READY TO GO: Mercedes-Benz vehicles at East London Harbour awaiting export. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH
READY TO GO: Mercedes-Benz vehicles at East London Harbour awaiting export. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH

Exports of SA-built vehicles hit a record high in 2018, compensating for what  turned out to be a disappointing year for sales in the local market.

A 56% export boost in December (manufacturers shipped 31,437 cars and commercial vehicles to more than 100 countries around the world, compared to 20,107 in December 2017) propelled the full-year total to 351,154.

That was a 3.9% improvement on 2017’s figure of 338,096 but also took the number past the previous annual record of 344,821, set in 2016.

Domestic sales fell 1% in 2018, the fourth annual decline in five years. Since 2013, only 2017 has displayed growth.

Sales of all new vehicles slid 1.9% in December 2018 from the corresponding month of 2017, from 40,751 to 39,984. The result was that full-year 2018 sales fell 1%, from 557,703 to 552,190.

Figures were released this week by the department of trade & industry. Car sales fell 0.2% in December from a year earlier, from 26,595 to 26,547.

For 2018 as a whole, they were down 0.8%, from 368,114 to 365,246. Sales of light commercial vehicles, mainly bakkies, fell 2.4% in 2018.

Heavier commercial vehicles fared better in the second half of the year but their numbers were too small to have much of an impact on the overall market. Medium truck sales for the year rose 0.3% and heavy trucks 6.5%.

Nico Vermeulen, director of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of SA (Naamsa), says “fragile” consumer and business confidence will continue to limit growth in 2019.

No clear signs of market direction are likely until after the national election.

“Most automotive companies are planning their operations on the basis of a flat market in 2019,” Vermeulen said. 

Export prospects, however, remain positive. SA vehicle manufacturers, most of whom ship more than 50% of production to foreign markets, seem generally heartened by trade & industry minister Rob Davies’s recent statement that future government automotive policy will retain most of the features that have attracted major foreign investment in recent years.

Some companies are unhappy with certain aspects of Davies’s 2021-2035 Automotive Masterplan but, for the time being at least, major participants remain committed to SA production.

That’s good news for exports. December’s 56% surge was partly the result of horrible numbers a year earlier when, in December 2017, Volkswagen SA had suspended production in preparation for the launch of new cars.

BMW SA was cutting back for similar reasons. Both companies were significant contributors to December’s export total.

Ford provided the biggest number, with 9,209. Vermeulen says 2018’s record 351,154 exports could rise further in 2019, to 385,000.