The Final Frontier
The original Renault Espace redefined automotive architecture.
As far as the automobile is concerned, the disconnect between necessity and desire is so marked, it can be considered inherent. For no matter how clogged the roads and how strict the speed limits may be today - it is speed the car enthusiast is after, above all else. Or rather: The promise, the potential of speed.
It is this kind of escapism that separates the automobile from consumer durables. It is also the reason why even the most significant, groundbreaking and charismatic car designs shall forever be overlooked - if they do not cater to our lust for speed. Hence the continued lusting after cars like the Lamborghini Miura, which was deeply flawed, but looked fast - and sometimes was fast, too.
If speed is not involved, cuteness acts as the main substitute to whet the car enthusiast’s appetite: Hence the continued love for the Käfer bug, hence the adoration of the original Mini (which even won some rallies and therefore constitutes a fast car of sorts).
The first-generation Renault Espace is not so lucky. It was not used in racing. It is not cute, but modernist, in a very rational way. It was also conceived as a car to make life more convenient, rather than more exciting. It did not entertain (and frustrate) the very few, but provided the many with more space while on the move than they had hitherto dreamed of.
An experience which might elicit a warm feeling in more than a few children of the ‘80s – a reminder of their younger selves drowsily observing the increasingly picturesque scenery outside the original Espace's enormous windows, as they headed south for the summer holidays. It would be some other car they would treat themselves to today though. Maybe a Mini, but more likely some kind of proper sports car. For nostalgia mostly concerns itself with a past never experienced.
Obviously, the resultant ignorance (or amnesia?) towards the Espace and so many of the cars that redefined mass motoring says more about the human yearning for status than about the merits of any automobile. It should also not stand in the way when looking back at an automobile whose significance can barely be overstated.
Looking back in this instance means casting one’s mind back far earlier than 1984, when the Espace was first introduced - and not to France either. Two designers - Fergus Pollock and Geoff Matthews - were working on a multi-purpose vehicle at Chrysler’s European subsidiary in the British West Midlands. While Pollock and Matthews were not the only stylists toying with the idea of a family van at the time (what with Chrysler US working on the future Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager, just as Giugiaro was in the process of designing the Lancia Megagamma), they were first to come up with a bonnet-less monobox architecture.
As Chrysler’s European business was in considerable turmoil at the time, the monobox idea was handed around the different branches, eventually ending up at the Pentastar’s French subsidiary, Simca. This outfit had an established business relationship with French automotive engineering and contract manufacturing outfit, Matra, where a designer by the name of Antonis Volanis subsequently created a sketch that would be known as dessin orange. This formed the basis of a design that looked very much like the future Espace, but still used the underpinnings of Simca’s Talbot Solara saloon.
By this point, Chrysler sold Simca to Peugeot (PSA). PSA was still in the midst of absorbing not just Citroën’s corporate infrastructure at the time, but also the kind of free-thinking spirit that was completely at odds with Peugeot’s own inherent conservatism. Thus burdened with integrating yet another struggling car brand, PSA management were not interested in funding some pie-in-the-sky
revolutionary car architecture and hence passed on the opportunity to bring the monobox MPV to market.
Luckily for Matra, Renault, Peugeot’s arch-competitor, turned out to be far more open-minded - and daring. For the car that was eventually - and tellingly - named Espace (space) was far from a safe bet, insofar as it was truly a completely new product. The kind of product the customer was previously unaware he wanted in the first place. The market of 1984 was accordingly utterly unprepared for a product offering not just a variation on existing car designs, but an entirely new spatial set-up. With initial sales being sluggish, to say the least, Peugeot managers may have been relieved at first that their caution was vindicated - up until the point when the earliest of adopters had told their neighbours about the luxurious feeling of space their TGV for the road bestowed upon them. And the rest truly is history.
The MPV, in different sizes, would turn out to be one of the automotive mainstays of the 1990s - particularly for Renault. In addition to the Espace, the French brand would eventually offer not only the smaller (Mégane) Scénic MPV, but also the inimitable Twingo - a small, cute monobox design that would prove to be one of the decade’s most charismatic shapes. Simultaneously, Renault kept on regularly updating the Espace, which became more sophisticated, but still adhered to the original design’s formula over the following decades - at least up to and including the fourth generation car of 2002.
Since then, much has changed. Against all odds, the promise of speed has not lost its allure to enthusiasts. Space, meanwhile, has lost most of its value to most motorists, as safety becomes the dominant quality sought in an automobile. Safety which, at least in perceived terms, the airy, open, generous Espace does not offer.
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