However, it wasn’t until the mid 90s that the public got to see Renault’s grand vision for the brand. The Argos concept of 1994 debuted le Quément’s new design direction. A language based on architectural forms and engineering function, Parisian chic styling cues with a nostalgic review of Renault’s most notable models from the past. This continued with the super luxury concept of 1995 – Initiale and the sleek coupe grand tourer of 1998 – Vel Satis. Each and every one echoed the unmistakably French style, with taught, razor sharp lines, gently pointed ‘nose’ of the 40cv and a bustle at the rear like a Parisienne lady. At the time, Fiat had resurrected the 500 moniker, VW had presented a new Beetle, retro-modern was big in fashion. But it was the styling of the Vel Satis concept of 1998 that would be most important, signalling an all new model and a move upmarket for the brand. Elements of Espace, a car that had become so significant for Renault in the 80s and 90s, fused with 1930s grand voisin. Indeed, reclaiming some of Renault’s past glory for high end luxury cars of the 1920s and 30s, the styling certainly made no mistake that Renault meant business. The lines could almost be executed from Dior himself.
To a wonderous press at the Geneva Motor Show in 1999, the CoupéSpace’ was unveiled. A sort of coupe Espace 2 door luxury grand tourer convertible. This was Renault’s interpretation to invent a new kind of luxury, a counter-point to the monochromatic, autobahn-honed executive saloons from Munich and Stuttgart. The public were not to see the car again until the delayed launch in 2001. The double hinged doors and huge pillarless side glass proving engineering challenges for Renault and Matra who were to build it. Amazingly, so other-worldly futuristic was its styling that even a 2 year delay still made it look light years ahead of the anything else on the road. Not since another French car, Citroen’s DS of 1955 had the populous had an excuse to gawp and stare at a car. According to design project manager, Thierry Métroz (now head of design for rival DS), he wanted someone walking around the car to be ‘continually astonished’. The design details abound, from the gills above the front lights to the aluminium clad floating roof, to the rear bustle and triangular pattern rear lights. They were intending to shock, something that would create a bold automotive design statement and also be fun to drive. The interior was no less shocking. Cool, perfectly chosen hues, minimal detail and even fewer buttons made it look like an expensive loft apartment. Few cars, before, then or since have redefined the interior architecture and make something most un-carlike. The use of the Espace platform meant that there was significant space for only four lucky people aboard. Like Besson’s Fifth Element, it gave an insight into another world of what could be luxury and perceived futurism. Just as in the film, the opening advert for the Avantime featured the fashion world’s very own enfant terrible – Jean Paul Gaultier. Creating a couture dress that would become the car itself was the perfect synergy between automotive and fashion, designer and couture. As Métroz later said, “Avantime is like a Couture dress, everyone likes it, but no one is actually ready to wear it”.
The lofty driving position gave passengers and excellent view across traffic and countryside hedges, and with the side windows and roof open (all done at the touch of a single button in the Avantime’s greatest party trick) the car transformed into a near convertible with pillarless sides and open sky above. Never since the SM had a coupe grand tourer been so out there and stylistically futuristic. Unfortunately the Avantime suffered the same fate. No matter how stylish or ultimately photogenic it was, the public found it hard to move away from the BMW and Audi coupes they knew. After less than 9,000 Avantimes built, the car was axed in 2003, along with the demise of Matra’s vehicle division. The car lived its life like a sparkler, wowing wherever it went but died very shortly after. It is still one of the most revered cars of the last 25 years, a classic before its time.