Demand for new cars fell by 36% last month compared with February 2020, preliminary figures show.
Only around 51,000 new cars were registered in the UK last month as showrooms remained shut, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) said.
February is traditionally a slow month for car sales as many motorists wait for new number plates to be released in March.
But last month was the industry’s worst February since 1959.
Final figures will be released by the SMMT at 9am on Thursday.
Rachael Prasher, managing director of automotive magazine and website What Car?, said: “Online retail and new digital platforms have proven an effective solution to meet the most urgent demand, but the February results once again show the pressing need to safely reopen showrooms.
“With dealers having to keep doors closed through the March plate change – when a fifth of all annual registrations are traditionally completed – all the signs are pointing towards a need for retailers to be ready to satisfy pent-up demand that is building around the mooted April 12 reopening date.”
SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes said Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Budget provided “some encouragement” for the industry.
He said: “Confirmation that the industry’s calls for the furlough scheme to be extended until the end of September have been heeded is extremely welcome as both the automotive manufacturing and retail sectors have suffered a massive fall in demand over the past year with showrooms still closed and supply chains disrupted.”
However, he warned that the Budget “falls short” of providing the support needed to create “the net zero future to which both the Government and industry aspires”.