Philippe Guedon is unique in the French car industry.
He is the only CEO of a French carmaker who is an engineer. His name is unfailingly linked with one vehicle: the Espace minivan, designed and manufactured by Matra on behalf of Renault.
As head of Matra Automobile since 1983 and technical manager for 10 years before that, Guedon was responsible for one of the rare examples of innovation in the French car industry during the past two decades.
The Espace is considered an outstanding European success with more than 540,000 sold since 1984. (In North America, Chrysler sells that many minivans in a year.)
The Espace introduced a new breed of vehicle in Europe, and its concept has inspired most of Renault's recent bestsellers, like the Twingo miniclass or the Scenic minivan.
The Espace had a bad year in 1996, when only 35,000 of the outgoing second generation were sold.
But now, the third generation of the Renault-Matra vehicle is successful again throughout Europe. In the first four months of 1997, the Espace challenged the Volks-wagen Sharan for the lead in the minivan segment. Last year, the Espace was fourth.
Matra expects to build 61,000 units this year. 'We even plan to surpass our 1994 record of 64,000 in 1998,' said Guedon. A longer version will be introduced at the end of the year, which could account for 30 percent of sales in 1998.
Guedon's top priority is to prepare for the post-Espace era. Even though he has enjoyed more than 10 years of profitable cooperation, he knows that Renault is likely to make its fourth-generation Espace in a Renault plant. Renault has serious overcapacity problems.
The present model will be produced until at least 2002-03, but Matra must find another vehicle, maybe two, to replace it. New projects could involve new partners.
'We have three projects under way,' said Guedon. One will be disclosed early next year before the Geneva auto show.
'Our purpose is not to make existing types of cars,' Guedon said. 'We want to bring innovative products' to the market.