A van is a tool, a box designed to carry things and stuff from one place to another; a real tool is not designed to appeal in any way other than through its practical ability to complete or enable the job at hand. Indeed, a heavily stylised tool will often ultimately feel inferior to a simple, classical one. I’ve nevertheless always had an admiration for these vans, essentially due to their styling.
However functional and simple, the Master is very deliberately styled to emphasise its role as a tool. There are no unnecessary flourishes on the sides; the nose is blunt, with the driver’s seating position evidently pushed as far forward as possible; the door handles are large and prominent, and of a common design; and the rear doors appear to be mounted on the outside of the box with external tracks, thereby seemingly limiting intrusion into the load bay. No sliding door on the driver’s side? Then there’s a fixed panel that mimics it exactly, rather than a blanked full side panel.
These features are, of course, devices to give exactly the impression I have referred to. They work together to give the impression that this van is designed to be a practical proposition for moving stuff. This is a four-wheeled tool box, that clearly will work as a tool, and not as a lifestyle accessory that can’t accept a 8’ x 4’ (or even a 2.5m x 1.5m) board, or many cases of red wine.
It is actually tempting to look at these details and consider them to be almost Scandinavian in their design logic, with the emphasis on practicality, uniformity of components and function driving form.
The Master and its smaller brother, the Trafic, were first introduced in 1980 to succeed the long running Estafette series, alongside cars like Renault 18 and, soon after, the Renault 9 and 11 (Alliance and Encore), signaling that Renault was moving away from a defiantly (stubbornly?) French attitude to a more conformist, mainstream European style. Even the new names suggested such to the demanding, unsentimental commercial vehicle market. Bob the Builder is not going to buy a van whose name he can’t pronounce.
You can argue if this is progress or just common sense for a volume-dependent business. This version of the Master was produced from 1980 to 1997, with a range of 4 cylinder petrol and diesel (the majority) engines from 2.0 to 2.5 litres and a five-speed gearbox. Most were front wheel drive, but Renault also offered a rear drive option and conversions to 4×4 were available. The usual wide range of specialist bodies was offered by the conversion industry, as well as a range of wheelbases.
The key competitors were the Ford Transit, Mercedes-Benz 207D and the Peugeot J5/Citroen C25/Iveco (Fiat) Ducato family. From the UK, there were also the LDV 300 and 400 series vans developed from the long running Leyland Sherpa (and indeed early 1960s BMC J4) van, but these were essentially UK only competitors.
There are many thousands still in use in France, for every purpose from the market van to minibus and with specialist bodies also.
And the killer detail for me? That sliding door that appears to run, like a cover, over the whole side the vehicle from the roof gutter to underside of the sill. A stylish detail that proclaims the van’s utilitarian purpose.
(Although these vans were never sold in the US, the related Renault Trafic van was the basis for the Winnebago LeSharo FWD motorhome (CC here) – ED)