADO16 and Mini.

It’s often not realised that, although there were some great parties in Britain in the 1960s, few people could afford a new car, with obstacles put in the way of obtaining loan finance being a major reason. New car registrations in 1969 were the lowest since the start of the decade and half the West German level. That decade of zero growth confounded expectations, and translated into poor profitability across the industry, explaining a lot of the woes of British Leyland, and the troubled climate that surrounded its formation in 1968.

Back in 1960, BMC was certainly looking forward to a decade of rapid market growth, as the company developed the front-drive range and planned the capacity to build them in huge numbers. And who can blame the company when new car sales mushroomed from around 400,000 cars in 1955 to 800,000 in 1960 and then 1.2 million in 1964?

When that growth of its home market was reversed after 1964 (in stark contrast to the experience of continental rivals) BMC was in trouble. The history (of BMC and of the British motor industry) would be very different if the home market had continued to expand towards two million cars by 1970 and BMC had supplied around half of them – which is broadly what boss Leonard Lord anticipated in 1960. Exporting proved more difficult than anticipated as well, at least until 1968, which twisted the knife.

A rollercoaster ride… UK new car market and Top 10 evolution 1965-1999. The long-term growth of the UK market for new cars has been marked with periods of boom and bust. As seen, sales were depressed during the 1960s which explains a lot. The Top 10 models (green area) accounted for a decreasing share of the total market as time passed. (Data: SMMT)

Metro modesty

The Austin/MG Metro was never Britain’s best-selling car for a calendar year, although it was in some individual months such as February 1983. But monthly figures are liable to distortions from sales campaigns, the impact of strikes and so on, while in some months (like July when the registration letter changed in August) very few cars were sold.

So, monthly figures need to be treated with caution. There’s recently been quite a few posts on social media referring to the Metro as Britain’s ‘best-selling car’. That claim doesn’t really hold true. Nor does it hold true for the Mini in any of the 35 years discussed here, although one can claim the Mini is the highest selling British model of all time, as a consequence of its 40-year-plus lifespan.

Important to read the small print – the Metro was Britain’s best-selling car in some individual months, like February 1983 (celebrated here), but never for a full calendar year.

Ford’s strength. Vauxhall’s resurgence

Ford overtook the supposed ‘national champion’ of British Leyland as early as 1977, despite having a much more streamlined range, and remained the biggest brand on the British market through to the end of the century. Vauxhall, until the 1980s, was a weak player on the British market, and trailing Ford, in contrast to almost every other market where GM and Ford competed worldwide.

In 1974, when Vauxhall fielded only two core models (HB Viva and FE Victor) despite a galaxy of versions and names, Vauxhall managed only 7.4% market share. But the shift to a pan-European range of essentially Opel-derived cars lifted that figure to over 16% in 1984, hot on the heels of BL, which had been four times bigger in terms of UK sales a decade earlier. The ‘turf war’ that developed between Ford and Vauxhall in the 1980s, marked with heavy discounting, was a major reason BL’s cars (known as Austin Rover in that period) couldn’t build themselves out of trouble and loss.

Market leader… By the late 1970s Ford had gained dominance of the UK market, and would retain it until the end of the century – with Vauxhall also overtaking BL (by that time known as Rover) in 1989. The Ford Cortina became Britain’s best-selling car in 1972 and retained the title until 1982 (when the Escort became the best seller). Advert shown from 1976 (Cortina Mk4)

Fragmentation takes its toll

The Top 10 group progressively accounted for a smaller percentage of the market, as car sales became more fragmented over time. 65% of new cars sold were from the Top 10 in the late 1960s but, by 1999, that had declined to 35%. So, even though the total market broadly doubled over that period, the volumes enjoyed by the top sellers did not, as seen in green on the graph above. Gone were the days when just one car could claim 14.5% of the total market, as BMC’s 1100 could in 1966. And a company largely dependent on the UK market (as Austin Rover was in the early 1980s) was therefore not guaranteed the sales volumes they needed to be viable, even when three of its cars were in the British Top 10.

Austin Rover (later Rover) could only survive if exports increased to balance the loss of domestic volume. And though they did for a period, with Rover’s car exports exceeding home sales in the late 1990s, the subsequent sharp rise in the pound put paid to that after 1998 – and the rest is history (something investigated in the recent AROnline article UK automotive’s dysfunctional relationship with sterling).

Two-way trade

The rapid rise in imports seen during the 1970s was driven just as much by ‘tied imports’ from Ford, Vauxhall and Chrysler/Talbot as it was by a switch to ‘traditional’ imports. In an ideal world, a free-trading country would be able to balance increased imports with increased exports, but in the 1970s the opposite occurred as those multinationals reduced their exports from Britain while British Leyland was increasingly squeezed on the world stage.

As a consequence the trade surplus on cars the UK enjoyed until 1973 became a huge deficit and a serious drain on the economy which caused the Government great concern. However, as shown on the chart below in red, UK car exports staged a remarkable comeback and by 2016 were five times greater than in the early Eighties, breaking new records.

Export boom – UK car exports (in red) were five times higher in 2016 than the early Eighties, helping to balance Britain’s high imports of cars and supporting a revival in production (black line). 2023 and 2024 have seen a recovery in both exports and production from the 2022 trough shown here. Data from SMMT

Deficit fixed

The dreadful 1980s trade deficit on cars was eliminated completely in 2012, and subsequent years have mostly seen only a mild deficit, with the value of exports coming close to matching imports  – something not always appreciated when one observes the high number of imports on Britain’s roads. That trade deficit was very small in 2017 and 2018, while 2021 saw the UK post a trade surplus on cars (though it was an unusual year due to COVID-19). So, reports of the death of Britain’s car industry can be exaggerated.

It’s foreign-owned now, of course, (as three of the ‘Big Four’ were 50 years ago) but it still delivers most of the economic benefits one would expect from hosting a car manufacturing industry, not being the mere ‘assembly’ industry some detractors believe. That’s something underlined well in Keith Adams’ recent article on the Sunderland built, Cranfield-designed, British-engined Nissan Qashqai.

British badged

Most cars in the Top 10 were British badged right through to 1999, even though imports approached 60% of the total market by then. An obviously foreign car doesn’t appear in the Top 10 until the Datsun Sunny in 1977, and nothing from Volkswagen features in the twentieth century until the Golf just squeezes into 1999 at number nine. But of course many British-badged cars were themselves imports, starting with the Ford Granada Ghia way back in 1974 and, by the 1990s, included many top sellers like the Vauxhall Corsa.

There was some despair in Government circles during the 1980s when efforts to shore up the national trade balance through underwriting the production of the Metro at Longbridge were cancelled out by Ford’s decision to source most Fiestas from Spain, followed by Vauxhall with the Nova. And the average UK content of a Vauxhall car sold in the UK in 1985 was only 22%, reflecting how the Cavalier and Astra then being assembled in Britain relied on a lot of imported components while many Vauxhalls were imported complete.

A lifetime in cars

It’s a bit dull isn’t it? One likes to remember distant decades gone by as ones where people headed for the open road in their Daimler Dart or Gordon-Keeble GK1. But in fact most cars sold excite little passion, either then or now. That’s especially the case in the 1990s when Fiesta/Escort/Mondeo and Corsa/Astra/Vectra dominated, year after year.

A lot of that reflects the importance of fleet sales on the UK market of course. However, even in the late Sixties, when Monty Python aired a sketch about counting Vauxhall Vivas on the Leicester by-pass, some with the optional chrome strip, most cars sold were a trifle mundane.

The UK car market has grown during the last 50 or 60 years, although the Top 10 really hasn’t as a result of increased market fragmentation. But the market volatility which makes that long-term growth trend look rather like a rollercoaster can lead to some surprises: UK new car registrations in 2022 were slightly less than 50 years earlier in 1972. And they’re currently running at around the same level as the late 1980s.

Following (after the picture of the Austin Allegro) is a year by year look at the Top 10 for the period 1965-1999.

Launch of the Austin Allegro in 1973. The answer to the question proved to be ‘No’. The Allegro never did better than fifth, confounding  predictions by Austin Morris boss George Turnbull that it would take up to 10% of total UK sales (implying the top spot or close – with the Allegro expected to be almost the ‘national car’ as the BMC 1100/1300 had been)

The years rush by…

1965
After the pre-Election boom of 1964, which saw record sales of almost 1.2 million new cars, the market contracted – and it would stay around the one million mark right through to 1970. Growth had stalled. So, although BMC’s 1100/1300 remained top of the charts for almost all that time, its UK sales never surpassed the 1965 number. Imports were restrained by Britain’s highly protectionist tariffs which, though lower than the 1950s (33%), were still over 20% during the 1960s.

1965 UK Market: 1,098,887.
Imports: 5.1%, BL ancestors*: 44.5%, Ford: 26.3%.

  1. 157,679: BMC 1100
  2. 116,985: Ford Cortina
  3. 104,477: BMC Mini
  4. 84,589: Ford Anglia
  5. 60,854: Vauxhall Victor
  6. 58,884: Vauxhall Viva
  7. 52,503: BMC Farina
  8. 46,626: Triumph Herald
  9. 44,463: Ford Corsair
  10. 42,663: Rootes Imp range

1966
After a strong start, the euphoria of England’s football World Cup victory was followed by an economic squeeze in which tight credit controls and a rise in Purchase Tax led car sales to plummet. Huge problems of excess stock troubled BMC in the autumn (September registrations were 35% below September 1965). The Mini, which had once accounted for 15% of UK sales, was beginning to lose its lustre, with no significant update since 1959.

1966 UK Market: 1,047,522.
Imports: 6.4%, BL ancestors*: 45.2%, Ford: 25%.

  1. 151,946: BMC 1100
  2. 127,307: Ford Cortina
  3. 91,624: BMC Mini
  4. 68,209: Ford Anglia
  5. 59,731: Vauxhall Viva
  6. 48,077: BMC Farina
  7. 46,537: Vauxhall Victor
  8. 38,870: Rootes Imp range
  9. 38,412: Ford Corsair
  10. 38,076: Triumph Herald

Ford Cortina 1600E

1967
The appealing Ford Cortina Mk2 stole the Number One crown from the BMC 1100/1300 which was looking dated until Mk2 models appeared in the autumn, the same being true for the Mini. It was a recession year in which Ford of Britain only broke even, while BMC posted their first ever loss (for fiscal 1966/67).

1967 UK Market: 1,110,266, with the Top 10 accounting for 64.7%.
Imports: 8.3%, BL ancestors*: 40.7%, Ford: 25.2%.

  1. 165,300: Ford Cortina
  2. 131,382:  BMC 1100/1300
  3. 100,220: Vauxhall Viva
  4. 82,436: BMC Mini
  5. 55,735: Ford Anglia
  6. 39,903: Rootes Minx
  7. 38,517: Vauxhall Victor
  8. 35,993: Ford Corsair
  9. 34,565: BMC Minor
  10. 34,498: BMC Farina

1968
Yet another year of zero growth for UK car sales, which contrasted with rapid expansion on the continent. However, the devaluation of the pound in November 1967 allowed BMC to boost exports and thus production of both 1100/1300 and Mini, and return to profit. Contrary to popular belief, money could be made from building those cars, but only when production volumes were extremely strong. Their breakeven was high. British Leyland came into being in May, uniting BMH (including BMC and Jaguar Cars) with Leyland Motor Corp. (including Triumph and Rover cars).

1968 UK Market: 1,103862, with the Top 10 accounting for 66.8%.
Imports: 8.3%. BL: 40.6%, Ford: 27.2%.

  1. 151,146: BMC 1100/1300
  2. 137,873: Ford Cortina
  3. 101,067: Vauxhall Viva
  4. 98,218: Ford Escort
  5. 86,190: BMC Mini
  6. 36,999: Rootes Minx
  7. 34,772: Vauxhall Victor
  8. 31,014: Ford Corsair
  9. 30,284: BMC Farina
  10. 29,926: Triumph Herald

1969
Another weak year for UK car sales (under one million) as the Government maintained a credit squeeze. Britain’s chronic balance of payments problems were the main reason. Restraining home demand both reduced imports (of all consumer goods) but also, it was hoped, spurred firms to export more. During 1969 this appeared to be working with British car exports hitting an all-time record (not surpassed until the 1990s as seen on the graph above).

1969 UK Market: 965,410, with the Top 10 accounting for 65.8%.
Imports: 10.4%. BL: 40.2%, Ford: 23.9%.

  1. 133,455: BL 1100/1300
  2. 116,186: Ford Cortina
  3. 85,156: Ford Escort
  4. 75,354: Vauxhall Viva
  5. 68,330: BL Mini
  6. 36,094: Chrysler Minx
  7. 31,014: Chrysler Imp range
  8. 30,784: BL Farina/Maxi
  9. 29,005: Ford Corsair
  10. 28,688: Vauxhall Victor

BMC 1100/1300

1970
Demand still flat as the Labour Government avoided the temptation of a pre-Election boom (and lost). Some interesting new entrants with Ford’s wildly successful Capri beating British Leyland’s Austin Maxi – which wasn’t quite the plan when Maxi was conceived as the nation’s go-to family car. Both were launched in 1969.

The Rover 2000/3500 squeezes into the Top 10 at ten – a rare showing for a premium car. Ford suffered some disastrous strikes in 1970 and 1971, without which the Cortina could have replaced the 1100/1300 at Number One in both years. Such strikes help explain why British plants were not favoured when Ford (and GM and Chrysler) planned the supply of continental markets in the 1970s (Ford UK effectively ceased exports to Europe in 1974).

1970 UK Market: 1,076,865, with the Top 10 accounting for 64.3%.
Imports: 14.3%. BL: 38.1%, Ford: 26.5%, Vauxhall: 10%.

  1. 132,965: BL 1100/1300
  2. 123,025: Ford Cortina
  3. 95,782: Ford Escort
  4. 80,740: BL Mini
  5. 76,838: Vauxhall Viva
  6. 50,133: Chrysler Avenger
  7. 38,346: Ford Capri
  8. 36,752: BL Farina/Maxi
  9. 32,927: BL 1800
  10. 25,233: BL Rover P6

1971
Famine begins to turn to feast for car dealers, with the Edward Heath-led Conservative Government cutting credit controls and reducing Purchase Tax to 30% (from 36.3%) mid-year, fuelling a surge in sales. Import tariffs, which had been 25% in 1968, were also being reduced by all major economies as part of the GATT process and that helps explain a surge in imports to almost a fifth of the market, at this point almost all being ‘traditional’ imports from Europe such as Renault and Fiat. This was prior to EEC entry (in January 1973). British Leyland appear the dominant ‘national champion’ with 40% market share – never to be seen again.

1971 UK Market: 1,285,661, with the Top 10 accounting for 58.8%.
Imports: 19.3%. BL: 40.2%, Ford: 18.7%; Vauxhall: 10.7%.

  1. 133,527: BL 1100/1300
  2. 103,180: BL Mini
  3. 102,214: Ford Cortina
  4. 99,393: Vauxhall Viva
  5. 89,143: Ford Escort
  6. 63,476: Chrysler Avenger
  7. 42,867: BL Farina/Maxi
  8. 41,996: Chrysler Hunter
  9. 41,164: BL Marina
  10. 39,163: BL 1800

Ford Cortina Mk3

1972
Things get a little crazy as the ‘Barber boom’ (named after the Chancellor) sees further reductions in Purchase Tax and income tax, sending car sales rocketing to over 1.6 million units. This was later judged an overdose of stimulus, with British factories, which were plagued with strikes during 1972, simply unable to meet demand.

Long waiting lists developed and importers made huge gains, notably Datsun. While Ford now took the two top spots the Morris Marina (launched in April 1971) sold well in a sellers’ market, and was hailed as a commercial masterstroke by the business press. However, British Leyland, despite cutting back on exports (damagingly for the long term), couldn’t meet demand – and saw its overall market share plunge from 40% to 33% in a year.

1972 UK Market: 1,637,775, with the Top 10 accounting for 58%.
Imports: 23.5%. BL: 33.1%, Ford: 24.5%, Vauxhall: 8.9%.

  1. 187,159: Ford Cortina
  2. 140,837: Ford Escort
  3. 104,986: BL Marina
  4. 102,449: BL 1100/1300
  5. 99,393: Vauxhall Viva
  6. 96,314: BL Mini
  7. 78,729: Chrysler Avenger
  8. 53,984: BL Maxi
  9. 50,342: Chrysler Hunter
  10. 36,651: Vauxhall Victor

1973
The boom-time conditions of 1972 continued into 1973 although by the summer the Government accepted the economy (and car market) was over-heating, and started raising interest rates which were 11.5% by July – which helped trigger a property crash. So, although registrations for the year were slightly higher than in 1972, they were flagging by the autumn. Even more so after war in the Middle East sparked a jump in fuel prices in October, and tipped the economy into a sudden, sharp recession.

It was not an auspicious time for British Leyland to launch (in May) the Austin Allegro, which was expected to sell in comparable numbers to the 1100/1300. It never did. That old stager still managed 60,000 UK sales in 1973 despite its age and the disappearance of the Morris versions – a figure the new Allegro would barely exceed in any year (29,000 were sold in the second half of 1973, then approx. 60,000 annually through to 1979). The Marina had another strong year, beating Escort to become Number Two.

1973 UK Market: 1,661,639, with the Top 10 accounting for 55.3%.
Imports: 27.4%. BL: 31.9%, Ford: 22.6%, Vauxhall: 8%.

  1. 181,607: Ford Cortina
  2. 115,041: BL Marina
  3. 114,296:  Ford Escort
  4. 97,893: Vauxhall Viva
  5. 96,383: BL Mini
  6. 78,644: Chrysler Avenger
  7. 65,500: Chrysler Hunter
  8. 59,198: BL 1100/1300
  9. 52,853: BL Maxi
  10. 36,072: BL Triumph Toledo/Dolomite

1974
A dreadful year for the car trade as recession sees sales fall back, but importers hang on to the market share gains they made in the boom. The Mini, which had been slipping down the charts, rises back to Number Three as fuel economy becomes a priority. British Leyland endured crisis after crisis including the Three-Day Week in January and February and a myriad of strikes including a month-long stoppage at Triumph.

In December, Industry Secretary Tony Benn announced the Government would come to their rescue (as the commercial banks would not). The Labour Party (which won both the General Elections held in 1974) was committed to extending state ownership of industry, and British Leyland’s troubles made it an ideal candidate for application of this policy.

1974 UK Market: 1,268,655, with the Top 10 accounting for 51.9%.
Imports: 27.9%. BL: 32.7%, Ford: 22.7%, Vauxhall: 7.3%.

  1. 131,234: Ford Cortina
  2. 91,699: Ford Escort
  3. 89,686: BL Mini
  4. 81,439: BL Marina
  5. 71,852 Vauxhall Viva
  6. 60,619: BL Allegro
  7. 60,224: Chrysler Avenger
  8. 45,008: BL Triumph Toledo/Dolomite
  9. 37,158: Chrysler Hunter
  10. 36,072: BL Maxi

1975
Another year of recession although things brightened towards the end. The N reg year (August 1974 – July 1975) was especially depressed, which explains why N reg cars are less common on the old car scene than K, L or M reg. Ford’s Cortina and Escort cemented their hold on the Number One and Two spots and Ford was taken as an example to follow (perhaps misguidedly) by the Ryder Plan published in April which set out a vision for British Leyland going forward, now that the Government was becoming the majority (95%) shareholder. Technically, this was not nationalisation. Imports took a third of the market, many from Japan, as well as Britain’s new EEC partners (though tariffs on imports from the EEC were not fully abolished until 1978).

1975 UK Market: 1,194,115, with the Top 10 accounting for 48.9%.
Imports: 33.2%. BL: 30.9%, Ford: 21.7%, Vauxhall: 7.4%.

  1. 106,787: Ford Cortina
  2. 103,817: Ford Escort
  3. 84,688: BL Mini
  4. 78,632: BL Marina
  5. 63,339: BL Allegro
  6. 54,792: Vauxhall Viva
  7. 38,877: Chrysler Avenger
  8. 30,119: BL Triumph Toledo/Dolomite
  9. 29,067: BL Princess
  10. 28,966: Chrysler Hunter

1976
Things look up a bit for UK car sales, although British Leyland’s share slipped worryingly below the 33% prescribed by the Ryder Plan, and would continue to do so. The import figures begin to be swelled by ‘tied imports’ such as the Vauxhall Cavalier which was initially imported built-up from Belgium. Such ‘tied imports’ would account for 30% of UK sales by 1980.

Meanwhile, UK car production is almost in freefall as Chrysler, Ford and Vauxhall cut back on exporting from Britain while substituting imports for UK production. It fell by a million units (or about half) between 1972 and 1982, as seen on the graph above. The economic crisis (involving the calling in of the IMF) had a silver lining as a very weak pound resulted in windfall profits on exports, making British Leyland appear profitable despite all its troubles.

1976 UK Market: 1,285,583, with the Top 10 accounting for 49.1%.
Imports: 37.9%. BL: 28.2%, Ford: 25.2%, Vauxhall: 8.9%.

  1. 126,238: Ford Cortina
  2. 124,166: Ford Escort
  3. 81,107: BL Mini
  4. 71,288: BL Marina
  5. 55,218: BL Allegro
  6. 43,827: Vauxhall Chevette
  7. 33,901:  Vauxhall Viva
  8. 33,476: BL Maxi
  9. 31,702: BL Princess
  10. 31,445:  Chrysler Avenger

1977
First appearance in the Top 10 for the Ford Fiesta (launched in the UK during 1977) which would become a regular bestseller. The Datsun Sunny’s appearance underlines Datsun’s role as the leading Japanese importer, but with Japanese imports reaching 11% of the UK market their manufacturers though it prudent to enter into the ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ which limited the market share of Japanese cars at that level.

They feared the Unions would otherwise persuade the Government to impose stricter import controls. This voluntary restraint was adhered to right through to 1987 when Nissan Bluebirds coming off the Sunderland line achieved enough UK content to no longer be classed as Japanese cars for trade purposes.

1977 UK Market: 1,323,524, with the Top 10 accounting for 46.7%.
Imports: 45.4%. BL: 24.3%, Ford: 25.7%, Vauxhall: 9.1%.

  1. 120,601: Ford Cortina
  2. 103,389: Ford Escort
  3. 66,088: BL Marina
  4. 60,337: BL Mini
  5. 56,175: BL Allegro
  6. 51,763: Vauxhall Chevette
  7. 42,816: Ford Capri
  8. 41,128: Vauxhall Cavalier
  9. 40,934: Ford Fiesta
  10. 35,257: Datsun Sunny

1978
A recovering economy sees new car sales approach the peaks of 1972 and 1973. British Leyland remains in the doldrums with the Allegro at the heart of the range never doing better than Number Five in the Top 10, and with Allegro exports disappointing as well, so that total production (1973-82) was less than a third of its ADO16 predecessor, which wasn’t the plan.

Reflecting that, British Leyland only managed 23.5% of the UK market – 10% below the level prescribed by Ryder – whose plan was now formally abandoned as the company restructured under new boss Michael Edwardes. The Ford Granada (Mk2) at Number Nine was German built.

1978 UK Market: 1,591,941, with the Top 10 accounting for 45.4%.
Imports: 49.3%. BL: 23.5%, Ford: 24.7%, Vauxhall: 8.2%.

  1. 139,204: Ford Cortina
  2. 114,415: Ford Escort
  3. 82,368: BL Marina
  4. 72,617: BL Mini
  5. 68,725: Ford Fiesta
  6. 61,535: BL Allegro
  7. 55,373: Vauxhall Cavalier
  8. 52,237: Vauxhall Chevette
  9. 38,099: Ford Granada
  10. 37,928: Datsun Sunny

1979
The year started with the industrial strife of the Winter of Discontent including a major dispute at Ford. However, unlike previous years, Ford was able to bring in cars from the continent which allowed the company to hold on to the top spots while imports swelled again as a consequence. Total registrations for 1979 now surpassed the previous (1973) peak but poor old British Leyland was suffering from a lack of new models and continued industrial disputes with the infamous ‘Red Robbo‘ dispute being just one.

That dispute was essentially over the implementation of the radical ‘Recovery Plan’ British Leyland (now officially renamed ‘BL’) was forced into by losses stemming from sterling’s new oil-fuelled strength and shrinking UK market share. The Allegro received a worthwhile update (Allegro 3) which helped keep it in the Top 10 for a little longer.

1979 UK Market: 1,716,275, with the Top 10 accounting for 45.5%.
Imports: 56.3%. BL: 19.6%, Ford: 28.3%, Vauxhall: 8.2%.

  1. 192,184: Ford Cortina
  2. 131,667: Ford Escort
  3. 82,938: BL Mini
  4. 62,140: BL Marina
  5. 59,985: BL Allegro
  6. 58,681: Ford Fiesta
  7. 52,089: Ford Granada
  8. 49,147: Ford Capri
  9. 46,517: Vauxhall Cavalier
  10. 44,197: Vauxhall Chevette

Ford Cortina 80

1980
The market expansion of recent years goes into reverse as the recession that marked the early years of the Thatcher Government elected in May 1979 begins to bite. Unemployment was going up, as were interest rates. The refreshed Cortina (marketed as ‘Cortina ’80 rather than ‘Mk5’) held on to Number One. The 20-year-old Mini did well to achieve fourth place in the sales rankings but BL’s fate hinged on its successor (though not replacement) the Austin Metro, launched in October.

Serious thought was being given in Government to dismembering BL which was an (expensive) ‘ward of the state’ during this period. However, after the Metro received a rapturous welcome, Thatcher’s ministers gritted their teeth (Keith Joseph was especially reluctant) and agreed to a further billion pounds of funding in early 1981. The strong pound continued to massacre exports and was a major influence on BL giving up on the MG and Triumph sports cars in this period, although Jaguar’s heavy losses were tolerated with a view to the long term.

1980 UK Market: 1,513,761, with the Top 10 accounting for 47.1%.
BL: 18.2%, Ford: 30.7%, Vauxhall: 8.8%.

  1. 190,281: Ford Cortina
  2. 122,357: Ford Escort
  3. 91,661: Ford Fiesta
  4. 61,129: BL Mini
  5. 59,906: BL Morris Marina/Ital
  6. 46,059: Vauxhall Chevette
  7. 41,119: Vauxhall Cavalier
  8. 39,612: BL Allegro
  9. 31,197: Ford Capri
  10. 30,958: Renault 18

1981
In its first full year the Austin Metro almost displaces Fiesta and is largely responsible for a rise in BL market share to 19.2%, one percent higher than 1980. That hadn’t happened for many years and it allowed BL to sell slightly (8,500) more cars in Britain despite a market that shrank in what was the trough of the recession.

But 285,000 cars was not a lot of cars by international standards and, with exports only adding another 130,000 or so, BL had become a minor player compared to the continental ‘national champions’ it once compared itself to such as Fiat, Renault or Volkswagen. That suggested the Maestro and Montego then under development would struggle to achieve the volumes expected, and earn a decent return. But nobody was quite ready to say that at the time in public. You could still buy an Allegro (into 1983), but a diminishing number of people did.

1981 UK Market: 1,484,713, with the Top 10 accounting for 49.4%.
BL: 19.2%, Ford: 30.9%, Vauxhall: 8.6%.

  1. 159,804:  Ford Cortina
  2. 141,081: Ford Escort
  3. 110,753: Ford Fiesta
  4. 110,283: BL Austin Metro
  5. 48,490: BL Morris Ital
  6. 36,838: Vauxhall Chevette
  7. 33,631: Vauxhall Cavalier
  8. 32,874: Datsun Cherry
  9. 30,854: Vauxhall Astra
  10. 28,772: BL Mini

1982
Things start to look up as the economy turns the corner, helped some say by a lifting of the national mood following victory in the Falklands. Certainly the ‘Y reg’ year beginning in August 1982 was stronger than for a while, John Shuttleworth’s Austin Ambassador being just one of many new cars that found buyers. As with the aftermath of previous recessions, there was an element of pent-up demand – people who had put off buying a new car couldn’t put it off any longer.

BL’s Honda-derived Triumph Acclaim in its first full year entered the Top 10 at Number Seven. Its high UK content ensured it could be sold outside the 11% quota that still applied to Japanese cars (and be exported restriction free to the EEC). If that had not been the case, the project would have made no sense. The Dutch-built Volvo 300 – hugely popular with retail buyers of a certain age – makes the first of several appearances in the Top 10.

1982 UK Market: 1,555,027, with the Top 10 accounting for 51.7%.
BL: 17.8%, Ford: 30.5%, Vauxhall: 11.7%.

  1. 166,942: Ford Escort
  2. 135,745: Ford Cortina
  3. 114,550: Austin/MG Metro
  4. 110,165: Ford Fiesta
  5. 100,081: Vauxhall Cavalier
  6. 46,412: Vauxhall Astra
  7. 42,188: Triumph Acclaim
  8. 30,412: Volvo 300
  9. 28,744: Datsun Sunny
  10. 28,590: Ford Granada

1983
A record-breaking year for the car trade as a strengthening economy sees sales surge past the previous (1979) peak, representing a 15% rise over 1982. All part of the ‘feel-good factor’ whipped up to help the Conservatives’ win the June election. The new ‘A reg’ registration prefix helped spur demand with August seeing unprecedented demand at dealers. Vauxhall’s front-drive Cavalier was selling like hotcakes and pushing Vauxhall market share well into double figures.

The new Austin/MG Maestro launched in March appeared to have got off to a strong start, despite a month-long strike at Cowley in the spring. BL returned (it turned out briefly) to profitability at the trading level with boss Harold Musgrove talking of the ‘management of success’ though the brewing discount war would soon make things difficult. With the Maestro replacing the Allegro and Maxi, which were dead in the water by 1983, and Metro performing strongly, BL increased market share to 18.6% from 1982’s 17.8%.

1983 UK Market: 1,791,699, with the Top 10 accounting for 53.4%.
BL: 18.6%, Ford: 28.9%, Vauxhall: 14.6%.

  1. 174,190: Ford Escort
  2. 159,119: Ford Sierra
  3. 137,302: Austin/MG Metro
  4. 127,509: Vauxhall Cavalier
  5. 119,602: Ford Fiesta
  6. 65,328: Austin/MG Maestro
  7. 62,570: Vauxhall Astra
  8. 38,406: Triumph Acclaim
  9. 36,781: Datsun Sunny
  10. 36,753: Volvo 300

1984
A slight softening of demand but still the second strongest year on record so far, to be followed by a run of years where car sales grew strongly through to 1989 as Margaret Thatcher’s Great Car Economy took hold. The Ford Escort was again market leader and would hold that position through to the end of the decade, even though the notchback Orion version was counted separately. (Conversely, Sierra Sapphire saloon sales figures were lumped together with the Sierra hatch – both being Sierras).

The high level of imports and poor export performance of the UK industry was driving the Government to despair over the associated balance of payments deficit – which a booming car market seemed set to increase. However, in November the foundation stone for Nissan’s Sunderland plant was laid. In years to come, it would play a major part in correcting that deficit.

1984 UK Market: 1,749,647with the Top 10 accounting for 53%.
BL: 17.8%, Ford: 27.8%, Vauxhall: 16.1%.

  1. 157,340: Ford Escort
  2. 132,149: Vauxhall Cavalier
  3. 125,851: Ford Fiesta
  4. 117,442: Austin/MG Metro
  5. 113,071: Ford Sierra
  6. 83,072: Austin/MG Maestro
  7. 56,511: Vauxhall Astra
  8. 55,442: Vauxhall Nova
  9. 51,026: Ford Orion
  10. 35,034:  Volvo 300

1985
The car market was booming but fierce discounting ensured profits were thin, especially for BL which returned to loss-making territory. The Montego (in its first full year) and Maestro consistently undershot their Ford and Vauxhall equivalents in the sales rankings, which hadn’t been the plan. And unlike the products of those multinational rivals, their sales were largely confined to the UK, so production volumes weren’t really economic for supposed volume cars.

At this stage the Labour Party and Unions still advocated a protectionist approach of import controls to ‘draw an El Alamein line around the motor industry’. But the Conservative Government favoured seduction of inward investment by international firms that could exploit Britain’s tariff-free access to the EEC to boost UK production – and, in time, that is what happened.

1985 UK Market: 1,832,408, with the Top 10 accounting for 53%.
BL: 17.9%, Ford: 26.5%, Vauxhall: 16.6%.

  1. 157,269: Ford Escort
  2. 134,335: Vauxhall Cavalier
  3. 124,143: Ford Fiesta
  4. 118,817: Austin/MG Metro
  5. 101,642: Ford Sierra
  6. 76,553 Vauxhall Astra
  7. 73,955: Austin/MG Montego
  8. 65,363: Ford Orion
  9. 61,358: Vauxhall Nova
  10. 57,527: Austin/MG Maestro

1986
Another record year with Ford again dominant. The M25 was now complete, incomes and car ownership were on the rise, although Britain’s high unemployment figures only now started falling from a peak of over 3 million. It was a year of major upheaval at BL which came within a whisker of being sold to the Americans.

Ford wanted the Austin Rover cars operation, GM wanted Leyland Trucks and Land Rover. When that fell through, new management was installed under Graham Day which set out a new strategy involving greater reliance on the partnership with Honda. BL was renamed the Rover Group although the car manufacturing division continued to be known as Austin Rover until 1989.

1986 UK Market: 1,882,500, with the Top 10 accounting for 46.4%.
Rover: 15.8%, Ford: 27.4%, Vauxhall: 15.1%.

  1. 156,895: Ford Escort
  2. 143,712: Ford Fiesta
  3. 113,861: Ford Sierra
  4. 113,475: Vauxhall Cavalier
  5. 109,351: Austin/MG Metro
  6. 80,067: Vauxhall Astra
  7. 62,658: Austin/MG Montego
  8. 55,255: Ford Orion
  9. 51,465: Austin/MG Maestro

1987
The market powered on upwards breaking the two million barrier for the first time. That was double the average size of the market during 1965-1970, and it’s also higher than the figure for 2023 (1,903,054). So, car dealers were rubbing their hands. But Rover saw market share slump with the Metro showing its age and Maestro dropping out of the Top 10 altogether.

On the plus side the Longbridge-built Rover 200 was proving popular. Introduced in 1984, the 1986 revisions had boosted interest and Rover was now also building the Honda Ballade version on behalf of Honda. (The company also briefly assembled Honda Legends at Cowley during 1986-88). The Peugeot 205 squeezes into the Top 10 – only the second time a French-built car has done so. Yuppies in west London loved the 205 GTI. At mid-year Mini, Metro, Maestro and Montego lose their Austin branding (in the UK).

1987 UK Market: 2,013,693, with the Top 10 accounting for 49.2%.
Imports: 51.7%. Rover: 14.9%, Ford: 28.8%, Vauxhall: 13.5%.

  1. 178,001: Ford Escort
  2. 153,453: Ford Fiesta
  3. 139,878: Ford Sierra
  4. 108,223: Metro
  5. 98,490: Vauxhall Cavalier
  6. 88,637: Vauxhall Astra
  7. 69,962: Ford Orion
  8. 56,238: Montego
  9. 50,254: Rover 200
  10. 49,127: Peugeot 205

1988
It was boom time in Britain – at least for some – with the economy growing fast and Chancellor Nigel Lawson cutting taxes while anybody owning property was seeing it jump in value. Another record car market which added 200,000 units to the 1987 figure and allowed even old stagers like the Metro to record a rise in volume. But fragmentation of the market resulted in the best-selling car (Escort) selling in only the same numbers as 1967’s best-selling car (Cortina) despite the overall market having more than doubled in size. The Montego got a boost from the arrival of diesel versions.

1988 UK Market: 2,215,574, with the Top 10 accounting for 46.9%.
Imports: 56.4%. Rover: 15%, Ford: 26.4%, Vauxhall: 13.7%.

  1. 172,706: Ford Escort
  2. 162,684: Ford Sierra
  3. 144,991: Ford Fiesta
  4. 116,811: Metro
  5. 98,086: Vauxhall Astra
  6. 96,642: Vauxhall Cavalier
  7. 67,713: Ford Orion
  8. 63,649: Montego
  9. 58,890: Rover 200
  10. 56,937: Vauxhall Nova

1989
Another record-breaking year, but there were fears of over-heating with inflation on the rise. The ‘Roverisation’ of what had once been BL continued with the widely acclaimed Rover 200 hatchback launched late in the year pushing the Maestro into the shadows. The figure below for ninth place combines old and new Rover 200, but in the following year the new model would reach Number Seven. Otherwise, Ford and Vauxhall consolidate their dominance of the Top 10, with the Metro dropping in volume despite a booming market.

1989 UK Market: 2,300,944, with the Top 10 accounting for 48.4%.
Imports: 56.9%. Rover: 13.6%, Ford: 26.5%, Vauxhall: 15.2%.

  1. 181,218: Ford Escort
  2. 175,911: Ford Sierra
  3. 149,358: Ford Fiesta
  4. 130,615: Vauxhall Cavalier
  5. 115,294: Vauxhall Astra
  6. 99,373: Metro
  7. 71,047: Vauxhall Nova
  8. 68,598: Ford Orion
  9. 64,036: Rover 200
  10. 57,835: Montego

1990
People begin to feel the party’s over as high interest rates cut economic growth, the Conservative Government descends into turmoil amid Poll Tax dissent and Margaret Thatcher is thrown out by her own party. The car market turns down sharply, finishing the year 300,000 units below 1989. British Aerospace, which had acquired Rover Group from the Government in 1988, would see their five years of ownership coincide with a deep recession in UK car sales which would keep on plunging, returning to the levels of the depressed early 1980s in 1991 and 1992.

The Metro was now officially christened a Rover (which Mini, Maestro and Montego never were in Britain), but it would never return to the 100,000 plus annual UK volume of its youth. Ford stumbled rather with the new Escort introduced in September which received a cool reception and, for a couple of years, the Fiesta replaced Escort as best-seller.

1990 UK Market: 2,008,934, with the Top 10 accounting for 47.9%.
Imports: 56.7%. Rover: 14%, Ford: 25.3%, Vauxhall: 16.1%.

  1. 151,475: Ford Fiesta
  2. 141,985: Ford Escort
  3. 138,357: Vauxhall Cavalier
  4. 128,705: Ford Sierra
  5. 101,087: Vauxhall Astra
  6. 81,064: Rover Metro
  7. 62,487: Rover 200
  8. 54,786: Vauxhall Nova
  9. 51,404: Ford Orion
  10. 50,205: Peugeot 205

1991
A gloomy year for the car trade with sales down below 1.6 million and consumers feeling worse off. The dreaded negative equity that hit many property owners was one reason why. The Rover 200 overtakes the Metro to become Rover’s best-selling car in the UK. Peugeot had two entries in the Top 10.

1991 UK Market: 1,592,326, with the Top 10 accounting for 47.9%.
Imports: 55.7%. Rover: 14.4%, Ford: 24.2%, Vauxhall: 15.6%.

  1. 117,181: Ford Fiesta
  2. 110,302: Ford Escort
  3. 109,505: Vauxhall Cavalier
  4. 93,650: Ford Sierra
  5. 71,437: Vauxhall Astra
  6. 68,122: Rover 200
  7. 60,361: Rover Metro
  8. 46,615: Peugeot 205
  9. 44,751: Vauxhall Nova
  10. 41,296: Peugeot 405

1992
John Major wins a surprise General Election victory for the Conservatives in April but the recession continues, although prospects brighten after the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) fiasco in September which had sent interest rates soaring. Now the pound was allowed to fall which limited the ability of importers to discount, while giving exports a boost – even so, the UK car market repeated the disappointing performance of 1991. A new Astra arrived to strengthen Vauxhall’s hold on the compact class.

1992 UK Market: 1,593,601, with the Top 10 accounting for 47.7%.
Imports: 54.9%. Rover: 13.5%, Ford: 22.2%, Vauxhall: 16.7%.

  1. 121,140: Ford Escort
  2. 108,818: Vauxhall Cavalier
  3. 106,695: Ford Fiesta
  4. 86,858: Vauxhall Astra
  5. 77,253: Ford Sierra
  6. 77,214: Rover 200
  7. 56,713: Rover Metro
  8. 48,482: Peugeot 405
  9. 42,779: Vauxhall Nova
  10. 34,701: Renault Clio

1993
Things are on the up with the UK market improving while Rover was building exports to Europe, helped by a more competitive sterling exchange rate after exit from the ERM, and the good reception given the Rover 200 (and 400 notch version) on the continent. These cars with their Honda influence sold extremely well in continental markets where direct imports from Japan were restricted.

1993 UK Market: 1,778,426 of which Top 10 46%.
Imports: 55.4%. Rover: 13.4%, Ford: 21.9%, Vauxhall: 17.1%.

  1. 122,002: Ford Escort
  2. 110,449: Ford Fiesta
  3. 108,204: Vauxhall Astra
  4. 104,101: Vauxhall Cavalier
  5. 88,660: Ford Mondeo
  6. 77,745: Rover 200
  7. 57,068: Rover Metro
  8. 52,184: Peugeot 405
  9. 51,608: Vauxhall Corsa
  10. 45,269: Renault Clio

1994
Continued economic recovery sees the car market heading back towards the two million mark. While the Peugeot 306 would be assembled at Ryton, the Vauxhall Corsa was still built in Spain (and always would be). Shockwaves ran through the industry when BMW purchased Rover for £800 million with the intention of building a ‘second pillar’ affordable car brand to market alongside BMW across Europe. The exchange rate made the UK ‘the most attractive location in Europe for car production’ (as BMW boss Bernd Pischetsreider put it), but that would change when the pound strengthened from 1997 onwards.

1994 UK Market: 1,910,933, with the Top 10 accounting for 47.6%.
Imports: 57%. Rover: 12.8%, Ford: 21.9%, Vauxhall: 16.3%.

  1. 144,089: Ford Escort
  2. 127,144: Ford Mondeo
  3. 123,723: Ford Fiesta
  4. 100,115: Vauxhall Cavalier
  5. 98,098: Vauxhall Astra
  6. 80,313: Rover 200
  7. 78,739: Vauxhall Corsa
  8. 58,865: Rover Metro
  9. 49,337: Renault Clio
  10. 48,802: Peugeot 306/309

1995
The market continues on an upward trend with retail consumers feeling more prosperous and companies renewing their fleets. However, the share of the market taken by the Top 10 continues to shrink as customers broaden their horizons – with the shift to user-chooser preference in the fleet market being one factor. Perhaps that’s why the Vauxhall Vectra introduced during the year doesn’t sell as well as the Cavalier it replaced. The top-selling Fords and Vauxhalls screamed ‘company car’ which was a bit naff by 1995.

1995 UK Market: 1,945,366, with the Top 10 accounting for 44.3%.
Rover: 10.9%, Ford: 21.1%, Vauxhall: 15.1%.

  1. 137,760: Ford Escort
  2. 129,574: Ford Fiesta
  3. 118,040: Ford Mondeo
  4. 100,709: Vauxhall Astra
  5. 73,978: Vauxhall Vectra
  6. 72,508: Vauxhall Corsa
  7. 68,114: Rover 200
  8. 56,112: Peugeot 306
  9. 52,576: Renault Clio
  10. 52,392: Rover 100

1996
More than two million units for the first time since 1990 with a rather predictable Top 10 in which Ford took the top three positions and Vauxhall the following three. Rover had two entrants in the form of the (R3) 200 and larger 400 but with the Metro (now renamed Rover 100) out of the Top 10 for the first time since 1980 – it was fading away.

1996 UK Market: 2,025,450, with the Top 10 accounting for 41.9%.
Rover: 9.8%, Ford: 19.6%, Vauxhall: 14%.

  1. 139,552:  Ford Fiesta
  2. 128,760: Ford Escort
  3. 100,725: Ford Mondeo
  4. 88,224: Vauxhall Vectra
  5. 86,068: Vauxhall Astra
  6. 75,777: Vauxhall Corsa
  7. 63,847: Rover 400
  8. 58,916: Peugeot 306
  9. 53,826: Renault Clio
  10. 53,562: Rover 200

1997
A General Election year and Tony Blair made no secret of seeking the views of ‘Mondeo man’ which wasn’t surprising as the Mondeo and its stablemates from Ford again occupied the top three places on the charts. But the Renault Clio – a car sold almost exclusively to retail customers – appears in the Top 10 as it had every year since 1992, indicating the market was becoming a little less dominated by the default fleet options. Ford, though still market leader, was losing share year on year which reflects that. From 28% of the market in 1987, the company went to 18% in 1997. Rover blamed a loss of share in 1997 on its reluctance to sell at a discount to fleet buyers.

1997 UK Market: 2,170,725, with the Top 10 accounting for 39.3%.
Imports: 65%. Rover: 8.9%, Ford: 18.2%, Vauxhall: 13.6%.

  1. 119,471: Ford Fiesta
  2. 113,522: Ford Escort
  3. 107,239: Ford Mondeo
  4. 93,778: Vauxhall Vectra
  5. 89,537: Vauxhall Astra
  6. 79,898: Vauxhall Corsa
  7. 66,888: Peugeot 306
  8. 62,365: Rover 200
  9. 61,913: Rover 400
  10. 58,033: Renault Clio

1998
New Labour, new car’ it seemed – as new registrations come close to passing the previous (1989) peak. Rover were in trouble as its gradual loss of UK market share could no longer be profitably balanced by increased exports to Europe, due to the sharp appreciation of sterling from 1997 onwards. BMW’s currency hedging expired in June 1998 and the efforts that had been put into expanding Rover sales on the continent (notably in Germany) by giving the Rover franchise to their dealers now looked a liability – BMW’s whole investment in Rover was in doubt. This was the essence of the message rather clumsily delivered at the launch of the Rover 75 in late 1998.

1998 UK Market: 2,247,403, with the Top 10 accounting for 38%.
Rover: 7.1%, Ford: 17.9%, Vauxhall: 12.6%.

  1. 116,110: Ford Fiesta
  2. 113,560: Ford Escort
  3. 99,729: Ford Mondeo
  4. 92,719: Vauxhall Vectra
  5. 82,998: Renault Megane
  6. 81,494: Vauxhall Astra
  7. 75,673: Vauxhall Corsa
  8. 70,169: Peugeot 306
  9. 64,928: Rover 200
  10. 57,318: Rover 400

1999
Britain runs up to the millenium with Ford and Vauxhall still dominating the car market and with Rover increasingly marginalised and absent from the Top 10, its market share falling further, to just 5%, due to the final elimination of the long-running Rover 100 (Metro). The company was no longer counted among the major players. However, despite the contraction of former ‘national champion’ Rover, the UK manufactured 1.8 million cars in 1999, mostly for export, with the Japanese-brand manufacturers less exposed to exchange rate problems than Rover due to their offsetting import of components.

That level of output was just below 1972’s all-time peak and it hasn’t been beaten since. 2016 did, though, come very close in unit terms (as seen on the chart above) and, when one adjusts for a richer product mix, was an even stronger year in financial terms.

1999 UK Market: 2,197,615, with the Top 10 accounting for 35.9%.
Rover: 5%, Ford: 17.6%, Vauxhall: 13.3%.

  1. 103,228: Ford Escort
  2. 99,830: Ford Fiesta
  3. 92,050: Vauxhall Astra
  4. 86,779: Vauxhall Corsa
  5. 77,479: Vauxhall Vectra
  6. 77,183: Ford Mondeo
  7. 65,127: Renault Megane
  8. 63,991: Renault Clio
  9. 63,715:  Volkswagen Golf
  10. 58,788:  Peugeot 206

And now?
Fast forward 25 years and the UK Top 10 looks very different and rather more varied. However, the overall level of new car sales is no greater than the late 1980s.

UK best-selling cars – Jan-April 2024 (4 months)

  1. 19,333: Ford Puma
  2. 17,050: Nissan Qashqai
  3. 15,824: Kia Sportage
  4. 13,503: Audi A3
  5. 13,070: Nissan Juke
  6. 12,651: VW Golf
  7. 12,210 BMW 1 Series
  8. 12,101: MG HS
  9. 11,096: VW T-Roc
  10. 11,067: MINI hatch

***

*On the tables above ‘BL ancestors’ in 1965-67 refers to the combined market share of the car manufacturing companies which later formed part of British Leyland (BMC, Jaguar, Rover and Triumph).

Data via the SMMT.

 

Chris Cowin

61 Comments

  1. Fascinating reading.

    I have always taken these raw volume sales figures with a degree of distrust.

    Forget basic sales figures unless they are adjusted for sales price.

    Selling a poverty spec 850 Mini and making at most a tenner of profit is entirely different from selling an XJ12 and pocketing £750 for your dealership.

    Turnover is Vanity.
    Profit is Sanity.

  2. Note, the steady decline of Ford from the early eighties, when they had 30% of the new car market, to only 18% in 1999. A couple of awful cars like the 1990 Escort and the 1994 Scorpio drove buyers away, there was the reclaimed steel scandal on late eighties Sierras( which also had an unreliable range of new engines), and company car owners being given more freedom with their choice of cars that hurt Ford’s sales. Interestingly, by 1999, Ford had a very good range of cars, reliability was much improved over early nineties models, and there was still a dealer on every corner, but the market was moving on and French and German badged cars were seen as more stylish.

    • The 1990 Escort was indeed a dog, but sales held up looking at these figures. This was the era when the multinational’s – Ford and GM did anything to preserve market share. That was another reason for Ford’s apparent decline. In the 60’s and early 70’s GM was ambivalent about the UK market and left the field clear for Ford. In other markets rivalry between the two was fierce. Only from around 1975 onward to GM via Vauxhall wake up and decide to challenge Ford in the UK.

  3. The Vauxhall Corsa wasn’t introduced until 1993, so I assume the figure was for Novas.

  4. Great article – absolutely fascinating. A few thoughts: almost no Japanese presence in the Top 10 until now. The most successful Japanese cars are the Juke, Qashqai and Triumph Acclaim, all all of which were built in Britain. No Toyotas at all. The Chrysler Minx and then Hunter – were they the full Arrow range or were the different brands counted separately? I note the Horizon or Alpine never made the Top 10. The Vauxhall Corsa was UK best seller a couple of years ago. Now it’s not in the Top 10 – in fact no Vauxhall makes it. The arrival of the MGHS probably heralds a lot of Chinesea activity in coming years

    • The Datsun Sunny made a few appearances in the top ten and was the country’s best selling imported car in the late seventies and early eighties, and probably would have sold more if Datsun didn’t limit themselves to a 6% market share after 1977.
      The demise of Chrysler/ Talbot in the top ten after 1976 was probably down to the Alpine being quite a high priced car for the time, and being compromised by its rough Simca engines, while the Hunter was reduced to a two model range made in limited numbers in Ireland after 1976 and the Avenger was becoming outclassed by the end of the seventies. ( The spin off Sunbeam supermini sold in reasonable numbers, but never enough to be a top ten regular).

    • Yes – The statistical treatment of the Arrow range is a bit opaque. There were a lot of variants sold on the UK market (Hillman Minx, Hillman Hunter, Singer Gazelle, Singer Vogue, Sunbeam Vogue, Humber Sceptre) all passed off as distinct models. I believe the figures quoted are purely for cars badged Minx in the years concerned (which may include some of the old Audax-based Minx Series VI in 1967) – and then for cars badged Hunter where that appears.

      • https://archive.org/details/chryslerukcorpor0000youn/page/130/mode/2up .

        There is a book titled, “Chrysler U.K.: A Corporation in Transition” that has slightly detailed SMMT figures featuring every Hunter variant among other models from the other Rootes vehicles. I posted the link above for viewing. I also decided to post the sales figures for the Hunter variants.

        Gazelle:
        1967: 10,712
        1968: 7,063
        1969: 3,246
        1970: 934
        1971: 13
        1972: 7

        Vogue:
        1966: 8,208
        1967: 11,208
        1968: 8,025
        1969: 5,362
        1970: 1,357
        1971: 54
        1972: 43

        Minx:
        1965: 24,829
        1966: 24,950
        1967: 39,903
        1968: 36,999
        1969: 36,094
        1970: 14,023
        1971: 572

        GT:
        1969: 648
        1970: 2,328
        1971: 97

        Sceptre:
        1967: 5,190
        1968: 6,451
        1969: 5,713
        1970: 6,034
        1971: 5,918
        1972: 4,543
        Sceptre sales figures did not appear after 1973 for some reason.

        • Thanks for that link – which agrees with the figures in the article – happily : ) The Hillman Minx and Hillman Hunter (and other variants) were treated as distinct models so their sales are split out individually, rather than a single figure for the whole Arrow saloon/estate range appearing in the sales charts (which would have made Rootes/Chrysler look better in some years). It was different in some other cases.

          • I would imagine the Sunbeam Alpine/ Rapier would be treated as a different model as it was a two door coupe. Alwasy interested to see how these fared against the Capri as they were quite popular in the early seventies, and while limited to a single 1725cc engine, this was as a powerful as a 2 litre Cpari if you bought the H120.I believe the Alpine was the basic model and the Rapier was more luxurious and powerful.

  5. Amazing how the market has fragmented. Overall volumes are about the same as they where in the 80’s, but back then the best sellers sold over 100,000 units. Now they only achieve a fraction of that. Another interesting number that stood out. Folklore has it that the Sierra was a dismal failure in its early years, yet in its first full year – 1983, it sold in similar numbers to the Cortina in 80/81.

    • @ Paul, there are far more cars to choose from than 40 years ago. Back then, the Koreans had a tiny presence in the market( Hyundais were cheap and nasty cars on a par with Lada and Kia were unknown), cars like Skoda and SEAT were considered cheap and poor quality and sold a fraction of what they sell now, and Chinese cars were too backward to export to the West. Also the decline of the fleet market has hit Ford and Vauxhall hard.

  6. the biggest trend to note from this is that successive governments of both main parties have failed to balance the need to manufacture and export competitively with the lure of a strong currency. For half a century we’ve tried to be both a big player in the money markets and an exporter of goods and arguably it’s never going to quite work

  7. The strong pound in 1979/80 killed off the TR7 and an attempt to export the Rover SD1 to America. It should be remembered as well that the British car industry was at its lowest point around 1980 as British Leyland’s products had a terrible reputation abroad and export markets had been declining before the pound soared in value, and many Ford, Talbot and Vauxhall cars were parochial products that did very little outside the UK. Something like the Cortina might have been a best seller in the UK, but its conservative design and engineering saw it fail in many European markets.

    • Of course by 1980 the Ford “Cortina” was selling quite well in continental European markets. But as the Ford Taunus – none of them were supplied from the UK any longer. Once Ford moved to a pan-European range where Ford of Germany’s line-up was essentially the same as the British range, they halted exports to the continent from the UK (by 1974 essentially completely).

      • Ford of Britain became marginalised as the seventies went on. The Capri and Granada were moved to Germany in 1976, and production of other models was topped up by imports from Belgium and Spain. Talbot( Chrysler) and Vauxhall went a step further in the early eighties by reducing the amount of cars produced in the UK and mostly using imported components on the cars that continued to be produced over here. I know Talbot still exported kits of the Hillman Hunter to be assembled in Iraq, but I doubt if Talbot and Vauxhall exported anything else in great numnbers in the early eighties

        • You’re right. The official figures for 1986 are Ford: 6,425 cars exported (many may have been to Ireland). Vauxhall 220 cars exported (this was before Vauxhall’s factories started building Opel badged cars for export). Talbot 20,330 cars exported – mostly for Iran one can assume – which involved exports of kits with reduced content which each only just qualified as “a car” in that era.
          One should maybe add (in light of the comment from Daveh below) that currently Dagenham hosts a major diesel engine plant and Ford is a major exporter – just not of complete vehicles.

          • Ford had a factory in Cork, where a few Cortinas were built in CKD form and exported back to the UK, until 1983, so when this closed, cars for the Irish market would be exported from the Uk. I don’t think Ford exported much to anywhere else until Dagenham was purely turned over to Fiesta production in 1989.
            Vauxhall did export small numbers of Chevettes to Germany and the Netherlands until 1981, but thereafter concentrated on assembling Astras and Cavaliers from imported parts and exports were almost nil until the Mark 3 Cavalier. It could be argued that the success of the Astra and Cavalier did save Vauxhall’s two plants in the UK and led to more investment in the nineties, including an engine plant.

          • Dagenham died as an export plant after the strike in 77, though sales in the 80s meant it was building similar numbers. However it picked up again when she became focused on the Fiesta, but that was mostly down to Mazda (for the short time the combined 121/Fiesta existed) and Combi sales.

        • Hi Glenn… Mid 70s Hunters were assembled in Iran, not Iraq. Most taxis in Tehran were Peykan Hunters. I spent a day in their factory in 1975

        • Hi Glenn… Mid 70s Hunters were assembled in Iran, not Iraq. Most taxis in Tehran were Peykan Hunters. I spent a day in their factory in 1975

      • The Cortina and Taunus became the same car apart from subtle styling changes in 1970 with the arrival of our Mk3 – That generation of Taunus was known as the TC (for Taunus/Cortina) The Taunus did indeed sell very well in that period clocking up similar sales to the Cortina – but across a number of European mainland markets. By 1980 though Taunus sales had dwindled to nothing. Our MK4/MK5 Cortina’s still looked quite fresh because they where using facelifted Taunus bodies. The Taunus looked like a warmed over old car – a bit like an Ital and sales collapsed. If it wasnt for Cortina’s still selling like hot cakes and Dagenham being perpetually on strike, Ford’s Genk plant would have been idle so low was Taunus volumes by then.

        • You might want to check that : ) Perhaps I misunderstand you – but the Ford Taunus as sold in continental Europe definitely benefited from the same “lifting’ in late 1979 as the UK market Ford Cortina – involving most notably more glass area on saloons and wrap-round front lights/larger rear lights on saloons. Apart from LHD and badging there was very little (if anything) to differentiate a Ford Taunus sold in Germany or France in 1980 from a Ford Cortina sold in the UK in 1980.

  8. Fascinating. What surprised me most was how successful the Vauxhall Viva was in the late 60s and early 70s.The HB sold over 100,000 in 1967 and 1968, very healthy numbers indeed. Then the HC sold nearly 100,000 in 71, 72 and 73.
    If Vauxhall had introduced a mid range car ABOVE the Viva HB instead of replacing it, as Opel did with the Ascona A which didn’t replace the Kadett B but rather slotted in above it, then they would have been in a healthier position in the earlier 70s, as with the Victor never being a big seller, they ended up a bit of a one car range.

    • The Victor was in the top ten in 1968/69, but spent most of the seventies outside the top ten as it was too big for the family car sector and too small for the executive car sector. Also with the FE, unless you bought the VX 4/90, the Victor models were quite basic and there was no intermediate trim level. I think importing the Cavalier solved the problem as this was aimed directly at the Cortina and was a better car. Starting UK production in 1977 saw sales take off.

      • The Cav MK1 had a good choice of body styles too, (2 & 4 door saloons, 2 door coupe and 3 door Sporthatch). Though I don’t recall seeing any of the 2 door saloon except in brochures. The Coupe was my Fave.

    • Absolutely right, the HB was only 4 years old, still quite fresh and selling strongly in 1970. Vauxhall really should have left well alone and concentrated on a Cortina sized car. Not sure the Ascona A would have been right though, dont think that was much bigger than a Viva. During development the Ascona was seen as the new Kadett. They changed strategy and decided to move it up market and insert the 73 Kadett in below – the car that became our Chevette.

  9. Also interesting that the Triumph Dolomite outsold the Maxi in 3 years (the Maxi figure for 1973 is wrong btw).
    I imagine they attracted a similar buyer to those who bought the Volvo 340 in healthy number in the early 80s.

  10. Regarding Vauxhall’s product lineup, I always thought of the Viva as being in the ADO16/Escort/smallest engined Allegro/Avenger marketspace, rather than the Cortina segment. The coming of the Cavalier and Ascona gave GM a Cortina competitor at last. And the sales picked up accordingly!

  11. It’s interesting when you fast forward to 2024 that six out of the top ten sellers are so called SUV’s. No sign of the Focus and the A3 out sells Golf, yet we are supposed to be in a cost of living crisis. The demise of the Fiesta has not resulted buyers defecting to a Polo.

  12. The Focus has been subsumed into the Kuga.. The difference in monthlies on a 3 year lease for either of these is small so you can get a bigger car for not much more.

    And the running costs are about the same.

    Same applies to the Fiesta having been replaced by the Puma.

  13. Peugeot’s British factory had a good nineties with the 206,306 and 405 being regulars in the top ten best sellers, reversing the bleak Talbot era, when the company never had a top ten best seller and the closure of the Linwood factory in 1981 saw many Scottish buyers boycott Talbot. While Ryton was to ultimately close in 2006, the switch to assembling Peugeots probably kept it alive for another 20 years.

  14. Indeed. Peugeot seemed to get it right in the middle and lower market sectors in the late 80s and through the 90s, which keeps Ryton alive.. The 405 and 406 were great cars to compete with the Sierra and Cavalier and Mondeo.

    But they lost the plot with the 407 and 605 which were ugly as a ten-dollar-whore and just didn’t get traction in the market which by then wanted Audis and BMWs.

    • I remember the 605 suffered from looking like a slightly bigger 405 along with the usual big French car jinx, unless you mean the 607, which was seemed to keep an even lower profile than the Citroen C6!

  15. I’m not sure why the 90 Escort comes in for such widespread bad press. I had an original October 1990 H Reg base Orion 1.4LX (LX was the lead-in model for Orions) and it came with such niceties as tilt/slide sunroof, central locking, interior boot release and, as if the boot were not huge enough, 60/40 folding rear seat backs. Never let me down. Fast forward 30 years and the final top-end Mazda6 Tourer never had an interior tailgate release and the top Lexus ES Takumi doesn’t even have folding rear seats. Whilst these Japanese cars have many other ‘toys’, the old Orion was very practical.

    • From memory it was more a styling thing – some people joked it looked like a chubby version of the old one (which had received a lot of praise when new in 1980 for its crisp styling and innovative “bustle” rear end) . From memory Ford was very quick to introduce “campaign models” (usually avoided on a new model) which added extra equipment for no extra cost to give sales a boost.

      • Dull styling, rough CVH engines, and a general feel of “that will do” about it.

        Hence a hasty facelift just 2 years later, with new engines being phased in and another comprehensive facelift in 1995.

        • I remember Jeremy Clarkson reckoning the 1995 Escort should have been the one launched 5 years earlier if the accountants hadn’t had their way!

          • I think hes right, by the time the Erika 86/”MK4″ arrived the Escort MK3 was already 5 years old. It really should have been a new car then, not a facelift – and the car that emerged in 1990 does look like that car.

  16. Fair comments. Then there’s the much maligned Allegro. I once had an Allegro 3 with the 1.0 A+ engine from the Metro. Spot on – economical and reliable, though, yes, very dull and probably past its sell by date.

  17. The Ital seemed to have a good year in 1981, being British Leyland’s second best selling car and finishing in the top five. It might have been sneered at by motoring journalists of the Car and Clarkson variety, but the Ital managed to notch up 150,000 sales in its four year life and was as much a part of Leyland’s survival as the Metro and the Acclaim. Not a great car or something people lusted after, but an honest medium sized car that sold on price and low running costs.

  18. Really interesting. I remember just that in 1983, Ford were literally distress selling the Sierra to make it look good in the sales charts, my father bought a new Sierra 1.6 L for the price of a Metro L but by 1987, the Sierra had come good, Ford was so powerful back then in the market. Today, they have approx. 6% of the market and almost seem to be proactively withdrawing from the market via Fiesta / Focus coming to an end. Recently had a MG HS and it was great for the money, no surprise to see it in the top 10!

    • I got the impression that some fleet managers bought up as many Cortinas as they could when Ford announced they were going to be replaced, & then didn’t order as many Sierras for the first few years, possibly they were put off by the jelly mould styling even if the mechanical side was conventional.

  19. Ford slashed prices on Y reg Cortinas and offered attractive dinance deals to get them out of the way for the Sierra. This did see a late boom in sales for the Cortina as the fleet market and many private buyers were tempted by the big discounts on a car that was very familiar to them.

      • Just prior to the Crusader special edition, you had the Calypso and the Carousel which were not as well appointed but still priced to get market share

    • Lol! I love these old wives tails. Ford or its partners were selling the Cortina elsewhere in the world so if there was a glut they would just shift them to where they were still manufacturing. The real reason for the Crusader was sales were getting hit by the Cavalier and that buyers knew the new car was coming.

  20. Sales figures can be massively manipulated as Ford were King of the ‘pre-reg’ as were Vauxhall ….

    • All manufacturers did back then! Yes Ford use to pre-sell cars to dealers as part of their franchise, so they were their responsibility to shift. Rover had the BAE scheme. Nowadays it leasing.

  21. Ford also used to register cars with hire companies in the Channel Islands, run them there for a few months then return them to the UK for sale as low mileage pre registered cars through some of their dealers.

    • Those cars also use to appear at Frog Island, Ford’s storage site between Dagenham and Rainham and where staff could go and buy a bargain.

  22. The Cavalier was making the Cortina feel old and eating into its market share in 1981/82. The Mark 2 Cavalier had five speed transmission on some models, when the Cortina was limited only four gears, and a 1.6 Cavalier could compete easily with a 2 litre Cortina and was more economical than a 1.6 Cortina. Main reason to buy a Cortina over a Cavalier in 1982 would probably be the discounts on run out models like the Crusader and the classier interiors, but not much else.

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