By on June 4, 2014


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!

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46 Comments on “Dispatches do Brasil: Renault Celebrates 30 Years Of The Minivan...”

  • avatar

    What about Toyota? I had an ’84 Toyota van that I purchased in ’83. It had no hood and had been a running japanese model overseas for many years. How come they never get any recognition as an early minivan?

    • 0 avatar

      I suspect that’s because it was designed as a truck, with a van shell as cargo option, and then seats bolted in afterward. It was not designed as a minivan.

      But I like saying the name SPACE CRUISER. You may know it as the Hi-Ace, or just Van.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, I think Corey has it right. There also seems to have been a Mitsubishi van sometime after the Nissan and before Renault’s or Chrysler’s that met the criteria.

        Anyway, I think in the end, like much in life, Renault’s and Chrysler’s victory was a marketing one. They pitched the idea they had done something unique and innovative and people bought it.

        • 0 avatar

          Marcelo, is the Espace sold in Brazil? I would assume it to be VERY expensive if so, something so large and European in nature.

          Also, not sure if something like that would hold up too well on those rough roads. You’d be better off with a GMC ASTRO AWD. Ha.

          • 0 avatar

            No, it never was. Alas, we have forbidden fruit, too. The smaller minivans are all on offer here though, things like the Renault Scènic, Citroën Picasso C4, Fiat Idea. We also get or got things like Fiat Doblò, Citroën Berlingo and Renault Kangoo that while technically different, fundamentally serve the same purpose. And all much better than an Astro (whch we don’t get, thank God).

          • 0 avatar

            With those choices, sounds like there’d be room for the Skoda Yetti! I have always liked the Berlingo. Kind of a funky fun thing, which seems very useful.

            The Picasso I always found gross looking, even though in general I like Citroen design. The C6 and new DS3 in particular.

          • 0 avatar

            Oh and how could I forget? There are more, Chevy Spin, Nissan Livina, JAC J7 (?, Chinese), VW SpaceFox. All of which are about the original Espace’s lenght and some of which (Spin, Livina, Doblò) have seven passenger versions (the Chinese one too, I think).

            Interestingly, those that are not real minivans (Doblò, Kangoo) have sliding doors while the true minivans don’t.

  • avatar

    I would like to have [in the America], a first-gen Espace, two-tone white over tan, in AWD guise. I would purchase a Members Only jacket just for the occasion.

    I have no problem giving credit to Renault for the creation of the minivan. Even if it was about the same time as the Chrysler, it’s more minivan in design, had a more flexible interior, and has sold more units around the world. Chrysler’s models have primarily been (until quite recently) US and UK only.

    I feel it must be no coincidence that the Aerostar which debuted a couple years after the Renault and Chrysler looked… just like the Espace.

    • 0 avatar

      I think the first one is great looking though I like the second and third ones very much, specially the side mirrors. I don’t know how I got the idea, but to me they sort of look like horns. Raging bull horns!

    • 0 avatar

      Huh? Chrysler minivans were produced by Steyr in Austria and sold in Europe for years. On top of that, Chrysler has sold many multiples of Renault’s Espace production. Chrysler had sold 13 million minivans in 80 countries as of 2008. Besides, the Espace was designed by Talbot in 1979, when they were part of Chrysler. Considering only 1.24 million have sold in thirty years, they were right to let it go.

      • 0 avatar

        As explained in the article CJ. By the way, not Talbot, but Rootes in England got it started. I’d like to sew how many Chrysler vans were sold in Europe and compare to the Espace’s numbers. Last time I was in Europe I saw plenty of Espaces of all generations. Chrysler vans I only saw 2. In England.

        Chrysler actually didn’t let it go, they were forced to. By the US government. Not the brightest of decisions in retrospect.

        • 0 avatar

          You need to read this before saying the US governmeny forced Chrysler to stop developing the Espace:

          Nowhere does it state that Chrysler was forced by the US government to sell its foreign subsidiaries. The selling off of Chrysler assets overseas and domestically was a direct consequence of the company being bankrupt on paper, and needing every cent. It then went through a song and dance to get federal loan guarantees, stiff-arm its suppliers, defer pension contributions for its workers, etc.etc.

          As you can read at the link I provided..

          • 0 avatar

            Well that’s the story we hear in Brazil all the time. Chrysler here got sold to VW and though I was too young to remember much of it, that’s the story as how I’ve read it in many Brazilian sources and later even by talking to some directly involved on the Brazilian side.

            But thanks for the link. I will read it and balance it against what I have heard.

  • avatar

    Look at those greenhouses! You could get skin cancer sitting in one of those things!

  • avatar

    As an owner of real MiniVans for over 20 yrs, these are not minivans. A Minivan has to have sliding side doors, otherwise it is just a tall wagon people mover. I would own one now, but minivans are no longer mini. And no I don’t want a Mazda 5. Fugggedaboutit.

    • 0 avatar

      So then by your definition, the spacious Renault Espace is not a minivan, but the Eagle Summit is. The GMC Astro is a minivan, but when you add a TV, wood, and captains chairs, and change the doors to clamshell on the side, then it’s not.

      The Peugeot 1007 is also a minivan.

    • 0 avatar

      Hey Juniper, thanks for reading! Though I see your point, the door style is not discussed by the experts. What people do discuss are what was listed in the article. If those criteria are met, a minivan it is. What I think is very important is the seating behind the front axle, that makes the minivan drive like a car and thus a minivan and not a van. If you sit on the axle or even ahead of it, then it’s a van.

      Anyway, as best as I can surmise the main point of contention Chrysler vs. Renault is the hood. Due to the hood Renault apologists cling to the claim. I, however, like Paul Niedemeyer, think that it seems the minivan was just a vehicle whose time had come, and many were working on similar offerings.

      • 0 avatar

        And who exactly appointed these “experts”? :-)

        If monobox styling is a requirement, the majority of minivans ever sold in the US haven’t been minivans. That argument is ridiculous on its face.

        Heck, even the Megagamma concept isn’t really a monobox.

        • 0 avatar

          People in the industry, long time journalists these kinds of people. I know that us here on blogs are the experts at everything, but that is not always true. Read the link on the e-mail sent to Mr. Niedemeyer, the hood is mentioned.

          I, for one, and my opinion, think a hood is not all that important. But there are examples of otherwise. The Ford Flex is an example. Because of the long hood most have trouble calling it a minivan though the stance is quite similar.

          Chrysler vans have had a hood, but it is, as much as I can remember, a remnant of a hood, not a full blown one.

          • 0 avatar

            I would never consider the Flex a minivan. It’s not a crossover either as it dose not pretend to be any kind of off-roader nor is it a traditional wagon as we know them from the 50s on up. What it makes me think of is the 40s and older car based wagons like ironically the original town and country. Also called suburbans or carryalls. I thought it was a good looking car with just a hint of retro to it but it was let down by fords interiors of the day and probably a lack of room in the market for something that was not a wagon SUV crossover or van.

  • avatar

    If sales are any measure, the Chrysler minivans absolutely crush the Renaults. Chrysler had sold over 4 million minivans by 1995. The total was over 13 million by 2010!

    • 0 avatar

      Being in the North American market will do that for you. The Escape has always been expensive and quite big for Europe, both factors limit sales. Plus Renault had the smaller minivans that sold the concept to greatr numbers of people, like the Scènic and others even smaller.

  • avatar

    Renault can claim all they want, the Dodge Caravan started production first so its the first minivan. These things are awesome though, but sliding doors make more sense for a people mover so I probably wouldn’t buy one if i could.

    • 0 avatar

      Sorry, wrong place to put this.

      Being in the North American market will do that for you. The Escape has always been expensive and quite big for Europe, both factors limit sales. Plus Renault had the smaller minivans that sold the concept to greatr numbers of people, like the Scènic and others even smaller.

  • avatar

    Four generations over thirty years. These cars had long shelf lives. What I like the most about the Espace (of any generation) is that they resembled the other great French invention, the TGV. These things are styled like a modern bullet-train with panoramic windows.
    I’m worried about the next gen version. I heard it’s going to look a little more like a lux-SUV to compete with the X5s and whatevers out there. I hope that it doesn’t lose it’s unique French quality that no one else has imitated.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    Hey, Marcello,
    According to Chrysler fans it was Lee Iacocca. But, alas, they appear to be incorrect.

    Truth sometimes hurts!

    The Nissan Praire was a dog of a vehicle.

    I think the future utility vehicle will become a cross hybrid (hybrid not in the sense of energy) between a CUV and mini van.

    • 0 avatar

      Hey Big Al, thanks for reading! In this article I concentrated on the French side. Check the links, through them you get the bigger picture. I think Iacocca had a role, but as an authorizing agent and not an instigator. I never drove the Prairie but I think it’s a funky looking thing. Probably too crude comparing to the Escape and Chrysler vans as some say it was rushed to market.

  • avatar

    The Espace suffers from a design fault that plagues many other minivans (and suvs) namely, low-placed second row seats with no recessed footwells. If you sit back there your lower thighs are not supported by the bottom cushion. Not good in a “people mover.” The Espace front seats are wonderful, though.

  • avatar

    We had two of these a MKII and a Grand MKIV, they were the only thing big enough to carry six of us and our bags about without getting a Caravelle. They were a car that seriously changed over those generations, the MKII was still largely based on the MKI and it very much showed by the end of its life while the MKIV could be seen as a 5-Series or Discovery rival even when we sold ours at seven years old there was not a squeak or rattle out of the dash which still is very impressive to look at ( The downside to that car was the seating unfortunately, the five rear seats were all on the same rails so they could be slid to the very back or to the front but when the latest Galaxy came out with all the seats being able to fold flat into the floor the Espace started to look very dated and with the Sharan now having the same but with sliding doors I’m not sure why you would buy an Espace new.

    • 0 avatar

      Well the rumors are that the next generation isn’t too far away and that these and other shortcomings will be addressed. As the first to market the Espace suffers that burden, others that come later can plow ahead on the leader’s failings while the first one finds it hard (expensive) to re-engineer what was not originally foreseen. On the other hand, for being the first, when revised versions come out, there is immediate attention.

      Let’s see what the future holds as there are many competent competitors out there.

  • avatar

    Great article, Marcelo.
    So many beautiful, tall greenhouses. Nothing else matters.
    Love, love, love the Espace, all generations.

  • avatar

    I INVENTED THE MINIVAN! There, I said. Way back before these posers, the MPC model car company had a design contest … I drew up a minivan (don’t ask me why, I wouldn’t even have looked twice at a van then unless it was smoking it’s tires and possibly doing a wheelstand), and won a dozen model kits!! No, I didn’t keep copies of my art .. oh, well ..

  • avatar

    can anybody say “Volkswagen microbus”?

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    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.

    • 0 avatar

      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.

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