Frederick Simms was a fascinating man. Around the turn of the 20th century, among many other achievements, he built the world’s first armoured car, became a director of Daimler (today the parent company of Mercedes) and founded what is now the Royal Automobile Club.
As if that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, in 1902 he established the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. According to its own website, the SMMT arose from Simms’s vision to create “a UK representative body to provide leadership, protection and direction to the British motor industry”, which is exactly what it still is.
Since 1965, the SMMT has also been the leading source of information on how popular car models are in the UK. It’s important to remember that this is based on registrations rather than sales, but it does give a broadly accurate idea of how successful a particular car has proved to be.
The SMMT has kindly provided a list of the yearly winners over the last half-century-and-a-bit, so let’s delve into that.
The UK's most-registered cars by year
Known internally as ADO16, this car was sold not just as an Austin but as an MG, a Riley, a Morris, a Vanden Plas and a Wolseley, and with 1100cc or 1300cc engines similar to the ones found in Minis.
There is a claim that it was Britain’s best-selling car as early as 1963, its first year on sale, but the SMMT figures don’t go back that far.
What the SMMT can confirm is that it had the highest registrations in the country almost every year from 1965 to 1971. The only exception was 1967, when a manufacturer you’ll be reading about a lot more in the next few minutes made its first appearance.
Ford Cortina Mk2
This was the second of five models to bear the Cortina name, and the last developed before Ford’s British and German divisions merged to become Ford of Europe.
The new car went on sale in October 1966, and in the following year more examples were registered than of the previously industry-dominating Austin 1100.
The status quo was quickly restored, however, and the Austin (or whatever it was called) spent another four years at the top.
Ford Cortina Mk3
The third Cortina didn’t get off to a great start. Early production was hit by a long strike over pay, and the cars that were built were criticised for poor ride quality.
Once all that had been sorted, the Cortina became a big seller, and reached the top of the SMMT charts in 1972. It stayed there until 1975, its second last year of full production.
Ford Escort Mk2
A new Cortina was nearing the end of its development at the start of 1976, but the second-generation Escort had already been in the showrooms for a year.
Mechanically, it was very similar to the Mk1 Escort, but unlike that car it was co-developed by British and German engineers.
Now regarded as one of the most desirable Escorts, especially among rally enthusiasts, the Mk2 was the UK’s most-registered car in 1976.
Ford Cortina Mk4/5
Though now referred to as two separate models, the final Cortinas were essentially a single design with a significant mid-life update in 1979.
Taking over from the Escort, the car had already been at the top of the SMMT chart for two years by this time, and would remain there until 1981, a year before production was halted to make way for the Sierra.
Front-wheel drive Escorts
The third Escort was radically different from the two before, with front-wheel drive and a hatchback body style.
Despite being named European Car of the Year in 1981, the car received criticism in its early days for poor ride quality, but that didn’t prevent it from gaining more UK registrations than any other from 1982 (its second year of production) all the way through to 1989, three years after a significant facelift.
Enter the Fiesta
Ford made a triumphant entry into the supermini market with the original Fiesta in 1976, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the then-new third-generation model brought the name to the top of the annual UK registration list.
Considering what happened with later Fiestas, it’s slightly surprising that this model held its place for only two years before being replaced by yet another Ford.
Last hurrah of the Escort
Not for the first time, a car that didn’t receive much critical acclaim was nevertheless popular among customers.
The final Escort headed the SMMT list from 1992 to 1994 in its original form, and then again in 1995 after a substantial update. Its replacement would have a longer run at the top, but that would not start for another four years.
The fourth Fiesta, also sold as the Mazda 121, was far from the prettiest, with a front-end design which made it look like some kind of fish.
It was easy to mock for this reason alone, but anyone who did this had to confront the fact that it was also very popular. No other car could match it for UK registrations from 1996 to 1998.
A year later, it was given a facelift which meant it no longer looked like a fish at all. Ironically, it was at just this point that it fell from the number one spot to make way for a much more radical car.
Escort becomes Focus
That car was the Focus, successor to the last Escort. Immediately hailed as one of the finest new Fords in recent memory, it was named European Car of the Year in 1999 and at the same time went straight to the top of the SMMT list.
It stayed there until 2004. Replacing it with the larger, heavier second-generation car made no difference, even though were those who thought this model wasn’t nearly as good to drive.
In this form the Focus was still the most-registered car in the country in 2008, ten years after its predecessor first achieved the feat.
Ford had by now occupied the top spot in the registration charts with one model or another for 37 of the 44 years since the SMMT began compiling them, and had been unchallenged for 36 of those years consecutively.
Any chance that another manufacturer would get a look in for anything more than a month or so was obliterated by the arrival in 2009 of the latest Fiesta.
This was widely regarded as the most impressive Fiesta relative to its contemporary rivals since the one launched in 1976. So far it has led the field for nine years in a row, just one year less than the run achieved by the record-breaking Focus.
A modest prediction for 2018
At the time of writing, the latest registration figures published by the SMMT show the situation as it was on 31 August 2018.
Unsurprisingly, the Fiesta is well ahead on 67,189 units, a figure which will certainly rise sharply in September due to the number plate change.
The Volkswagen Golf is in second place on 49,692 units. Of course things can change, but at the moment VW’s best chance of reaching the top in 2018 is if Ford stops building Fiestas right now and destroys any unregistered ones.
Since this is very unlikely, it’s a safe bet that the Fiesta will match the ten-year run of the Focus. And who’s to say that it won’t set a new record of eleven years in 2019?
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