When the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) announced last week that May’s car sales data were the worst since 1993, it wasn’t giving the whole picture.

ACEA compared sales in today’s 27-member EU with data for the smaller, 15-member EU of 20 years ago. And 1993 was an unusually bad year for European car markets.

A more informative comparison would have been with May of 2006, which was the first year when ACEA logged sales for the whole EU27. On that basis, last month’s registrations were down by a grim 29%.

The chart below shows annual sales for the EU15 countries* since 1990.

Chart of EU15 car  sales 1990 to 2012

As well as showing 1993 to be an outlier, it also shows that new car sales in the region peaked around 1998. Not entirely coincidentally, that was also about the time that fuel prices began to ratchet up to today’s levels.

It’s hard to say to exactly what extent the huge credit bubble of the first half of the last decade buoyed up sales but there’s no doubt about what happened when it burst.

Unless fuel and energy prices come down considerably it’s very unlikely that EU car sales will ever regain their 1998 levels. All the signs are that oil prices will be even higher in a few years. That raises the question of what the car manufacturers are thinking of selling to consumers in future instead of new cars.

*Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, The Netherlands, UK