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