This Renault looks cool, and has the presence of a railway locomotive clattering up a motorway.
Because it’s so rare, the appealingly weird Avantime has as much visual impact today as it did when it was new in 2001.
The Avantime is possibly the most magnificent automotive folly so far this century, its existence driven by Renault’s attempts to invent a new kind of luxury, a counter-point to the monochromatic, autobahn-honed executive saloons from Munich and Stuttgart.
Made by Matra
It was also the product of an obligation, a commitment to give the Matra factory at Romorantin in central France something to make in the aftermath of Renault’s decision to shift production of the Espace MPV elsewhere now that its body was to be made from sheet steel rather than the ferrous and composite mix that was Matra’s speciality.
Renault’s designers were faced with the extraordinary challenge of coming up with a new and glamorous machine using the hardware of a large MPV. It’s a tribute to their collective imagination that they managed anything at all, never mind a towering coupe with the profile of a teapot shorn of its handle.
The Avantime was a coupe in principle, but unlike almost every other car of this description it did not have a dramatically raked roof line, the necessary flourishes of style created instead by a pronounced bustle and its bay rear window. But it did have a coupe’s elongated doors, and pillarless side windows too.
If you sat in the sumptuous, sofa-like seat in the rear you could enjoy the breeze and an almost unobstructed view to the side, and above too thanks to the glazed roof. Riding in the rear should have been one of the glories of this car, but hopeless packaging meant that back-benchers had the legroom of rush-hour rail passengers.
This was not the Avantime’s only flaw. Those huge doors, which swung on cantilevered hinges with the weighty momentum of an opening vault, weighed 56 kilos (123 lb) apiece and meant that if you parked an Avantime facing up a hill there was a very good chance that you’d be trapped, the door’s heft holding it shut.
Renault had endless trouble perfecting the sealing of their frameless windows, trouble that delayed the car’s launch and ought to have earned it the nickname Pas Avantime – the not-before-time. This strange, troubled machine ended its career ahead of schedule, too.
Its wonderfully wilful oddness was too much for most, and it faded out after a mere three seasons, having sold 8552 examples, in 2003. This brave Briton bought nine of them that year, the world’s largest fleet of the cars, and used them for delivering and repairing computer equipment. He clearly likes cars that are different - today, his company runs a fleet of BMW i3s instead.