Who invented the minivan? Americans may be surprised to hear that Europeans place that honor firmly in Renault’s lap. To them, the Renault Espace, which celebrates 30 years of production this June, will always be the epitome of the minivan and no Dodge Caravan or Chrysler Town and Country can touch it. To add to the complication, there is the trifle matter that Nissan introduced its Prairie three years before either the American or European contenders and that it, too, had what are considered the essential traits of the modern minivan.
Paul Niedemeyer covered the whole matter brilliantly for TTAC four years ago. He even got a testy e-mail from one of the alleged minivan fathers. As the senior Niedermeyer points out, great ideas fester in many different heads, sometimes at the same time and come to fruition more or less at the same time. Fact is in the late 70s, both Italdesign’s Giorgetto Giugiaro with his Megagamma for Lancia concept and the people at Chrysler Europe were fiddling around with the idea. Both sported the same basic ideas: front wheel drive, a transverse engine, front wheels placed ahead of the cabin, a monobox design, a flat floorboard throughout the cabin and flexibe seating and cargo capacity. The main difference between the Italian studio’s take and that in development in Chrysler UK was that the Italian design had a vestigial hood while Chrysler’s was a true monobox.
As so often happens to the plans of men, life intervened and who ended up with a hood and who didn’t was inverted. Chrysler suffered government intervention and to get the money it needed, it was forced to divest itself of overseas ventures. In that way, Peugeot initially got hold of the minivan plans that had been under development by Matra. When the lion of France turned cold on the idea, Matra took it to Renault who had the courage to run with it and viola, the Espace made its début in 1984.
Almost simultaneously the Chrysler minivan came out in the United States. The Chrysler had a hood, though smallish, while the French design was a true monobox. In this way, Renault will always be able to claim they invented the first true modern minivan. Produced from 1984 until the present, the Espace has gone through four real generations and has sold a total of 1.24 million units in this time frame.
The first generation lasted until 1991 and besides offering seating for seven in a length of just 4.25m. Engines ranging from 2.0 to 2.2, gasoline and diesel, along with all wheel drive and an air suspension were offered. Interestingly, the sheetmetal was a polyester and fiber glass mix.
The second generation lasted from 1991 to 1996. The car grew to 4.43m and engines did likewise, ranging from 2.1 to 2.85l including a V6. Also available for the first time was an automatic transmission.
The third generation, from 1996 to 2002, spawned an offshoot. Now there were both an Espace and a Grand Espace. The former was 4.52m long while the latter was 4.79m. Engines were reduced to 1.9 at the lower level while the top choice was a 3.0 V6.
The fourth generation has lasted from 2002 until today, though there have been 4 refreshes along the way. The smallest Espace is now 4.66m long while the big one is 4.86m. The largest engine on offer is a 3.5L V6 with a healthy 245 horses as the top choice.
Regardless who takes credit for the invention of the minivan, Renault, Chrysler or even Nissan, the modern minivan has changed the automobile landscape and has forever earned a place in people’s hearts. Whether or not you man up to it, for a man with a family there is nothing more soothing and rewarding than seeing the little bobbing heads of his little ones in the back seats and the sleeping figure of his better half next to him. All of them in the van, on the long road of life, to somewhere, destination not important, but the trip, oh what a trip!