Ah the humble Renault Espace. A design championed by Matra for years, finally picked up by Renault to become a hugely successful volume model - Matra’s first.
I’m going to do a few brief posts about the history of Matra. Because cheap mid-engined cars are cool, and French cars are weird, and I need something to do. Also car content on Oppo can’t hurt. This is part seven. (Parts one, two, three, four, five, six).
The idea of the Espace (or rather, the MPV itself) took a while to get off the ground. First conceived in the 1970s by British designer Fergus Pollock while working for Chrysler UK (Chrysler being the parent company of Simca/Talbot/Matra at the time), the design was bounced around along with the idea of selling it as either a Simca or a Talbot. When Chrysler Europe offloaded Chrysler UK and friends to PSA Peugeot Citroën in 1978, Simca was phased out and PSA had no interest in the Espace, seen as a risky move.
At the time, Philippe Guédon (CEO of Matra Automobiles) had a vision that the future of the automobile rested in family-sized, fun, recreational vehicles. The success of the unusual Rancho would confirm this to him, and it’s a direction he was interested in taking Matra in (ie. away from sports cars). The design ended up in the hands of Matra designer Antoine Volanis who further worked the idea, producing over a weekend what’s known as “Le Dessin Orange” or The Orange Drawing.
It was an elegant take on the van idea, three doors like the Rancho and with the Rancho’s raised roof section and funny roof rack. The design was mocked up as a 5-door prototype dubbed the Project 16 (P16) in 1979. A further P17, P18 and P19 would be prototyped in different variations, and utility versions would be envisioned should the innovative and unusual passenger car fail to catch on.
Further evolutions including one based on the Citroen BX eventually result in the P23 in October 1982. Bernard Hanon, CEO of Renault is impressed and has been heard to quote (translated) “This is the car that will naturally be achieved once you have overcome car vanity” - suggesting that the 3-box sedan is an inefficient use of space compared to a more box-based design. Think about the SUV craze we’re in now - he and Phillipe were bang on the money. A few more changes are made, Renault insisting on a flat floor behind the front seats, and though packaging of the engine in the nose of the vehicle is a challenge, things are made to fit. By 1984, Renault are sold on the idea, and the Matra P23 becomes the Renault J11 - the Espace.
The Espace launched in 1984, production occurring in Matra’s Romorantin plant and effectively bringing an end to Murena production to make room. The Rancho had been built in parallel with the Bagheera and the later Murena, but after an oft-quoted first month of just 9 vehicles sold, the Espace sold strongly enough to warrant dedicating the entire factory to it. Curiously the Espace was beaten to market by the Plymouth Voyager by a manner of months, making it not quite the world’s first MPV. Note that the Voyager was also produced by Chrysler, I wonder how much inbreeding was involved with the original Chrysler UK design leading to 2 cars appearing at the same time on different continents.
Selling 191,694 vehicles in its first generation, considerably more than the Murena’s 12,000 vehicles or so and more than all previous Matra models combined, the Espace became a success story for Matra. Sales started in the UK in August 1985 with AWD and turbo-diesel models being added to the lineup soon after. Apparently AMC was planning on bringing the Espace to the USA, plans which were halted when Chrysler purchased AMC. The design was heavily revised for 1991 into the Espace II, bringing it more inline with Renault styling than its original Talbot look though the chassis was largely unchanged, which would go on to sell a whopping 317,225 vehicles.
The Espace II has a curious relationship with performance. Matra proposed an Espace Biturbo Quadra (or P46), based on the Espace II but presented the year before the II hit production, it was slated to use the Quadra’s AWD system and the 270hp engine from the rather quick Renault Safrane Biturbo. Sadly it was cancelled due to concerns of stability. The other is of course the Espace F1, using a carbon fibre reinforced Espace body over an F1 chassis and mid-mounted V10 powertrain to produce some 588kW to the rear wheels. Truly this had little in common with the road going car, but is no less cool for it. This was produced not as a concept for a road car, but as a celebration of 10 years of Espace. Both now live in Matra’s museum in Romorantin, which I wish I’d known last time I was in France.
The last Matra-built Espace was the Espace III up until 2002, with 365,323 of this generation produced. Sadly it was not to last. Next time we cover what happened, why there’s a museum rather than a factory now in Romorantin, and why there are no new Matras on the road today.