Happy 30th birthday, grand-père: MK1 Renault Espace

It’s 2014. A year in which motoring folk will get all misty-eyed over the 30th anniversary of the Peugeot 205 GTi and the MK2 Volkswagen Golf. And quite rightly so. But there’s another car that deserves an even bigger celebration. And that car is the MK1 Renault Espace.

Amazingly, it’s 30 years since Renault and Matra (of Rancho fame) jumped into bed together, shared a bit more than a French kiss and gave birth to the Espace. And whilst Renault can’t truly claim to have invented the MPV – the likes of Volkswagen, Fiat and the hideously expensive Stout Scarab would have something to say about that – the Espace was the first truly mass market people carrier. And it also offered the most innovative use of interior space. The Espace was a car designed from the inside out.

The Espace didn’t have the easiest of births. In fact, it spread out over a total of six years. Work originally started as far back as 1978, but Matra struggled to mount a serious business case for what was then a totally niche vehicle. Indeed, when Matra pitched the idea to Peugeot, it received warm praise for the innovative design, but was told that – although it was one for the future – it wasn’t for them.

Peugeot’s loss was Renault’s gain. On the 18th December 1982, Matra pitched the Espace concept to Renault. Some 18 months later, the production version of the Espace was ready for sale. It was quite unlike anything anyone had ever seen in Europe. A one-box MPV, styled like a French TGV train and featuring what was to all intents and purposes, a living room in the rear.

MK1 Renault Espace 1980s

Was the world ready for the Renault Espace? Was it heck.

In the first month, how many units do you think Renault sold? 900? Maybe 90? Nope, nine. Just nine.

This left the bosses at Renault and Matra sweating into their Bordeaux and reaching for the Gauloises. Would they be left with a boxy white elephant on their hands?

Well no. During the press launch of the Renault Espace, French motoring journalists were told to share cars, thus demonstrating the car’s space and versatility. As luck would have it, at lunchtime, the heavens opened, forcing the journos to devour the Renault-supplied picnic in the comfort of the Espace. Suddenly the Espace was making sense. And this rain-inspired wisdom would soon filter through to the good people of France.

The rest is history. Initially offered only as a 110bhp 2.0-litre petrol-engined MPV, diesel options would soon be offered, as well as a smooth V6 petrol. Some 400 Espaces would go on to enjoy active service as Parisian taxis and by 1985, the Espace had arrived in the UK. In 1988, it received a mild facelift, with a 4×4 version also added to the range.

Ellen and a pair of Renault Espaces

By the time the MK2 had arrived in 1991, over 200,000 Espaces had been sold. Proof that Renault and Matra had got it right. The Espace was a car that caught everyone off guard, meaning its competitors would take years to develop a product as convincing as the Renault. It was the 1990s before Ford, Peugeot or Citroën joined the party.

It was unbelievably innovative. The front two seats could swivel 180-degrees to face the rear seats, with the three individual middle seats converted into tables. The rearmost seats were optional – and best reserved for children – although as the journalists had previously discovered, it offered unrivalled picnic potential. Its completely flat floor also meant that with all but the front two seats removed, it could offer a van-like luggage capacity.

Today, the MK1 is the most PetrolBloggy Espace of the bunch. Ideally in pre-facelift guise, with its 1980s sharp edges and New Romantic feel. Naturally a pair of yellow headlights and a set of yellow fog lights are a must. Not to mention an ashtray full of Gaulouises and a Jean Michel Jarre tape on the cassette player.

There are around 24,000 Espaces on the roads of Britain, which is less than half the number from a decade ago. Like all MPVs, the Espace is a hard car to love. It’s bought to serve a purpose and once it has outlived its usefulness, it is simply disposed of, with little emotion attached to its passing. They tend to make for terrible secondhand buys, with years of neglect and abuse resulting in the interior resembling a student bedsit and an exterior looking like it has done a few rounds of the Arc de Triomphe.

But surely it’s time to recognise the original Renault Espace for what it is? A classic design which spawned countless imitators and wannabes. Admittedly, in a straight fight between the Toyota Space Cruiser and the MK1 Renault Espace, PetrolBlog would have a tough time choosing. Maybe the yellow fog light factor would just give the Espace the edge.

Four generations of Renault Espace

Renault may have improved the Espace recipe over the years, with each new generation becoming more efficient, more spacious and – in the eyes of the general public – more appealing to look at. But even the MK1 facelift stripped away some of the original’s magic. The drama had gone, not to mention the original Simca and Matra parts.

Pressing one into active service for family duties may not be a viable option in 2014. But a quick trip across the channel to celebrate the MK1 Espace’s 30th birthday would be a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

And we could even return with a MK1 Twingo…

Images © Renault.

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Gavin Big-Surname
The chief waffler and founder of PetrolBlog in 2010. Has a rather unhealthy obsession with cars from the 80s and 90s, and is on a one-man mission to collect the cars nobody else wants. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.


  1. April 3, 2014
    Michael Wrigley

    Nice article, I’d take issue with only one point. As the owner of F181VNP shown in the photo during its photo shoot with Ellen MacArthur I’m pleased to say it’s very suitable as a daily car. It goes on picnics, tows cars on trailers, gets used as a van, has it’s own towbar bike rack and commutes regularly, then it gets polished and shown occasionally. Being French, “plastic” and 25 years old it does have have high maintenance electrics. As for loving it, you couldn’t prise it off me!

    • April 25, 2014
      Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

      Awesome – thanks for getting in touch.

      Great to hear from the owner of that famous Espace! Used daily you say? How many miles has it done now and what have you had to do to keep it on the road?

      • May 31, 2014
        Michael Wrigley

        It’s approaching 150000 and has done 20000 in the last 5 years. The key challenges have been electrical, apart from that it has been pretty reliable with nothing more than wear items such as bushes and suspension items. Some parts are now becoming difficult to source if they are rhd Espace only.

    • September 11, 2014

      i too use my espace MK1 daily although it does also have electrical niggles and i am finding the interior parts i want very hard to find . it is a pleasure to drive and love the looks it gets from people in the street who have that “i remember those ” look

  2. April 5, 2015
    Tony Sleep

    I’ve owned a 1988 2000Txe since 1991. Last week it passed its MOT again with no advisories. At 112,000 it uses no oil at all between services, starts first time even after a month or two of no use, and sails through emissions.

    People write the most utter rubbish about these cars, as if they are a financial hand grenade. I learned early on that Renault West London was the source of massive bills, not the car, and reverted to DIY servicing . Every service they wanted to replace the distributor oil seal, hidden behind the head. The first time I paid the £100 bill. 6m later they forgot they’d already done that wheeze and tried it on again. Over 20 years later it still isn’t leaking.

    It’s far the most reliable car I have owned, better even than my previous VW Golf Gti. And you can just forget about rust completely. The galvanised chassis and plastic outer panels are immune. The MOT tester says he’s seen worse 3 year old undersides.

    Service parts are readily available and cheap, via Mister Auto – a full SBS rear brake kit, 2 cylinders, 4 shoes, springs and fittings just cost me £46. A new driveshaft was £65 a year ago, CV kit on the other side £37. Alternator £90 at about 90k mls. Timing belt kit £75 at 72k. Discs £60/pr.

    20,000mls ago I thought the gearbox was on the way out, but an oil change made it as slick as ever.

    It went through a patch of difficult hot starting a few years back. This came to a head on a trip up the M4 after collecting an unwell teenage son from Somerset – wouldn’t pull properly and limped along at 50mph. I got to London and it packed up completely just after leaving the motorway. I yanked off the connector to the thermal sensor for the ECU which put it into limp mode and got home. A new temp sensor cost £17 from GSF, problem solved.

    In 24 years of ownership there have only been normal service items and a few minor issues, mostly fixed for no money. EG an internal fuel pump wiring connection re-soldered 20 years ago. The offside rear lamp cluster earth that needs cleaning and re-making every 10 years. The electric windows and wiper motors seize up after 15 years but can be stripped and re-lubricated and then work as new again. The radiator fan ditto – it seized. I couldn’t find a new one. It is not supposed to come apart but it’s possible, then I replaced the brushes with some Black & Decker similars and re-lubricated the phosphor bronze bearings. A couple of tack welds and it’s good as new, with a new fan blade off a Clio or something ‘cos the OE shattered when I tried to take it off. The central locking is iffy now, doesn’t work on the rear passenger doors, probably needs new solenoids. They’re £11 each.

    It took Renault 10 years and 3 re-designs of the clutch pedal to finally arrive at one that would not break. I’ve had all of them. The clutch needed doing at around 80,000. That’s a sod of a job, one of few worth getting done professionally as it needs a car lift so the engine and transmission can be dropped enough. Mine’s a bit grabby in recent years, when the engine is cold, but fine once warmed up. I think due to a sticky release arm pivot.

    It’s comfortable and was an amazingly good family car for long trips with 3 kids and luggage. Granny lived in Devon and most of the miles were done back and forth to London. It’ll cruise at 75-85 all day and 100+ is possible if not the 115 the speedo fibs. The ability to remove the seats and use it as a van is just wonderfully versatile. It handles well and is pleasant to drive, although the more you load into the car the soggier it gets. With no seats in it’s good fun. With 7 people plus luggage it has the dynamics of a double bed and needs forethought on bendy roads. But it’s invariably even tempered with no nasty surprises

    Total cost of ownership is incredibly low. I paid £10,300 in 1991. ~ £4k on service. £9.6k on fuel. So about £1000/year, £20/week, plus tax+insurance = £30/week all in.

    Less good aspects are:

    – The paint. Mine is the especially problematic metallic maroon and was beginning to fail by 5 years old, with blistering lacquer. I had long arguments with Renault about this, as did many other owners. Renault refused to honour warranty cover, insisting bodywork warranty was limited to perforation (ie rust, in glassfibre panels!). At least one owner sued them and won. I had the bonnet resprayed by Renault, but it was knackered again after 5 more years. Now, mine is utterly shabby faded maroon matt. It looks like a chicken shed. If and when I can afford it I will vinyl wrap it, as 3M make a vinyl that’s a near perfect match. Cheaper and longer lasting.

    – the interior features cheap materials that don’t last well. When I bought mine back in 1991 I looked at several cars that had completely wrecked interiors after 4-5 years. Mine is still OK aside from the headlining, which has many small holes and tears in the material that’s absurdly thin and has UV rot. The seats are a bit faded and grubby, but the interior carpet is near perfect as I always used overmats. Door panels, dash etc are what they always were, cheap nasty plastic. Textured gray Fablon over cardboard in places. Ugh. But the cabin is a nice light, airy place to be, with twin sunroofs.

    – 22mpg in town is a bit hard to live with given fuel costs now. I have a lifetime record of fuel fills and that improves to 29.5mpg on a run.

    – the heater is inadequate for the large cabin volume in very cold weather. A lot of parts bin rummaging went into Espace production, and whatever they used is undersized. OK, just, if you are in the front, but not warm enough further back.

    – what you don’t want to do is crash it, so I haven’t. Side protection is especially feeble, above floor level it may as well be a cardboard box.

    – the 5 removable passenger seats have lap belts only, built into the seats. Not great for safety, so don’t crash it.

    Only a handful of the Matra-built Mark1 phase 1 and 2 models are left on the road now, and later Renault-built Espace models with steel bodies seemed to have massive engine, electrical and rust problems that killed them within 10 years or so. The Espace was never a car that excited me at all, it was just a solution to a range of problems. After a quarter century I have come to really admire it, and the versatility is extraordinary even now. For over 10 years I have been thinking I really should get rid of it for a smaller, more economical car, but then I have to collect 6 passengers, a motorcycle, a fridge or some sacks of ballast, or take half a tree to the tip, and I wonder how I could manage without it.


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