A big drop in the United Kingdom car market leading up to the introduction of a new registration plate on March 1 pulled down the total European market in February.
Sales in Western Europe totalled 1,101,548, down 3.7 percent from February 1998. For the first two months of 1999, sales were 2,362,920, down 1.7 percent from the same period in 1998.
The introduction in the United Kingdom this year of a twice-yearly plate system - March and September instead of the traditional once-a-year change in August - has begun to alter the seasonal buying habits in the United Kingdom.
The registration plate indicates the age of the car and affects resale value or trade-in value. Under the law, a car purchased the month before the new plate is issued becomes a year old a month later.
New-car registrations in the United Kingdom in February totaled 84,040, compared with 177,133 in the same month last year - a 52.6 percent decline.
The two-month total of 265,882 was down 35 percent from 409,188 last year. In spite of that decline, the United Kingdom market remains strong. Private customers held off buying new cars in January and February. But a rise in total United Kingdom sales is expected for the first quarter.
The weaker German market in February may have been caused by bad weather, analysts said. Registrations were down 3.7 percent, to 270,000, in February, but the two-month total of 543,132 was up 0.2 percent.
Strong consumer confidence buoyed the markets in France and Spain in February. Sales in France rose 13.3 percent, to 157,739, and sales in Spain increased 24.6 percent, to 108,438.