The appeal of cars ranges from the strictly emotional and subjective to the purely rational assessment of utility and cost. The French have a rather unique ability to combine the two. Some of the most compelling cars we’ve ever seen from them have been purely rational, but also highly innovative, unique and avant garde; like Europe’s first MPV, the Renault Espace.
Renault has pioneered many innovations over the last 50 or more years; the compact, practical, affordable hatchback (the 1961 Renault 4), the family hatchback (the 1965 Renault 16), the first stylish supermini (the 1972 Renault 5), an exceptionally appealing take on a true Mini replacement (the 1990 Twingo) and, perhaps most influential, the sized-for-Europe take on the minivan or MPV, the 1996 Renault Scenic and the pioneering 1984 MPV, the Renault Espace.
Let’s clarify the “first“ bit first. The Espace was unveiled to the press in April of 1984 and went on the market in France in July 1984; the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager was unveiled in October of 1983 and went on sale in January of 1984. So the Chrysler minivans were clearly the first of their kind, but the Espace was the first in Europe.
Not surprisingly, Lee Iacocca claimed the minivan was ‘his’ idea way back in 1972; that story was covered here. Also not surprisingly, Matra historians credit the French company with the idea back in the late 197os.
Of course, the idea of getting more than five people into a compact vehicle is a lot older than 1984, or even 1972. VW Microbus? Fiat Multipla? Or the 1983 Mitsubishi Spacewagon, or the 1982 Nissan Prairie (Stanza wagon), though these missed out on most of the one-box look. UK magazine Motor certainly thought so, in August 1985.
About a year ago, I offered the theory the Peugeot 205 was the most influential car of the 1980s, and at the time I had a great discussion with myself about whether this correct. After all, I could have selected the Mercedes-Benz 190 (a very close call), the 1983 Audi 100 (Audi 5000), the Ford Sierra, the Porsche 959, the 1989 Land-Rover Discovery, the 1987 BMW 5 series or even the 1989 Rover 214 (don’t laugh, there’s more there than meets the eye, honestly), as well as the Espace. The Espace lost out, but only just.
The Espace wasn’t originally expected to be a Renault; it was expected to be a Chrysler, a Talbot or perhaps a Peugeot. From 1977, Matra had built the Rancho CUV/SUV for Chrysler Europe, using a Simca 1100 (Simca 1204) pickup as a base for a spacious and generously fenestrated high roof station wagon with what we now see as typical off-road cues of big wheels, widened arches, high mounted lights and roof racks. Almost accidentally, the CUV or compact SUV was born. It was built by Matra, and marketed by Chrysler across Europe, and from 1978 by Peugeot as the Talbot-Matra Rancho, after Chrysler sold all its European operations and products to Peugeot. Matra were then building the Rancho and also the Bagheera sports car for Chrysler.
The original design concept that led to the Espace was done by Chrysler UK designer Fergus Pollack, at their design center in Whitley, now the Jaguar Design Centre. So one could say the Espace was really British in origin.This was in about 1978, the same time that Giugiaro’s Lancia Megagamma MPV concept was first shown.
In 1978, Matra first pitched the idea of building this MPV in a similar way to the Rancho – indeed it could be said that idea behind the Rancho was more MPV than CUV really – and Chrysler Europe latched onto the idea, perhaps using some grapevine or better knowledge of what was happening in Highland Park. The idea, as far as France is concerned, came from within Matra.
As this was proposed to be a Chrysler Europe product, there was a lot of Chrysler componentry in the original prototype. The first mock-ups used Peugeot 604 headlamps and much bluffer nose than we are familiar with. On the final car, the most obvious Chrysler influence is in the nose below the bonnet’s leading edge, which matches the 1975 Chrysler Alpine to the extent the first prototypes used Alpine headlamps, and indeed was built on a Talbot Solara platform. Matra proposed their usual galvanised steel chassis and polyester composite body panels, with the suspension, engines and transmission hung off it, a concept they had been using for over 20 years.
When Peugeot bought Chrysler Europe, Matra pitched the product to Peugeot, who turned it down as “interesting, but such a car has no future”. Citroen didn’t buy into it either so with nothing to lose and a factory to fill, as Peugeot were not planning to replace the Rancho or the Bagheera-derived Murena sports car, a call was made to Renault, and an interested party was found.
Thus the Espace was born – the name means “space” as in “space exploration” in French, but works so well in other languages someone in the naming department must have got a bonus. The French have devised the term monopsace for such cars, and personally I reckon that’s better than any of minivan, people carrier or MPV.
The style finally proposed resembles as much as anything the front of a 1970s or 1980s high speed train, of which the French TGV train was the best (so it is said), and was then the train to beat for speed and glamour. A big, glassy box behind this distinctive front, enclosing the most practical and innovative interior seen for a long tine, if ever, completed the package
Size wise, the Espace roughly matched the European mid-size car, with a wheel base of 102 inches and a length of 167 inches. Most of the mechanical elements came from the Renault 18 saloon, including the suspension; the gearbox and the longitudinally mounted engine came from the Renault 20. This last feature was a change from the Chrysler plan, which would have had a transverse engine. The Renault option was the 2.0 litre four cylinder with 110bhp or a 2.1 litre diesel with 88 hp and a lot more torque. Later, the Douvrin 2.7litre V6 was added as well, although in very much smaller volumes than the 2.0 litre cars.
But the big novelty of the Espace was in the interior. There were two individual seats up front and then an option of a second row of three, or of a third row of two as well. Optionally, the two front seats could swivel 180-degrees to face the rear seats, whilst the individual seats converted into tables. The rearmost seats were optional and best reserved for children. The completely flat floor also meant that that with all but the front two seats could be removed, the car could offer a van-like carrying volume and capacity. Indeed, many early Espaces are earning their keep doing that duty in France even now, and the seats go back in on Sunday. Or you could set out for an in-car meeting or a picnic.
Along with the layout, Renault and Matra also took the opportunity to do some original thinking about the other interior styles and materials, with a fabric covering on the dash for example. The cars were pretty well equipped with features like electric windows and rear wipers being standard fit, as well as decent quality upholstery. Renault was pioneer in a couple of features we now take for givens – steering wheel (or column) mounted radio controls, an underrated safety innovation, and remote central locking, with another great name, le plip, and both of these were on the Espace in 1984, adding to the modern image the car had.
Interior volume wise, if not on length, the big estates/station wagons were overtaken, and the passenger experience was arguably better as well, with a high seating position and big deep windows. France built the best large estates in Europe in the 1960s to the 1980s, with the Citroen DS and CX Safari, and the Peugeot 504, all of which came in 7 or 8 seater variants, but at the expense of a lot of length. The Espace was shorter than either – indeed it was shorter than a Vauxhall Cavalier or Ford Sierra.
There was a facelift in 1988, to remove the last traces of the Chrysler/Talbot ancestry (there were no actual Chrysler parts in the car, but the style was there of course) with revised headlamps, grille and bonnet and interior revisions using more Renault standard items. Mechanically, the car was unchanged. This example seen by LDeren shows the difference, and the strength of the basic design.
However, my personal favourite Espace is the first type of the Mk 1, known unofficially as the phase 1, especially in a strong colour such as the red car at the top, seen by Alessio3373. There is something straightforward, accessible and practical about this car that appeals to my inner rational self, and is hard to deny. If you need 5 seats and luggage or 7 seats, then why go further for a Discovery, Land Cruiser or Grand Cherokee?
The Espace has never been offered in the US. Plans were made for this through AMC alongside the Alliance and Encore, but the sale to Chrysler overtook this.
The actual Mk 2 Espace came in 1991, as a re-skin of the existing car with a style much more in line with the contemporary softer shapes, with gentler curves, and some minor changes to the doors, glazing and roof, and a mildly revised rear quarter and tailgate.
Underneath, all was continuous, and the Espace continued to drive and ride in a way and to a standard that seemed distant to its practical origins.
Compared with many cars of the 1980s, the ride was a revelation, and the handling wasn’t too bad albeit it with some roll. It most emphatically was not a van with windows, even if the optional multi-position seats were rarely put through all their paces, and the driving position not that great. It established the market for such vehicles in Europe.
Of course, after 200,000 cars for the first two generation in nine years, the competition came. In 1990, we had the Toyota Previa, from 1994 the Fiat Ulysse/Lancia Zeta/Peugeot 806/Citroen Evasion (Synergie in the UK, for obvious reasons) quadruplets and in 1996 the Ford Galaxy/VW Sharan pairing. These were all bigger than the original Espace, with wheelbases on 110-112 inches, or the same as the Chrysler minivans, and in the case of the Peugeot/Citroen/Fiat directly paired with commercial vans.
But Renault had a plan, and had spotted something others had missed. The Espace grew in 1997 with the Mk 3, on a wheelbase of 106 inches and with a long wheelbase option, known as the Grand Espace on a 113 inche wheelbase, with extended rear accommodation ahead of and behind the rear wheels.
Essentially, the long wheelbase car was now the 7 seater and the shorter version the 5 seater. The Espace was still based on the existing car, with a carry over galvanised frame and (reskinned) doors, the same windscreen and quarter lights, though with more wraparound glazing and another new tailgate.
Underneath, there was major change, as the transverse engine and gearbox of the second generation Renault Laguna saloon were used, increasing space in the front for passenger accommodation.
A new interior, again challenging convention in the way it was laid out with a central digital instrument pod and a locker in the dash that could accept a briefcase, completed the changes.
Renault’s plan had a second string too – the smaller five-seat only Scenic, a monospace built on the platform of the 1995 Megane mid sized car, Renault’s Golf, Astra and Escort rival. In 1996, this was five seats only, on a wheelbase of 101 in, the same as the Megane hatchback. Technically, this was a Megane with a monospace body on it, built in the conventional monocoque manner, rather than the Espace’s frame and composite panel construction. With the Twingo mini car and, later, the Modus compact monospace, Renault could claim a range of four monspace cars, uniquely in Europe.
So, the Scenic looks like an Espace replacement, and in some ways it was. Size wise, it matched the original 1984 Espace almost exactly, and with the transverse engine had packaging advantages. Renault were claiming the Espace for themselves, rather than buying a car from Matra and marketing it.
Effectively, Renault were moving the Espace brand into their own intellectual property rights, as the intellectual property, branding and engine aside, of the Espace, from 1984 to 2003, was owned by Matra, not Renault, who had identified the demand for such a car, once the size and seating configuration was settled. Wheelbase of around 100 inches, 5 seats with a flexible configuration, high seating position and adequate luggage space, or 106-110 inch wheelbase and 7 seats. In 2003 came the second generation Scenic (above), with much stronger styling, inside and out.
Citroen were so impressed that when their Scenic rival, the Picasso was launched in 1999, with very derivative styling outside and in, the project development period was traced back to the Paris Motor Show of 1996, when the Scenic was first shown. Imitation, flattery etc. Now every manufacturer in Europe, from BMW to Vauxhall has a Scenic competitor, and the second generation Scenic has a long wheelbase option at 106 inches and 7 seats
The Espace lived on, though, with a Mk 4 version based much more closely on the Laguna and Vel Satis hatchbacks, with a transverse engine and full monocoque construction, now on a full size wheelbase, and built in house by Renault. Matra were no longer building the Espace, after 900,000 examples. Renault’s stated aim was to build the Range Rover of MPVs, and arguably succeeded with the Espace Mk 4 having an image much removed from the “airport taxi” or “stressed school run Mum” image of its competitors, such as the Ford Galaxy and VW Sharan.
However, the primary demand for a monospace was truly at the Scenic and Picasso point of the market, and the big Espace has quietly faded into the background, selling in much reduced volumes, and being withdrawn from right hand drive markets in 2012. It is now being replaced by something much more akin to a Mercedes R class, or a Ford S-Max – effectively a 5+2 version of the 7 seat Galaxy with a lower roof line and more aggressive styling.
There are three other interesting history notes about the transition from the Mk 3 to Mk 4 Espace. As a substitute for not building any more Espaces, Renault commissioned Matra to design and build the Avantime (above), which was conceptually a Coupe version of the Mk 3 Espace, built on the same platform and with the same construction.
France has had an awkward relationship with large true luxury cars for many years, partly because of taxation, and this was a very French take on, say, a Mercedes-Benz S class coupe. Just four individual seats, with all the space and light you could want, clothed in one of this century’s most striking bodies. Look again at Paul Niedermayer’s review to get a true impression. The Mk 3 Espace also serves, with a high roof conversion, as the premuium airport – city taxi in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and is significantly more impressive than the usual Proton Impian saloon commonly used.
The other is that Matra offered the Mk 3 Espace, without the name or the Renault engine, to Rover. After all, it was Matra’s product, and Rover had nothing in the cupboard or in the market to match it. The plan didn’t come off, partly because the expected and necessary volumes weren’t considered achievable and partly because the Rover engines were too expensive to make it affordable. But there is a certain irony in the heirs to Issigonis and his history of space efficiency going to others for a space efficient vehicle.
I’m not sure what Sir Alec would have made of that!