Spectacular sales in the United Kingdom helped Western Europe's March car sales jump 20.2 percent, to 1.7 million, compared with the same month last year.
Predictably, United Kingdom sales exploded because of a switch to a new license plate system. The country traditionally has changed its plate prefixes once a year, in August. But 1999 brings two changes, in March and September. The system was revised to spread car purchases throughout the year.
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.
The United Kingdom reported sales of 370,060 in March, a 73.4 percent jump over last year, as customers reacted to heavy discounts on some of the latest 'T' registration models.
The high March sales also saved the United Kingdom from a disastrous first quarter, after a severe slump in January and February. In February, the slump in the United Kingdom had pulled the total European market down 3.7 percent, to 1.1 million.
Registrations in Germany, the region's largest market, fell for the second month in a row in March. March sales of 427,000 were down 2 percent. First-quarter registrations in Germany were 969,601, down 0.8 percent from last year.
France and Spain posted healthy gains in March. Sales in France rose 12.8 percent, to 206,190; and sales in Spain climbed 32.1 percent, to 148,131. For the first quarter, favorable economic conditions in both countries boosted sales 13.1 percent in France and 25 percent in Spain.
First-quarter registrations in Western Europe totaled 4.1 million, up 6.6 percent over last year.