Why the Le Sharo?

Recreational VehicleIn the late 1970s, the United States was still recovering from the 1973 and 1979 fuel crises which caused the US car industry to begin to re-evaluate its basic design and manufacturing concepts. This spread even to that most American of all automotive creations (together with the pick-up truck), the Recreational Vehicle.

The Recreational Vehicle (R.V.) or Mobile Home was a vehicle from 21' to 36 ' in length capable of sleeping 4 to 6 people in comfort with most of the amenities of a home- kitchen stove, refrigerator, bathroom/shower, toilet and washbasin, with storage, seating, waste disposal, auxiliary electrical power(generator motor),air conditioning, even television, microwaves and so on. Needless to say some of these vehicles were extremely large and unwieldy, propelled by large( 5 litre V8s, usually 6.5 to 7 litres(450 cubic inch).Weighing at anywhere around 10,000 to 12,000lbs these RVs would obtain a fuel economy(!) of about 4 to 10mpg.

The smaller RVs were based Ford, GM or Chrysler one ton vans, and although more compact, were not that fuel efficient and quite cumbersome, as the RV or "Coach" body was grafted on to a tall rear wheel drive, front-engine vehicle, which tended to make them top- heavy.

What is the Le Sharo?
So, in 1979-80, as RV sales went into adecline ,the Winnebago company from Forest City, Iowa decided to create a Compact RV based on a small European drivetrain unit, preferably front wheel drive for space considerations, and their search eventually led to an agreement with Renault company of France in 1982 to build an small RV based on the newly introduced Renault "Trafic" small commercial utility vehicle.

In Europe, the Renault Trafic was a front wheel drive van powered by 1397cc to 1995cc petrol 4 cylinder engines, or 2068cc 4 cylinder Diesel engines, all driving the front wheels through a 4 speed manual transaxle, longitudinally mounted: an interesting feature of the gearbox was that the differential assembly was attached to the right side of the transmission bellhousing, making for a very compact unit. Renault provided Winnebago with the cab, drivetrain , chassis and rear axle to which Winnebago added the coach section (RV). In France the Renault Trafic has continued in production to the present, although it seems likely to be replaced in the near future; there are front wheel, rear wheel and four wheel variants , with a large array of body styles, even including ambulances, "tipper" lorries, crew cabs and 15 seat minibuses!

The Le Sharo in North America:
Introduced in the US in1983 model year as the Winnebago Le Sharo and Itasca Phasar RVs, together with the Centauri (7 seater "conversion van") and the utility Van( 2 seats only). All the 1983 models were powered by the all aluminum overhead camshaft 4 cylinder normally-aspirated Diesel engine of 2068cc (57 hp) through the 4 speed transaxle. The basic RV set-up was the two transformable double bed configuration(one bed behind the driver/front passenger, one rear bed at the back of the RV behind the kitchen area. The bathroom/shower area was particularly ingenious, as the bathroom can slide out into the coach section by removing a floor panel in front of the bathroom door and unlatching two catches to the side of the shower door and pulling- et voila!-the shower!

The basic design was very well received, as there was not an RV in existence at that time to compete with it : at just under 20' in length and only 5000 lbs. with the handling characteristics reminiscent of a European station wagon ,with a fuel economy of 20 -23mpg, the Le Sharo was ,in concept, unbeatable. However, 5000 lbs. and 57 hp meant slow!!!..so, in answer to criticisms of lack of power, the 1984 Le Sharo was equipped with a 2068cc Turbo Diesel with Intercooler, bringing up the power up to 75hp, still with the same 4 speed gearbox. This was continued into 1985 model year, but problems encountered with the Turbo Diesel engine and 4 speed transaxle in US conditions led to the introduction of the 2165cc Bosch Fuel injected 4 cylinder Renault(as fitted to the Renault Sportwagon and Fuego sports coupe of the same year) mated to a new 3 speed computer-controlled automatic transaxle, as reports indicated that most North American drivers preferred automatics (surprise,surprise!) in RVs as well as automobiles.

In 1986 model year, the Le Sharo was available with the gas 2.2 and Automatic only, partly as a result of problems encountered with the Diesel powered units, partly because of the downturn in Diesel car sales as a whole ,largely the result of the GM 350 cubic inch Diesel engine whose reputation for mechanical failures soured the US public's affection for diesels in cars. In 1987 , for the first time came a body & coach restyling, with a more aerodynamic front, slimmed side body contours, and a much larger rear window and ledge now covering the spare tire(which had been previously bolted to the rear body externally. In 1988 (and some early '89) model year, Winnebago introduced the Le Sharo line with a 5 speed manual transaxle as an option, with no other major changes. In 1990 through to 1992, the Le Sharo line continued with the 3 speed automatic only, and the "Renix" fuel management system(instead of the Bosch), until the end of 1992 model year, when Winnebago ceased to market the Le Sharo line and its derivatives, much to the chagrin of the loyal group of owners who had gown quite attached to these unique vehicles.

Subject to confirmation, it would seem that approximately 15,000 Le Sharo of all types were sold from 1983 to 1992. The base price for a 1983 Le Sharo was $28,000 and the 1992 was about $36,000. Winnebago did not renew its contract with Renault, but did not give up on the concept of the Compact RV, instead entered into an agreement with Volkswagen of Germany to use the VW Eurovan( powered by a 5 cylinder transverse engine driving an automatic) as a base for the newly named Rialta, which became available in 1994. It was also underpowered, and from 1997 model year is available with the Corrado 15 degree V6 engine (154 hp): the Rialta currently retails at about $56,000.

Le Sharo- successes and failure
During the course of its production history in the US, the harsh realities of a 5000 lb RV powered by small 4 cylinder Turbo Diesel and Gasoline engines doing 65 mph on Interstates became evident. Excellent fuel consumption, ride comfort, road handling and traction and ease of use -even in city driving-are qualities that endear these little motor homes to their owners; it has been a favourite RV for couples not requiring a "house on wheels", but needing more of a "multi-purpose" RV. Notwithstanding the above qualities, certain inadequacies have become evident during the use of these RVs in the US.,and we at the "French Revolution" have become familiar with most of them and have devised solutions for our customers driving them.

Basic Problems encountered :
1. Power/ Weight ratio: (engine underpowered for vehicle size), leading to oiling, overheating, transmission problems: most of the failures we have encountered have nearly all been directly or indirectly attributable to poor or indifferent servicing, combined with lack of owner attention to basic warning signals( gauges, warning lights noises, smells and so on).

In the case of Diesel and Turbo Diesel Le Sharos, we have met the lack of power syndrome by retrofitting the 2.2 Fuel Injected Renault motor used in the 85 and later Le Sharos, or 85 to 89 2.2 Renault Fuego, Sportwagon or Medallions (complete with full Fuel Injection set-up) to the 4 speed transaxle used in the Le Sharo: the combination works extremely well, as the 2.2 gas engine can and will rev at 4000 rpm continuously for hours on end in these RVs(even with the A/C on),at which engine speed we have verified that the little RV is doing about 65 to 72 mph, rendering approximately 16 to 19mpg!......we recommend changing the timing belt and water pump at about 60 to 75000 mile intervals.

We, at the French Revolution, are currently engaged in experiments tofind the most economical, practical and reliable way of installing a 3 litre V6 powerplant, with a 4 speed automatic or 5 speed manual transaxle in the Le Sharo RV to give more effortless highway and mountain driving ability , without excessive fuel consumption; with a 3 litre V6 engine delivering about 155 hp., we think that a goal of 17 to 22 mpg highway should not be unrealistic for an engine working within in torque range at highway speeds. Consequent benefits in lack of wear and tear and reduced incidence of mechanical failure would follow!

2. Problems with the 4 and 5 speed manual transaxle: The rear transmission bearings are insufficiently lubricated and prone very high wear as a result: we routinely replace them with higher grade bearings with steel races( factor original are plastic!) at about 40,000 miles or so: every Le Sharo that comes into our shop with these transmissions always has these bearings examined( and replaced ,if necessary) at this mileage.....we have seen so many catastrophic transaxle failures costing many hundreds of dollars because of this.

The differential ( final drive) assembly is attached to, but separate from the rest of the transmission(also true of the automatic), and the differential housing is SEPARATELY FILLED with only 0.8 quarts (about one litre) of 90 weight gearbox oil ! This level should be checked every engine oil & filter change, as running the differential dry causes crown wheel to pinion gear wear..... again, very expensive to replace, and again good basic maintenance and service can ensure many years of use!

3. Coolant hoses are subject to extreme heat and stress in the Le Sharo, and as a result we recommend their replacement every 60,000 miles or 5 years, whichever comes first ! We also re-route the coolant hoses to the engine oil cooler in such a manner that the coolest coolant cools the engine oil ( instead of the factory installation, in where the coolant from the back of the cylinder head is used to cool the engine oil cooler, which, of course, is the hottest coolant in the system!)

4. Automatic transmission oil cooler: factory uses a engine coolant to ATF oil cooler: we remover this and retrofit a heavy duty (12 to 16000 lb rated) air to ATF oil cooler that is mounted at the front of the RV, behind the font bumper, thus relieving the cooling system of the stain of cooling the ATF.....again, we have had great success with this modification.

The French Revolution and the Le Sharo:
....well, it's pretty obvious that we are totally committed to these vehicles: in fact from 1986 to 1990 we were doing most of the then Austin Winnebago Dealer's warranty work for them: we currently service

dozens of these RVs locally, and out of town (Houston, Dallas, San Antonio) and out of State (Louisiana, New Mexico, Colorado , Arkansas, California.. to name some that come to mind). Both the president of the French Revolution, and our Le Sharo Specialist- Jonathan Burnette) each drive one: Jonathan has an 84 le Sharo converted to 2.2 litre gas, and Pat Whale runs a 84 Centauri with the 2.2 gas AND five speed gearbox!......by the way, our personal Le Sharo/Centauri have gone to Pikes Peak (Colorado-14000 feet!), Grand Tetons and the Wind River Range (Wyoming, 11000 feet) in addition to innumerable excursions to Dallas, Tucson, Big Bend National Park, over the last 8 years, and all without ONE mechanical failure!........of course, our RVs always receive a quick, but thorough, "once-over" prior to going on a long trip.

Andrew Wilis, our Manager and PartsMeister, has previously worked in the Winnebago Corporate structure, so when it comes to Parts and advice, technical information, anywhere UPS (or other) delivery service can access, we can and do send whatever is needed: in addition we have European connections( and microfiches, manuals etc) to ensure that we can really take care of our Le Sharo, Itasca and Centauri friends any where!....

We are embarking on our first V6 Le Sharo project as we write this, so we 'll give you and on-going progress report as events proceed. We will also bring you our Le Sharo travel stories, and hope to set up a page for you to send us your stories also: remember, if you click on "parts", you can e- mail us you parts requirements directly right now.

NOTE (July 23, 2003): In fact, we did not pursue the conversion as it was too time consuming for our shop. however, A magnificent job in this respect has been done the last four years by Greg Erickson, owner of S~Works RV, inc.

Yours Le Sharo-ly ,
Pat Whale,

Thanks to French Revolution Inc for this article.