Espace Invaders

The Matra-Renault Espace sired a number of imitators, but what about outright copies? Bruno Vijverman investigates. Renault

The Renault Espace opened up a whole new market segment when it was introduced in 1984 (across the Atlantic the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager did likewise) and as soon as its commercial viability was confirmed, competitors rushed to their drawing boards to join the party. Not long after, several competing brands would introduce their own take on the monospace theme. And although conceptually they obviously followed the trail cleared by Renault, within the styling constraints of the monospace concept they produced designs that remained reasonably faithful to each make’s family appearance.

Years later however two suspiciously similar vehicles would surface in both India and Brazil. Even though one of them only went on sale shortly before the original Espace would be replaced by a new generation model, Renault nevertheless successfully threatened legal action, while the other clone never really reached series production at all. Let’s meet these impostors. Renault

Ottorino Bianco – better known as Toni Bianco – was no stranger to producing cars that were in euphemistic terms, inspired by existing cars: when the Italian national was employed as a designer at Brazilian FNM (Fábrica Nacional de Motores), one of his designs, the 1971 Furia GT, was an obvious pastiche of the Lamborghini Jarama. FNM some years previously also made the decidedly Ford Mustang-esque Onca but it is not known if Bianco was involved in its development. Renault

After FNM shut its doors in 1988, Bianco, in cooperation with Armando Jorge Neto (owner of the large Ford dealership chain Grancar in Sao Paulo) started plans on producing a monospace minivan which would be named Futura. True to form, he decided to simply copy Renault’s trailblazer. An Espace was imported and used to create the moulds for Grancar’s first vehicle.

The platform and drivetrain on which this copy would be mounted were sourced from Ford: the Del Rey. This meant a live rear axle as opposed to the Espace’s all round independent setup. Initially the only engine offered was a 1781cc four cylinder with an output of 98 hp – later a 1984cc with 116 hp was optionally available. The interior was also mainly put together using various Ford components.

At first glance the Grancar Futura presented in 1990 is outwardly very difficult to distinguish from the genuine article; the easiest way is to compare the doorhandles. The nose also has an almost imperceptible rake (if any) while that on the Espace is more pronounced. Dimensionally, the Futura is an almost exact facsimile; it is a little over four inches longer while the width and height are identical, as is the wheelbase of 102 inches. Interestingly a few van versions were also built, named Futura Furgao.


In the few road tests the Futura was subjected to in the domestic press it performed quite well; trouble was brewing however as Renault – understandably not amused by Grancar’s baby – let the Brazilian firm know in no uncertain terms that they could expect legal action unless production of the Futura was halted immediately. Probably wisely, Bianco and Neto elected to not take the risk – 159 Futuras had been assembled by mid-1991 when the order was given to kill off the project.

News about the Grancar Futura’s fate however, clearly never reached the Indian subcontinent. Kajah Motors Private Limited, based in the Indian state of Kerala, is part of the Rajah group which makes beedi (a type of cigarette or small cigar) and Ayurvedic healthcare products. Rajah is a family owned business that employs around 45,000 people. Some of the CEO’s are (or at least were), serious car enthusiasts. This lead to the idea of producing India’s first MPV in 1994, but it was not until 1998 that the car, named Kazwa, would be ready. There are no prizes for guessing the vehicle that inspired it.

Rajah produced a steel platform of its own design on which the fiberglass body would be mounted. Hindustan’s Contessa (née Vauxhall Victor FE) was the source for the suspension, brakes and drivetrain, meaning that this Espace clone was powered by a 1895cc Diesel engine with 72 hp, driving the rear wheels.

Similar to the Grancar Futura, the Kazwa received a fairly positive reception by the domestic automotive press but how much of this was driven by national pride is open to debate. Although very similar, the Kazwa can easily be distinguished from the Espace by its blunter front end shape and four round headlights. Contrary to the dimensionally almost verbatim Futura, the Kazwa is also slightly different in all dimensions.

The big problem for Rajah was that as newcomers to the business they had no sales and service network, which is of course essential if one wants to have any chance of succeeding as a bona-fide car manufacturer. It appears that the company never even attempted to clear this daunting hurdle as no evidence can be found that Rajah tried to set up a dealer network in India, resulting in just seven Kazwas being completed even though Rajah claimed to have advance orders for over fifty vehicles. At least Rajah can claim that they had the right idea, since Toyota would introduce the MPV to India with the popular Qualis in 2000 – soon followed by similar offerings from competitors.

Even if Grancar had gone through the trouble of designing its own bodywork it is doubtful if the enterprise would have succeeded in the long term, while for Rajah, failure was almost guaranteed without any name recognition or a sales and service network – never mind the outdated mechanicals. What we are left with are two small footnotes in automotive history that demonstrate that when blatant copying is your sole modus operandi it rarely leads to sustained success.

Renault Espace (1984)/ Rajah Kazwa (1998)/ Grancar Futura (1990)

Length: 4250mm (167in)/ 4350mm (171in)/ 4365mm (171.5in).
Width: 1777mm (70in)/ 1800mm (71in)/ 1777mm.
Height: 1660mm (65in)/ 1850mm (72.4in)/ 1660mm.
Wheelbase: 2580mm (102in)/ 2810mm (111in)/ 2580mm.
Engines: 1995/2165cc 4, 2068cc 4D/ 1895cc 4D/ 1781/1984cc 4 (Ford Del Rey/Versailles/Escort).
Suspension: IN coils all round/ IN wishbones F, coils R/ IN wishbones + coils F, Live rear axle with Panhard bar.
Brakes: Discs F, Drums R/ Discs F, Drums R/ Discs F, Drums R
Drive: Front/ Rear/ Front.
Body: Fiberglass/ Fiberglass/ Fiberglass/ steel monocoque frame steel platform/ Ford Del Rey platform/ Hindustan Contessa mechanicals and mechanicals.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

18 thoughts on “Espace Invaders”

  1. Good morning Bruno and thanks for unearthing this pair of doppelgangers. While these are clearly blatant clones of the original Espace, they remind me that it’s actually quite difficult to make practical monobox MPV-style vehicles distinctive without resorting to superfluous styling flourishes. The original Espace was a perfect expression of the MPV form but was an impossible act to follow. Subsequent genedations became increasingly heavily ‘styled’ but I prefer the pure rationalism of the original:

    Incidentally, the Mk2 Espace, while very pleasant looking, was blighted by a truly awful detail,the crude capping covering a seam between the D-pillar and roof:

    I suspect (or hope) that this was a result of the accountants overruling the designers, as no competent designer should have signed off on it.

    1. I had forgotten about this clumsy detail. But then again, I hardly ever see a second generation Espace these days.

    2. Hello Daniel,
      I certainly agree the first generation Espace is the best- at least as far as looks and purity of concept are concerned.
      Afterwards every new generation drifted more towards marketing driven styling and features instead of engineering driven ones.

    3. Hi Daniel, I almost never see Espaces anymore, save the current one (although I frequently mistake the Grand Scenic for one). The first version certainly is a triumph of rational design and pleasing forms. I do rather like the fourth generation, though: a very nice implementation of Renault’s then-current design language and probably the only big French car in recent memory that genuinely doesn’t look out of place next to one of the German premium bunch (before they started parodying themselves) – and sold well to boot.

      Bruno, I am in awe of your knowledge of obscure cars. The IKA Torino remained a mystery to me for many years after encountering it in Michel Vaillant and being immediately taken with its simple but imposing styling, and that is one of Argentina’s best known cars. This is just next level. Wikipedia also taught me that Isotta Fraschini – of all brands – also made commercial vehicles, which is how FNM got its start. After IF’s bankruptcy, FNM switched to partnering Alfa Romeo, resulting in the cars you mentioned, the Onca:

      and the Fúria:

    4. Hi Tom. As you enjoy obscure Latin American cars, here’s one for you:

      You’ll probably have seen it before and recognise it but, if not, its a rather unlikely car from its manufacturer, indicating the degree of creative freedom the Latin American operation enjoyed.

    5. Hi Daniel, the photo didn’t ring a bell (I might enjoy obscure cars – indeed mainly from South America for their arts and crafts qualities of using whatever component was available -but I’m certainly no expert). A little Wikipedia digging (thanks for the hint, Dave!) enlightened me. What a lovely hodgepodge. Thanks!

      The Torino fascinated me also because I couldn’t place it, but knew that apart from the Vaillante and Leader cars, the Michel Vaillant comic always featured lovingly rendered real cars. So I was almost but not completely certain it had to be real. Not enough to go digging fanatically, mind, but enough to type in “Torino” in a search engine one day and endlessly comparing pictures of the Ford Torino to the drawings in the comic…

  2. Good morning, Bruno. Two cars I was completely unaware of. The Rajah Kazwa was a good deal higher than the Espace. I can’t really see it in the photos, but was this because it was rear wheel drive and they also opted for a flat floor?

    1. Hello Freerk,
      My guess is that the increased total height of the Kazwa is due to the higher ground clearance needed to negotiate some of the lesser quality roads in India; the body and size of the DLO look more or less the same to me judging by the photographs.

  3. In spite of Renault already having the Trafic did they explore the idea of an Escape based van like the Futura Furgao ?

    1. I rather like that pickup, it looks like something I’d have made from Lego 50 years ago.

    2. That reminds me of the Espace butchered by Clarkson et al on Top Gear to create ‘the first convertible MPV’:

      This sort of thing is apparently regarded as ‘entertainment’ by some…

  4. In my mind the Espace series 1 TD I drove once had a pressed steel dead axle like the ones used on the 12/18.

  5. In other words Beg, borrow or steal and that’s it. The Brazilian story is totally unknown to us. But as far as the van from the south Indian business conglomerate is concerned when it was featured in our Indian Auto mags hopes were highly pinned and articles related to the khazwa were aplenty. But none of the tie-ups within the Indian companies for spares and other components and that too for engines and drive trains in the past have never succeeded . Indeed it required brains of extra caliber to deliver the goods. But this too met the same fate When Sipani Automobiles , manufacturers of the famous Dolphin aka Reliant Kitten and Rover Montego had tied up with another firm in India for supplying diesel engines for its most anticipated new hatchback D1 too bombed. Well eventually Indians had other family movers in the form of Chevorlet Tavera, Toyota Qualis , Tempo Trax and the main player of the segment Tata Sumo. At present Renault is here but we missed that fabulous MPV Espace which is true on all counts.

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