Classic Cars

The Renault Espace

It created a new market. But, says Giles Chapman, the credit may belong elsewhere

Renault invents the MPV. Launches Espace. Makes a million of them and rules the market. The end. Or so its smooth-talking Paris PR people would have us believe.

Renault invents the MPV. Launches Espace. Makes a million of them and rules the market. The end. Or so its smooth-talking Paris PR people would have us believe.

The Espace went on sale 20 years ago this month, and Renault is justifiably proud its seven-seater people-carrier, probably still the most fashionable on offer, accounts for more than one in five European MPV sales.

Renault, however, certainly didn't pioneer the MPV concept. And, by rights, the Espace should have worn the badge of its arch-enemy Peugeot. And, even more surprisingly, early plans for the Espace were sketched not in some sun-dappled Paris design salon, but in the downbeat environment of Britain's West Midlands.

The Dodge Ram delivery van of the early 1970s was actually the catalyst for the Espace. In the US, it was a big seller but Chrysler Corporation truck executives noticed that versions with windows and extra seats began to catch on with large American families.

The Dodge truck division's market research findings were passed to Chrysler's car development team and, in 1978, 100 designers began work on Project T-115 - literally, a 'mini van'. Five years later, it was launched as the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan.

By coincidence, a 28-year old Royal College of Art car design graduate called Fergus Pollock was working at Chrysler's Detroit nerve- centre, on secondment from Britain, and Project T-115 made a big impression on him. Upon his return to Chrysler UK's Coventry design studios, he set about creating his own seven-seater.

Meanwhile, Chrysler's European subsidiary was sold to Peugeot. The new owner discovered Pollock's prototype, codenamed P16, was being crafted in partnership with French specialist company Matra. Pollock left to work for Citroen and so Matra's Antoine Volanis refined the P16's shape.

And it's at this point, in late 1979, that either some eerie parallel thinking took place, or else industrial espionage, because Renault claims to have come up with its own scheme for "a grand touring saloon inspired by the passenger van".

Peugeot, concerned the P16 was just too radical for buyers accustomed to its traditional estate cars, eventually abandoned it. It was a corporate mistake of epic proportions, because Matra teamed up with Renault and on 15 December 1982 they began work together on P23, the car that became the Espace and, by extension, the definitive European MPV.

Renault reckoned the Espace would be a niche product. That's why it contracted-out manufacture to Matra and decided to build the bodywork from glassfibre. This also gave the car a low weight, endowing it with a nimbleness that belied its towering stance.

Once you got used to the raked windscreen that appeared to be several yards away from the steering wheel, you found the 2-litre petrol or turbodiesel engines made the Espace pretty pokey. Cornering, thanks to front-wheel drive, was also excellent.

Just as with the original Mini, initial Espace sales were sporadic. But, in 1985, orders started to rocket, with production beginning at a second plant in 1987 to meet them. Buyers eagerly specified options like twin sunroofs, air conditioning and four-wheel drive.

By the time the second-generation Espace was launched in 1991, 182,000 cars had been sold, and the veratile, stylish Espace had, from nowhere, elbowed its way in between the Range Rovers and Volvo estates on school runs across Britain.

The third incarnation, unveiled in October 1996 brought the further novelty of a 23in-longer Grand Espace version, with cavernous extra luggage space behind the third row of seating. The fourth, arriving in 2002, boasts avant-garde styling and a world-record Euro NCAP crash rating.

Renault now loftily pitches its Espace against executive cars like Mercedes-Benzes rather than the massed ranks of MPV imitators the car has inspired in the two decades since its debut. Prestige is now on a par with practicality. Yet one of the Espace's unique elements, its plastic shell, has been discarded. The latest model has an all-metal structure, with the option of V6 petrol and diesel engines to haul this altogether heavier beast along.

The millionth Espace has recently been built, but pity the team at poor old Matra: despite being the linchpin of the whole Espace phenomenon, Renault now assembles the Espace in-house and Matra Automobile has all but closed down. Truly, the one victim of the Espace's phenomenal success.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

    £22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

    Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

    Day In a Page

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test