British car manufacturing went into reverse in April, with production falling at the fastest rate in more than two and a half years.

A total of 122,116 cars rolled off UK production lines last month, 18% fewer than in April 2016, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

The trade body attributed what was the sharpest fall since August 2014 to the late timing of Easter this year.

“Car production fell significantly in April due to the later Easter bank holiday weekend, which reduced the number of active production days that month, and also due to unplanned production adjustments,” said Mike Hawes, chief executive of the SMMT.

The drop in car production echoed the trend in new car sales, which fell 20% in April compared with a year earlier, as government cuts to subsidies for green cars and a rise in prices hit demand.

The UK car industry backed the remain camp in the run-up to the EU referendum and SMMT members are fearful about possible tariffs being imposed on parts imported from the EU after Brexit.

The cost of assembling a car in Britain could increase by £2,370 in the event of a “hard Brexit”, encouraging some manufacturers to look at moving production out of the country, according to PA Consulting Group. The average UK-built car has about 6,000 parts, with the majority coming from the EU and passing in and out of the country several times during the production process.

“To guarantee future growth and investment into our industry and its vital supply chain, however, we need the next government to safeguard the conditions that have made us globally competitive, keeping us open and trading and delivering an ambitious industrial strategy for our sector,” Hawes said.

Taking the first four months of 2017 overall, almost 600,000 cars were built at UK factories, 1% more than over the same period a year earlier. Demand is being driven by foreign markets, with cars built for export up 3.5% in 2017 so far, while the number destined for the home market fell 7%.

A total of 1.7m cars were produced in Britain in 2016, and the SMMT believes the number could surpass 2m by 2020, breaking the previous record of 1.92m set in 1972.

Hawes said the broader trend for car production was positive. “Overall, British car manufacturing remains in good health, with the production outlook still very positive and significant new models due to go into UK production shortly.”

The biggest manufacturers in the UK include Japan’s Nissan in Sunderland, Indian-owned Jaguar Land Rover in the West Midlands and north-west, and German-owned Mini in Oxford.

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