Oh, sure, it had funky cars such as the 5 supermini. But, alongside these were Renaults 9s, Renault 11s; even the Fuego coupe somehow managed to make sporty boring.
Today, the brand is one of Europe’s most forward-thinking. And this change in attitude can be traced to 1984, and the launch of one key car: The Renault Espace.
This, readers, was a proper first: Europe’s first people carrier. Renault invented the vehicle with help from French specialists Matra. Together, they brought the term multi-purpose vehicle into being. Mind you, like another iconic sector-inventor, the original Mini, it was a slow start for the pioneering Frenchie.
At its 1984 launch in France, just a few thousand were sold. A year later, it had arrived in the UK, and things were even worse. The model’s first half-year saw a mere 217 registered, despite a list price of just £9,990.
Blame the shock of the new. For the Espace was just that. Flat, edgy styling comprised a high-rise ‘monobox’, worlds apart from the three-box Cavaliers and Montegos that dominated the sales charts. It was tall, almost like a mini van, and had flat sides with a super-large glass area. Crisp and contemporary, for sure, but a total culture shock to UK traditionalists.
If they did brave stepping inside, though, families would have been blown away. For the Espace was just that – packed with space. Five seats were offered; but the key draw was the seven-seat version, with a two-three-two layout. All pews were individually adjustable, and removable, while space surrounding them was ample.
The driver suffered, through a famously appalling driving position, while the 110bhp 2.0-litre petrol was hardly man enough for seven-up motoring. That didn’t stop the press hailing it as a groundbreaking new model… and, slowly but surely, people began to get it.
By 1987, Renault had to even add an extra production facility, such was demand. The Espace age was underway. A second generation version came in 1991, which finally came with diesel power in the UK from 1993. A year later, Renault went mad, and stuck a 3.5-litre F1 engine in one. That one wasn’t for sale, mind…
Trick floor rails made moving the seats around even easier – the Espace was yet more practical, and sales began rocketing. In time, following 1997’s third-generation launch, it would eventually account for 28 per cent of Europe’s MPV sector.
It literally grew, too, with the introduction of a longer Grand Espace. Alas, by the dawn of the Espace IV in 2003, things had moved on. Renault broke ground with it, certainly – but was so successful, a single model alone wasn’t enough to feed the booming sector it had invented.
That’s how the Scenic came about, and the Modus – even, although we were denied it in the UK, the original Twingo.
To date, Renault has sold 1.2m Espaces. Not bad for a model that wowed but didn’t win over at launch. 80,000 of those are in the UK, too – and, while it’s hardly a hit nowadays, its influence within Renault is felt far and wide. Simply put, Renault would not be the creative force it is today without the Espace.
Welsh car dealers Gravells have been selling the Espace from the start. Jonathan Gravell says it really was ‘the first of a new breed’.
‘It was leading edge, showing real French flair,’ he told Car Dealer. ‘It defined the segment in its very first year, and was the market leader for many years after that. It wasn’t the only class of car defined by Renault; we’d already had the 16 hatchback, and the 5 supermini… such was the significance of the Espace, we later got the smaller Scenic, which has taken over as the key player for us here.
‘Renault launched the Espace at a big show, with it alongside an Intercity 125 train. By doing this, people “got” it right away. It was a luxury train for the road. With good prices in those days, people soon started swapping out of their family cars into one.’
Just as Renault intended. Espace age? You betcha.