There might be some discreet sniffling at the demise of the Ford Mondeo and VW Passat saloons, but to me the slow death of the MPV multi-purpose vehicle is sadder still. For the past four decades, the best MPVs have been exemplars of clever packaging, unlike a great many so called sports utilities, which often make miserable use of their size. Today’s buyers seem to favour exterior bulk over interior space, which is why generations of posh children have found social distancing problematic, as they’ve been crammed into the compact and bijou rear seats of SUVs, to emerge with battered boaters and crumpled prep school uniforms. Often these cars have shallow boots with very high floors, which result in harassed parents suffering from lower back trouble caused by weightlifting pony club gear onto them.
A great many MPVs, especially the very first ones, were designed with function in mind, and that resulted in some very elegant packaging solutions. Cleverness was part of their appeal, a trait that seems pretty well absent from most of today’s mainstream cars, although we’re seeing some interesting ideas about where to put people and their stuff in electric vehicles, which are unencumbered by the constraints of conventional drivetrains.
It’s a moot point as to which was the first MPV, just as you can argue over who came up with the original hatchback. The mid ‘50s, one-box, woodlouse shaped Fiat 600-based Multipla, which had a rear engine and VW van type forward control, was conceived as a compact taxi, but has many modern people carrier attributes. However, I would give the nod to the one off Lancia Megagamma. Styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro of Italdesign and Mk1 Volkswagen Golf fame, it toured the European motor show circuit in 1978. It’s hard now to imagine just how modern this car looked 44 years ago, although when it debuted at the Turin Show, one wag apparently told its creator he’d invented a car for plumbers. In fact, the Megagamma’s near monospace design was a development of Giugiaro’s 1976 Alfa Romeo-based New York taxi concept, and its template was widely copied.
Today the Megagamma looks boxy, upright and with big front and rear overhangs and is rather short in the wheelbase. The proportions were imposed on it by having an in-line front driven drivetrain, the 2.5 flat four engine that had been appropriated from the now long forgotten Lancia Gamma executive saloon. What it also meant was that this 4-metre long vehicle had a ballroom sized interior. Seating was commanding, stepping in and out easily, and there was plenty of lounging and luggage space, as the Megagamma had a deep, Honda Jazz style boot. As a schoolboy car bore I remember looking at this thing and thinking it was the future.
Fiat didn’t agree, and didn’t option the design, but it clearly influenced the frumpy 1982 Nissan Prairie, which looked like the lovechild of a wardrobe and a Nissan Sunny, had sliding rear side doors and no B pillars. I dread to think about its crash worthiness. The Mitsubishi Space Wagon and Dodge Caravan were less peculiar, but followed a similar template, and by 1984 we had the plastic fantastic Renault Espace, a true monospace, one box design, which put the French company back in the frame as a maker of innovative cars, after a series of dullards – anyone remember the Renault 9?
The third generation Espace was a more rounded, elegant thing which looked like a latter day airship gondola on wheels, and boasted a clever, flexible interior with three rows of seats. It sold well in part because it was stylish in a design-led way. The current version is a good looking thing, but you can’t buy it here, and the dwindling number of people carriers that are sold in Britain have, in packaging terms at least, rather ossified.
As things to use every day, I still think they do a better job than many overblown SUVs, but in this case, brashness seems to have won out. As Frank Zappa once said, ‘the meek shall inherit nothing.’