The Carchive: The Renault Espace

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I’ve just come back in from what was a very fulfilling pub dinner, and I’ve got an hour set aside for some hardcore keyboard-bashing. To set the scene, it’s 20:18 on Thursday evening, the coffee is on the stove and a 1984-recorded session by The Membranes is playing on Six Music. Welcome to The Carchive!

To conclude a varied week with absolutely no theme other than total randomness, let’s stick with 1984 for a moment. That Orwellian year celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year, which is pretty terrifying, but that also signifies that the Renault Espace has been with us for three decades. So lets take a little look at it.

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“Discarding the conventional approach to car design, Renault have produced the Renault Espace, a totally new and brilliant design concept which can be truly described as a leap into the future”

This is not the place to discuss the position held by the Espace vis-a-vis the history of versatile monospace cars; Buckminster Fuller had a halfway similar idea an awfully long time ago, but nevertheless it’s fair to say, in Europe at least, the Espace of ’84 was the car which popularized the concept. Of course, there had been van-derivations with seats and carpets for years, but the Espace was developed from the ground up as a new way of looking at family transportation. The Multi-Purpose-Vehicle.

And it really did capture the imagination of the market, to the point that gradually more and more manufacturers would follow suit and develop their own equivalents, the apogee of this trend being in the late ’90s, when almost every European manufacture had some kind of MPV on the menu, even if this meant one actual design being badged by three or four separate firms (the Peugeot 806, Citroen Evasion, Fiat Ulysee and Lancia Zeta were all the same car, the VW Sharan, Ford Galaxy and Seat Alhambra were another).

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“The car that thinks it’s a living room”

This was a common thread of all these monospace designs; reconfigurable seating. With a few minutes of heaving heavy bits of vehicle interior around and through the manipulation of various fingernail-breaking latches and fasteners, you could arrange the seating layout for any eventuality, including one being folded down and used as a coffee-table, or rotating the front two to face the rear and create the aforementioned living room.

In reality, this flexibility was never really used by the majority of people. The car was used, in the most part, for the carriage of persons or freight, or any blend of the two. Seldom was the car used as a mobile conference centre by businessmen, as one of the original suggestions would seem to be. Nor, sadly, were families much more likely to picnic in an Espace than in any other car.

But you could if you wanted to, and that promise was enough.

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“This is a car that offers you a multitude of uses and interior layouts that just don’t exist in the world of ordinary saloons and estate cars”

Remember, the Espace was less than fourteen feet long, so it was a very handily sized utility vehicle to have in the family. It genuinely did stand on its own as a family transportation proposal, well, in countries where the Chrysler minivans weren’t omnipresent, anyway. It was a welcome breath of fresh air to families who had never really had any choice, and who would inevitably be stuck with the same old Sierra Estate or something equally nondescript.

And it was being sold be a familiar marque. A completely new design proposition from a name people believed they could trust. It’s no wonder these things sold like hotcakes.

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“Remarkable roadholding and passenger comfort”

This was possibly the most impressive thing about the Espace; the way it rode and drove. It drove like a car. Well, in a lot of cases it rode better than a car, there were some pretty average machines clogging up European tarmac arteries in 1985. The Espace was pretty well set up, with four wheel independent suspension, (albeit connected by a rigid bar at the back so only really semi-independent in my view), and the galvanised frame clad with poyester body panels was carried over by Matra (Parents of the Espace) from production of the Murena three-seater coupé.

Of course, the Espace was launched with the two litre, 110hp four cylinder petrol motor, enough for a 0-62 stroll of just less than 12 seconds and a 110 mph terminal velocity. Over time various far more clever powertrains were made available, including the invevitable diesel and a grunty 2.9 litre V6. And there was the Quadra 4×4 version, which nicely balanced practicality, performance and year-round usability.

And from that point onwards the story for the Espace has been once of continuing success, popularity only waning in later years against the onslaught of fashionable SUVs. Perhaps it’s a 20 year cycle: In ’74 a Vista Cruiser was the family hauler to aim for, in ’94 it was a Grand Caravan, and in 2014 it’s a Land Rover Discovery.

They’ve stopped selling the Espace in the UK now. Times change.

(Disclaimer: All images are of original manufacturer publicity materials photographed by me, ever so slightly out of focus. Copyright remains property of Renault, who need to keep the faith that the world will stop slavishly following 4×4 fashion).

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