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In a parallel universe, the minivan redeemed AMC rather than Chrysler

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Photos courtesy Renault, except where noted.

Unsurprisingly, the image many news outlets chose to illustrate their stories on the death of Lee Iacocca earlier this month showed him at the introduction of the Plymouth Voyager in December 1983. Perhaps one of the most pivotal moments in Eighties automotive history, the introduction of the K-car-derived Chrysler minivans helped boost Chrysler’s profile and ultimately helped the company claw its way back from the brink of oblivion.

Save for a few key missteps, however, it could have been AMC that enjoyed that success instead of Chrysler, were it to have imported the Renault Espace into the United States like it planned.

Of course, it could have been a number of companies, given how many initially passed on building the Espace, Chrysler included. Depending on which origin story one reads, the Espace had its beginnings either in England or France, in the studios of Chrysler’s United Kingdom branch or in those of the loosely affiliated carmaker Matra.

In the British telling, Fergus Pollock sketched the Supervan concept at the Whitley design center in Coventry sometime prior to Chrysler’s sale of its European operations to Peugeot, then Matra – via its relationship with Simca – took over the development of what it referred to as a multi-purpose vehicle.

Volanis sketch.

In the Gallic version, Matra CEO Philippe Guédon envisioned a single-volume replacement to the faux-by-faux Matra-Simca Rancho, one with a compact front-wheel-drive drivetrain that would permit a highly reconfigurable interior, and circa 1978 tasked designer Antonis Volanis with sketching out Guédon’s ideas.

Whoever initially came up with the idea behind the Espace, Chrysler made no move to develop it prior to the 1978 sale like it did with the Horizon, and the task of seeing the design through to production fell to Matra. Guédon initially decided to approach Peugeot, so he had a pair of prototypes – designated P17 and P18 – built to Volanis’s design on a Talbot Solara (Chrysler Alpine/Simca 1307) platform using a variety of Peugeot parts.

Matra P18 at Retromobile 2014. Photo by Thesupermat.

Peugeot management, according to Ronan Glon at Ran When Parked, expressed some interest but then abruptly changed their minds and rejected the Matra prototypes, fearing the vehicle would be a flop. Guédon, undeterred, built another prototype – designated P20 – on a Citroën BX chassis; Citroën management deemed it too expensive.

Running out of French automakers to accost, Guédon then built one more prototype – this one designated P23 – on a Renault 18 platform and pitched it directly to Renault’s CEO, Bernard Hanon, who agreed in June 1983 to provide Matra the chassis and drivetrains and then to market the Espace with Matra-built and -assembled fiberglass bodies.

In the United States, Chrysler had a head start in developing the garageable van, similar in its front-engine, front-wheel-drive chassis layout and intended market. (Pollock did work for Chrysler in the States in 1976, but according to David Zatz, Chrysler’s development of the minivan in the States sprang from intense market study and designs by Neil Walling.) Still, Matra and Renault worked quickly to bring the Espace to market, keeping its 18/Fuego-derived platform and much of the Volanis design as seen in the P-series prototypes.

Renault launched the Espace in France in June 1984, five months behind the Chrysler minivans, but soon after eyed the U.S. market via American Motors.

By that time, Renault had owned a stake of American Motors for five years and leveraged it to market a number of cars in the States, including the 5 (as the Le Car), the Fuego, the 18, and the 11 (as the Alliance/Encore), so the company was well-versed enough in U.S. federal safety and emissions standards.

Proposed U.S. market Espace.

As early as October 1984, AMC announced it would sell the Espace in the United States as a 1986 model, noting in a press release that the minivan “is ideally suited for the North American market because of a spacious interior that can accommodate seven passengers and a 110-horsepower engine that averages over 40 miles per gallon of gasoline at the 55-mile-an-hour U.S. speed limit.”

The next year, AMC/Renault displayed an Espace at the Chicago Auto Show and Popular Science even wrote it up in a four-way comparison with the Voyager, Ford Aerostar, and Chevrolet Astro. Of the four, it was the most diminutive and the only one without a sliding side door, but it was also the sleekest at a time when fuel economy still weighed on consumers’ minds and the one most like the best-selling Chrysler minivans.

Over the next few months, AMC kept delaying the planned launch date until, in March 1985, it scuttled its plans to bring the Espace to the U.S. market altogether. While AMC never officially said why it canceled the U.S. market Espace, observers have speculated it did so due to a number of factors, including an infavorable exchange rate and the possibility that Matra could not meet AMC/Renault’s cost targets for a U.S. version.

Admittedly, we don’t know how the Espace would have fared in the U.S. market. AMC never announced pricing (according to the Lane Motor Museum, it originally cost 96,000 Francs, or about USD$10,740, while the Voyager and Caravan started at $8,280) and had a smaller dealer base than its competitors. At the same time, the market was ripe for minivans in the mid-Eighties, the Espace’s smart use of space led it to sell well across Europe, and reviewers in the States would have fawned over the fiberglass body and front-wheel-drive package.

Had Matra not wasted time pitching the Espace to Peugeot and Citroën, had AMC and Renault moved quickly to get the Espace on the U.S. market, and had Renault and AMC convinced Matra to drive down costs, they might well have beaten Chrysler to the punch and enjoyed the same level of success Chrysler had with its minivans, success enough to keep the company in the black and allow AMC to retool its passenger-car lineup.

Or maybe not. But we’d at least have seen the Espace here in the States, and it’s a shame we didn’t.