True innovations don’t just meet a current need, they anticipate those that are yet to come.
The Renault Espace foresaw a time when cars would do more than simply shuttle people to the office and the shops.
Philippe Guédon saw a gap in the market for a car that was most things to most people, a vehicle uniquely suited to growing families – and even the bigger, ‘blended’ families that were becoming the norm rather than the exception with the rising rate of second marriages.
The striking design came courtesy of Chrysler UK draughtsman Fergus Pollock, who hatched the idea in 1976 as a skunkworks project before it was given the green light in spring of the following year.
After the 1978 sale of Chrysler to the PSA group, designer Antonis Volanis at Matra – which had worked closely with Chrysler offshoot Simca – took just three years to arrive at the P18 prototype. This was then offered around (and rejected by) most major French manufacturers before, eventually, Renault bit.
The revolutionary ‘one box’ design comprised a galvanised skeleton clad with plastic panels, which kept both weight and repair costs down.
Under the short bonnet from launch in 1984 was Renault’s longitudinally-mounted 2-litre, fuel-injected Douvrin ‘four’, borrowed from the 21 and 25, while the cabin could seat seven passengers – without the sliding doors that were synonymous with converted vans.
It wasn’t just the ability to comfortably carry seven that made the Espace groundbreaking – the Microbus had been around since the 1950s – but rather its car-like driving experience and seemingly infinite configurability.
When it was stationary, both front captain’s chairs could be turned through 180º to face the rear seats, while the central fifth seat folded flat to form a table.
The seats could even be removed altogether, making the car as adept at shifting a living room-full of furniture as it was for hosting a business meeting or an impromptu roadside picnic.
The Espace became even more practical in 1988, when the range was facelifted with a smarter front end, more deeply dished tailgate, and new wide-track front suspension derived from the 25 – as per our test car.
But the greatest addition was that of an optional viscous coupling four-wheel-drive system that found a home in the Quadra.
With its increased grip and funky slotted alloys, the Espace now added ‘ski shuttle’ to its growing list of potential uses, and it proved popular in Switzerland.
A second generation ran from 1991-’96, a third from 1996-2002 – the last built by Matra – before Renault took the project in-house for the fourth generation, based on the Laguna floorpan (2002-’14).
Sadly ‘our’ car isn’t the proposed 270bhp Biturbo Quadra concept, but rather a 2-litre turbodiesel from Renault’s heritage collection at Flins – just the sort of car that French punters bought in their droves, but was likely last seen in the UK in a dog-eared copy of Exchange & Mart from 1991.
Even three decades on the attributes that made the Espace a success are clear to see, starting with the commanding driving position and near-360º visibility through the tall glasshouse; it feels more like a car than the expected minibus.
The pedals are arranged in a strange way owing to encroachment by the engine, but otherwise piloting the Renault down French country routes comes as second nature, with stacks of torque and tidy enough handling.
But performance isn’t the point – the Espace provides such a vivid trip down memory lane that it takes all my willpower not to jump in the back, wipe sticky hands on the seat squabs and heckle the grown-ups with a never-ending chorus of, “Are we nearly there yet…?”
Images: Andy Morgan