Workers assemble Opel “Insignia”. Opel, a unit of French automaker PSA, said it would reopen its German dealerships Monday after the German government announced that it would gradually ease lockdown restrictions. Image Credit: Reuters

Frankfurt: Germany - European car sales went over a cliff in March, falling to their lowest level in at least 30 years, according to data published Friday that provided one of the first concrete indications of the economic damage caused by coronavirus lockdowns.

Most of the previous available economic data dated from before the lockdowns began and is all but useless. Also, the car industry is a bellwether for overall economic growth in the European Union because it is a pillar of manufacturing and employs so many people - 2.6 million, or 9% of all factory workers in the bloc. Based on the March sales numbers, the outlook is not good.

New car registrations fell by more than half from a year earlier, to 570,000 from 1.3 million, the European Automobile Manufacturers Association said. It was by far the worst March for auto sales since at least 1990. Comparisons before then are of limited value because Europe was still divided by the Iron Curtain.

The new registration figures may be even worse than they sound. It was only around the middle of the month that most car dealers in Europe closed their doors, factories went idle and buyers were told to stay at home.

Italy, which went into lockdown first, suffered the biggest drop in car sales: 85% in March. That suggests that the damage to the European car industry could be even more severe in April, depending on how quickly lockdowns ease.

Eager to restart factories

Automakers are eager to get their assembly lines rolling again, and some - including Volkswagen, Volvo and Daimler - will cautiously begin doing so Monday.

The companies will essentially be conducting a grand experiment in whether it is possible to run a big factory without exposing workers to infection and provoking a renewed outbreak.

“The best thing we can do to help society is to find ways to restart the company in a safe way,” Hakan Samuelsson, chief executive of Volvo Cars, said in a statement Friday.

Assembly lines will be staffed by workers in masks and protective clothing, sometimes separated from one another by plastic screens. Shift changes will be staggered to minimize the number of people who come in contact with others.

Showrooms will also begin reopening. Opel, a unit of French automaker PSA, said it would reopen its German dealerships Monday after the German government announced that it would gradually ease lockdown restrictions.

Uncertainty on sales

The big question now is how quickly sales will rebound, and how much of the lost revenue car companies will be able to make up later in the year. Even after the virus recedes, carmakers will face formidable problems.

Many people are likely to reemerge from home quarantine significantly poorer because they lost their jobs or suffered steep declines in income. Supply chains are in turmoil. The economy of China, a critical market for Volvo and the German carmakers, shrank for the first time in decades, the government reported Friday.

The sales declines could leave permanent scars on some automakers, many of which were already struggling. Fiat Chrysler sales plummeted 77% in March, reflecting the grave health crisis in its stronghold of Italy.

The company sold 27,000 cars during the month, including sales in Britain and Switzerland, which are not members of the EU. Fiat fell behind not only most of its European rivals but also foreign brands like Hyundai and Toyota that were once considered niche players.

PSA, whose sales are skewed toward southern Europe, also suffered disproportionately. Its sales plunged 68%, in line with declines of around 70% in Spain and France. PSA, whose brands include Peugeot, Citroën and Opel, is merging with Fiat.

German carmakers BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen fared marginally better, with declines of less than 50%. But it is unclear whether they are more resistant to the economic chaos caused by the virus or simply benefiting temporarily from their strength in northern European countries that generally began lockdowns later in March.

New registrations in Germany fell 38% during the month, still a catastrophic decline. Vehicles are Germany’s biggest export, and its economy is much more dependent on the auto industry than is France’s or Italy’s.