(first posted 11/11/2014) 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 1970s.
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 monospace 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 time, 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 inch 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 monospace 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 Niedermeyer’s review to get a true impression. The Mk 3 Espace also serves, with a high roof conversion, as the premium 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!
An essential overview. The original Espace is one of the most handsome four wheeled vehicles from the 80s and the best looking people carrier ever. Never driven one, but love it. Big time. That prototype demonstrates just how well the production version looks.
Again, Roger, much appreciation.
” Never driven one, but love it” Quote
I had a brief drive a an early well-used one years ago, and it was deeply unpleasant. The clutch pedal seemed to work in a near vertical plane, which would have been OK if you could stand over it.
While the engineering is very different, I suspect that the stylists of the Ford Aerostar took a look at one of these at some point.
I was noticing that too, the front end is very similar to the Aerostar, it even looks more Ford-ey when its in those 2 tone combinations.
Another interesting tidbit is that while the Espace was visually compared to the French TGV high-speed train, the Aerostar was compared to the NASA Space Shuttle in a very similar way during early advertising with that sloped front end. Unfortunately, but logically, this comparison was shelved after the “Challenger” disaster.
Laissez les bons temps rouler, la monospace est arrivée.
This is a very thorough write-up Roger !
The new one has been presented recently, although they call it a crossover now.
My dad had two Mk 2 Espace in succession (with the V6 engine). It really was the most practical car at that time, he enjoyed it for being able to store two bikes inside for his frequent trips. However, both cars had major mechanical problems (I don’t remember what it was), with several thousand D-Mark of repair bills near the end of their short lives. My dad swore off Renaults altogether after that.
I’ve heard a lot about the Espace over the years but haven’t seen many pictures, certainly none of the shots here of the interior.
I agree that the “original” model is best, it’s a shame most “facelifts” rarely improve any model.
I wonder what the REAL story is behind the Ford Aerostar now that I’ve read this and seen the similarities with that Lancia concept vehicle and the Espace.
So, what you are saying is that Chrysler indeed invented the minivan. The only dispute is whether it was the American or the European part of the company. 🙂
Nicely covered. I first came across this when researching a CC on another early minivan. Popular Science magazine included the Espace in a 4 way minivan comparison in early 1985 on the grounds that AMC would soon be offering it. I had never heard about these before this. Here is the link:
I never did figure out why Renault never tried to bring the Espace out in the USA. Or even to bring a few over to gauge interest, like Ford did in 2009 with its Fiesta.
A lost opportunity?
Like Peugeot missed out real, real big with the 205 for the US market.
I am 100% sure the slightly arrogant attitude of the Espace would have been embraced by the Americans, especially since behind that facade there hides a very, very practical car.
To me the biggest problem with these Euro mini-vans is the lack of sliding rear doors. Some careless kid or adult throwing the door into the car parked next to it comes to mind although Europeans are far more respectful of other peoples vehicles than most here in NA.
What I often see is this: a van with a double cab and a cargo space, sliding doors included. Ideal if you have both a family and a business to run. It’s not exactly “mini” though. This one is a Ford Transit.
I forgot this one, a Renault Kangoo, with sliding rear doors. Also available as a panel van and as 4×4. No need to stop and get out to stretch your back, just stand up while driving.
Comparing the 1984 Escape and the 1984 Voyager/Caravan side-by-side makes them look like they came out twenty years apart. I love Renault’s ’80s-techy interior design language they used in the 1980s. The fabric on the dash works, and looks much better than cheesy fake wood decals.
You mentioned how “Escape” was a good name in different languages. That reason is probably why Chrysler used “Voyager” for all its minivans in Europe. In French, “Voyager” literally translates to “travel” or “to travel”, also a good name for a family car.
Brendan – Espace, not Escape
My dad had a mk3 Espace (after owning a Voyager); the ride (and brakes) were much better than those of the Voyager, but the reliability wasn’t. It would repeatedly switch to limp-home mode, and at one point some sort of under-engine cover fell off while riding on the highway. I think there were other issues too; it might have needed a new engine at some point. All in all it made him vow to never buy a French car again.
The Voyager always worked fine but it somehow started looking old really fast, scratches/fading, etc.
Edit: interestingly, Dacia does better in reliability surveys than Renault nowadays; less stuff to break?
There was a big laugh when Renault launched the Dacia Logan.
Renault’s leader at the time was Louis Schweitzer who introduced the Logan as a cheap, sturdy and reliable vehicle.
When asked if the Logan would be sold in France and western Europe, Schweitzer replied no, because western customers are not interested in such a vehicle, as if western customers didn’t want a “cheap, sturdy and reliable” vehicle…
That later generation Espace dash, it looks like it has the a/c controls on the left, someone has been reading the GM playbook…… 😉
I give Chrysler the nod for the sliding doors, to me the Espace seems more like an extension of the tall wagon concept like the Colt Vista because of the conventional style rear doorsand sort of like Nissan Stanza/Axesss(remember that?),though the Nissan vans did have sliding rear doors, I always though that it was odd that the Nissan vans really didn’t catch on here.
Whats funny is that GM almost could have invented the FWD mini-van too, there was a van proposal that was toyed with during the FWD X-car development that was nixed, there was an X-car wagon and little “El Camino” style pick up too.
I do give the Espace credit though, I see lots of what GM cribbed for the U-van(Bulletrain-Dustbuster) minivans in the Espace, the far out windshield and pillars are very similar to the U-vans, the modular seating and the composite body panels too, though the GM triplets weren’t introduced until 1990, 6 years after the Espace, though they probably wanted them out earlier, I imagine that was mostly due to comittee lead fusterclucking at GM during their development in the mid 80’s.
The Nissan Stanza tall wagon did sell in some numbers here, and there are still at least a few around. If I were to get up from my desk and walk to the other side of the building, in fact, I would be looking out the window at one. (Obviously an outlier, but the thing looks to be in showroom condition and is driven daily!)
While I’ve never seen an Espace in person, or at least not that I remember, I did always find them to be a clean, attractive design–early 80’s angular without being harsh. But why no sliding doors? That simply seems a major oversight. They’re a godsend in tight spaces, and Europe is full of tight spaces…
A truly brilliant model. In many ways, it seems more human-friendly than the Mopar equivalents…. except for the lack of sliding doors. I wonder why Espace never acquired those? Once you own a vehicle with sliding doors, you’ll wonder why any car uses hinges anymore.
And it was too French in other ways (underpowered, unreliable)… still, it would’ve been interesting to see them here in the US. At the very least, it would’ve caused Chrysler to up their game faster.
Proton, not Protiom.
I may be remembering the wrong brand but I seem to remember NISSAN itself killed the Axxess. The story is that several Nissan vans had engine fires and instead of recalling AND fixing the Axxess, Nissan recalled the entire U.S. fleet and crushed them. Yet I have seen 2 or 3 over the years…about as many as I’ve seen of the Stanza wagons.
You’re thinking of the Nissan van, not the Axxess: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-asian/curbside-classic-1987-nissan-van-how-did-this-turkey-escape-the-crusher-or-oven/
You’re probably only seen 2 or 3 Axxess vans over the years because it was only sold for one year in the USA. (1991 maybe?) Canada got them for a few more though.
I had a ride once in a Mk 4. Gorgeous vehicle inside and out. I remember that the interior was a rich blue and the seats were covered in a velour cloth similar to what Audi used in the 80s. The Avantime look worked on the Megane (especially the 5-door), Scenic and Espace equally well. Those are all terrific names by the way, and Clio is great too.
I’ve seen pix of the Espace in magazines and on television from time to time and wondered how they would have fared in the North American market. It’s something of a small tragedy that AMC/Renault didn’t release the Espace in the NA market, it would have been a fairly well matched competitor to the original Caravan/Voyager vans. With all of the competition using a front engine/rear drive layout, nothing was quite as space efficient as the T-115’s.
With the return of FIAT to the US, I’m noticing that we (in the US in particular) have missed a whole two generations of European design, particularly in small cars. Looking at the evolution of the Espace and it’s variants, I see there’s a whole other design philosophy we’ve missed, too. It would be great if Renault/Nissan would bring over more of their Euro cars. Of course, I say this as an enthusiast of Pontiacs, as I miss their “unusual” design themes and cues.
With the mention of FIAT, we now get the 500L here in the US and judging from the few that I’ve seen on the streets of Grand Rapids, Michigan, they appear to be the original-sized Caravan/Voyager replacement I’ve been dreaming of. However, my spouse is not so enamored with minivans (but oddly loves our Aztek….), so I imagine I will not be the owner of one of those anytime soon.
A great write-up Roger and thanks for the info. You’ve whetted my appetite for a box on wheels again!
No Brasil houve um carro que foi cópia da Renault Space, a Grancar Futura. A versão tupiniquim da Space foi criada pelo designer Toni Bianco. De início, Bianco importou uma unidade da Space para tirar os moldes e assim criar a versão brasileira do modelo. A produção então começou a partir de 1990 pela Grancar Design, empresa ligada à Ford Grancar. Com carroceria feita de plástico e fibra de vidro, a Futura usava a base mecânica escolhida do Ford Del Rey, inicialmente com motor 1.8 de 98 cv e posteriormente com o 2.0 de 116 cv. O câmbio era manual de cinco marchas. Com produção de 18 a 20 carros por mês, a Futura teve carreira curta: a produção foi encerrada em 1991, após somente 159 unidades vendidas.
Roger, yet again a fantastic write-up! I’ve always been a big fan of the Espace despite never so much as having even been inside one. At the beginning it was simply the perfect utilization of space while not merely an adaptation of something else (i.e. a cargo van with windows etc). All the good stuff was inside, not outside. But the styling works too, even on the first ones. And then just got better looking as the years went on, very much in the Range Rover idiom (to my eyes). Thanks!
Good call on the Range Rover.
Fascinating write-up Roger, thanks! For the life of me though, I don’t know how anyone can look over that expanse of dash…it seems so isolating, like the GM dustbusters.
I like the Lumina APV, but if it had the nose in the same proportions of the Espace MK3 it would be more functional without lose its odd elegance.
Renault Avantime was an instant classic and is still one of the most expensive used cars in Europe.
I ended up with an Espace at the Milan airport in ’96. I had booked an Alfa Romeo wagon but our bags got lost and by the time I got to the rental counter all they had were (very) compacts or an Espace. I had my wife, mother and sister with me so a compact was out of the question. I was not happy about this – cost of gas, difficulty parking – all that scary European stuff. I had always rented a small car in Europe and this thing looked like a barge. Not to mention the rear seats which had been disengaged but were in the back and the rental office insisted I had to carry them. So much for a great deal of luggage space.
I (nobody else wanted to) drove that thing to Venice, all over Tuscany and through Provence. It was great. Good driving position, great visibility (very important on the Autostradas when cars are sneaking up behind you at 150 kph or more), and great gas mileage – it was a diesel.
Now the parking was difficult. Several times I had to have the help of my passengers to navigate the tiny ramps and turns of French and Italian parking garages. I didn’t want to hit anything and I didn’t.
It was a much better experience than I thought it would be. Everybody had a good comfortable seat and lots of room and visibility and the ride was great either on the highway or on cobbled streets. It drove like a car (unlike Chrysler vans), scooted well enough and kept up with highway traffic. On another trip I had a Scenic and it was even better – and much easier to navigate in parking garages.
I think the upcurve at the front of the beltline kind of mars the mk1 Espace. I think I’d probably like it better with a straight line instead of the curve.
And then there was the Espace F1:
The first Espace is so fricking sexy. I’ve never understood the appeal of a coupe but get a good looking van, a few good friends and nice things happen. Add a French accent and WOW.
This car should have been made in Kenosha as an AMC, call it the Cross Country. Use the AMC 2.5 engine for more longevity, make a long one with the Renault 30 V6 and AMC would have survived because this would have been a hit.