Dispatches Do Brasil: Renault Celebrates 30 Years Of The Minivan

Marcelo de Vasconcellos
by Marcelo de Vasconcellos

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!

Marcelo de Vasconcellos
Marcelo de Vasconcellos

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  • Sophocles Sophocles on Jun 05, 2014

    can anybody say "Volkswagen microbus"?

  • Schmitt trigger Schmitt trigger on Jun 05, 2014

    Sophocles; you beat me to it! I was also thinking about the VW "Kombi". Marcello; I hope that your next "Dispatches Do Brasil" will somehow connect autos with Soccer World Cup.

    • Marcelo de Vasconcellos Marcelo de Vasconcellos on Jun 05, 2014

      Hey Scmitt Trigger and Sophocles, glad you guys brought it up (I was hoping someone would, :)). The VW Bus or Kombi can in no way compare to a modern minivan, be it the drive wheels, engine placement and the consequences of that to the driving position. In a Kombi you sit on the front axle, that makes the car's reactions slower and a learning curve is required. Up until the minivan was launched, cars like the Kombi were used as family vehicles, but only for families with no other option. The difference in driving, the jumpy happy nature of the Kombi all contributed to turning it off to a large swath of the population that preferred not to deal with it, namely women. Automakers are attuned with society and they knew of these problems, so when the minivan was invented they killed two birds with one stone as it were. As the minivan could be driven like any other modern car, the drive was much more sedate than any old style van. That brought in large numbers of women who tend to value practicality more than emotional issues when buying a car. The 80s marked the entry of women into the car market as a major force as they now not only influenced car buying decisions but bought many of them themselves. Yes the minivan owes much of its early success to it being a hit with women and also of course, practical, family-oriented men.

  • 3-On-The-Tree Lou_BCsame here I grew up on 2-stroke dirt bikes had a 1985 Yamaha IT200 2-strokes then a 1977 Suzuki GT750 2-stroke 750 streetike fast forward to 2002 as a young flight school Lieutenant I bought a 2002 suzuki Hayabusa 1300 up in Huntsville Alabama. Still have that bike.
  • Milton Rented one for about a month. Very solid EV. Not as fun as my Polestar, but for a go to family car, solid. Practical EV ownership is only made possible with a home charger.
  • J Love mine, but the steering wheel blocks dashboard a bit, can't see turn signals nor headlights icons. They could use the upper corners of the screen for the turn signals. Mileage is much lower than shown too, disappointing
  • Aja8888 NO!
  • OrpheusSail I once did. My first four cars were American made, and through an odd set of circumstances surrounding a divorce, I wound up with a '95 Nissan Maxima which was fourteen years old and had about 150,000 miles on it.It was drove better, had an amazing engine, and was more reliable than any of my American cars. This included a new '95 GMC pickup that went through five alternators in under two years while the dealership insisted that there was no underlying electrical problem while they tried to run the clock on the warranty.That was the end of 'buy American'. I've bought from Honda and VW since, and I'll consider just about anything except American now.