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.
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.
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.
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.