There was a time – before the advent of the SUVs as we know them today – where people movers where the ‘go-to’ for those looking to haul people and their stuff. It’s a little sad, if anything, that the SUV onslaught has all-but killed off the once-popular people mover.
Sure, you can still buy a Kia Carnival or Honda Odyssey, and as good as they are in terms of modernity, you can’t help but lament the passing of the traditional people mover.
But, with the launch of the all-new Hyundai Staria, with its futuristic looks and technologies to match, it’s timely to look at what came before, those family haulers that defied the ‘boxes on wheels’ convention of the day and gave us something a little different.
So please, sit back in the comfort of your third row of seats and take a little drive down the annals of people mover history.
No discussion about people movers would be complete without the Renault Espace, widely acknowledged as one of the first modern people movers – or multi-purpose vehicles (MPV) as they are officially known.
The Espace was originally designed by Matra who tried to fob it off on Simca – Chrysler’s French division – which was conveniently sold to PSA Peugeot who promptly binned the Simca brand.
Peugeot wanted no bar of the Espace, and handed the design back to Matra who, perhaps in a fit of French pique, shopped it to arch-rival Renault. Reggie jumped at it and by 1984, the Renault Espace was rolling off Matra’s production line.
It wasn’t exactly a success in its infancy, with reports suggesting just nine examples were sold in its first month on sale. But the buying public soon saw the merits of an MPV and the Espace began finding homes with abandon.
Now in its fifth generation, the Renault Espace continues to fly the French flag for people movers, as it has done since 1984.
A mainstay on Aussie roads since the first generation lobbed in 1983 – it was basically a TownAce van with windows and seats – the Tarago really hit its straps locally with the second generation launched in 1990.
Incidentally, the Tarago was only called that in Australia – named after the NSW town of Tarago – going by a variety of names in markets around the world, most notably Toyota Previa in its home country, Japan.
The second generation Tarago eschewed the van-based origins of the first-gen, instead adopting the Previa as its base to offer a more complete and more comfortable people mover experience. Its curvaceous exterior looked sleek and modern while inside, the Tarago could seat either seven or eight people, depending on options boxes ticked.
Thanks to its shape, in Australia the second-gen Tarago was sometimes referred to as ‘Wombats’, due to the similarity of its shape to the popular marsupial.
Pontiac Trans Sport
See what Pontiac did there with the name? It’s a transporter that supposedly sporty, thus ‘Trans Sport’.
Pontiac figured the market was ripe for a minivan targeting customers who wanted sportiness and style from their people mover, as against the boxy silhouette offerings of their American rivals.
However, thanks to its unusual design, the first-gen Trans Sport earned itself the nickname ‘Dustbuster’, thanks to its long bonnet and steeply-sloping windscreen which in profile, did lend it the air of a handheld vacuum cleaner.
It was a fact not lost on the buying public and by 1994, a facelifted Trans Sport began appearing in Pontiac dealerships, this time with a bonnet three inches shorter than previously and a revised dash top that lessened the appearance of the windscreen’s rake.
Still, we reckon it looks pretty cool in profile, an antidote to homogenous design even if it does look like it could suck up the crumbs from your lounge.
It’s a shame Pontiac ditched its offbeat design for an altogether more conventional looking Trans Sport with the launch of the second generation in 1997. So homogenous was its design, American car reviewers of the day stated that without looking at the badge on the grille, the Pontiac Trans Sport could easily be mistaken for one of its rivals from Dodge or Plymouth, a fall from grace if ever there was one.
American Curtis Brubaker had an idea. Inspired by the Volkswagen ‘Kombi’, Brubaker designed a minivan ‘kit’ that could be bolted on to a Beetle chassis.
The kit was made of fibreglass (what else?) consisting of 13 inner and outer panels riveted and bonded together. The whole body was then designed to bolt on to a Beetle chassis.
The front seats of the Beetle were retained but the rear received lounge-style seating – including a foot stool – allowing passengers to be transported in comfort and style. Creature comforts included a large removable roof panel for open-top motoring.
Those large bumpers at the front and rear of the Brubaker Box were made of composite material and were designed to look like curved wood. Adding further protection, the spare wheel was mounted to absorb frontal crash energy.
Brubaker built just three complete Boxes before going broke, the idea picked up by another Californian company, Automecca, which produced a further 25 examples before production ceased.
Despite its low volumes, the Brubaker Box has made several appearances in film and television, most notably in the TV show Ark II, the 1973 dystopian movie Soylent Green as well as the film Virtual Combat.
And there are currently plans afoot to revive the Brubaker Box, with American company Driven.Co developing a fibreglass kit for what it’s calling the Boxx.
Okay, this one never made it into production but Bertone’s 1988 one-off concept has to be included in this list.
Not only did Bertone's design turn the idea of a how a minivan should look on its head, it did what all good Italian styling houses do when they have too much time on their hands – it crammed a Lamborghini 5.2-litre V12 straight out of a Countach in the Genesis’s nose. Power was sent to the rear wheels via a Chrysler-sourced three-speed Torque-flite automatic transmission.
Sadly, despite the six Weber carburettors feeding that stonking and heroic 5.2-litre V12, the Genesis didn’t exactly exuded supercar performance, thanks largely due to its portly circa-1800kg weight, around 400kg more than the heart transplant donor car.
Like all good Lambos, the Genesis also featured the Italian brand’s signature gullwing doors for the front seat occupants while rear passengers had to make do with a more conventional sliding door.
Interestingly, despite its aspirations as a people mover concept, the Bertone Genesis could only ever seat five people, although thanks to swathes of Alcantara, they did so in style.
The seating configuration could be adjusted electrically in any number of ways, including having the passenger swivel 180 degrees to face the rear while the middle seat in the second row sat elevated and forward of the outboard seats, much like that later found in the McLaren F1. There was also a TV back there to keep passengers entertained.
Brave, Bertone, bravo!
Do you have a favourite people-mover / minivan story? Let us know in the comments below.