The Winnebago LeSharo of the 1980s tried to be different. When most motorhomes were large, it was small. When most motorhomes were thirsty, it got 22 mpg. It was a winning combination for some, except for the fact that the Renault Trafic van underneath couldn’t climb hills and reached a top speed of 80 mph at best. Two decades ago, someone rectified that issue by tossing out the Renault and splicing in a Ford Windstar. You read that right, someone decided a Ford Windstar was an upgrade over the dreadfully slow Renault that was there before. Even better, the build doesn’t look bad!
While this camper looks plenty weird, it is but one way someone has modified a LeSharo. There are entire Facebook groups dedicated to removing the Renault from the Winnebago and replacing it with something else. Apparently, there have been LeSharos perched on Ford F-Series pickup chassis, there’s a LeSharo with a Buick 3800 V6 engine swap, and more. Conversions at the extreme end of the spectrum involve removing the base Renault Trafic entirely for different running gear. At least one LeSharo was converted into a travel trailer!
That 4×4 camper is a fantastic remix of the concept of the LeSharo. It’s still a small and aerodynamic camper, but now it has reliable running gear and can climb a mountain to boot.
Then you’re left with this LeSharo Windstar that I found on Facebook. It isn’t a LeSharo that’s become a 4×4 or a LeSharo with stout Buick power. Instead, someone placed a Ford Windstar where the Renault used to be. I bet it’s still an improvement.
Why People Convert These Campers
Back in the 1980s, Winnebago sought to solve a problem with motorhomes. In those days, which weren’t much different than today, motorhomes were often gargantuan rigs with an appetite for fuel and the driving dynamics of a brick with some wheels attached. Cars in America were also recovering from being battered by oil crises and an effort to reduce emissions and increase fuel economy. Given the focus on fuel economy in the 1980s, a motorhome that got single-digit fuel economy probably didn’t look that great to a lot of potential buyers.
For Winnebago, the solution to the era’s automotive woes was to sell a motorhome that slipped through the air and sipped on fuel compared to the typical RV. How would Winnebago deliver a fuel-efficient RV? It looked to Europe for help. From my retrospective:
Over there, Winnebago found the first generation Renault Trafic van. These vans featured a low floor thanks to their diesel front-wheel-drive powertrain. Winnebago struck a deal with Renault, allowing the former to create a different kind of motorhome. Renault shipped Trafic cabs, drivetrains, and rear axles to America, where Winnebago would build them out into the LeSharo motorhome. The first LeSharos started hitting the road in 1983 and Winnebago marketed them as something revolutionary:
Winnebago wasn’t far off; the LeSharo had a ton of good ideas going for it. By choosing the Trafic as a donor vehicle, the Winnebago LeSharo enjoyed a low and largely flat floor that sat just 10 inches above the ground. This is great for people who don’t quite have the mobility to climb stairs into a coach. It was also great for keeping the center of gravity low, which helped Winnebago’s objective to build a motorhome that drives like a car. The only places the floor steps up are in the cab and the dinette.
A Winnebago LeSharo was also a compact camper. The first-generation LeSharo was just 19 feet, 7 inches long, which makes it about the size of today’s camper vans. And with a gross vehicle weight rating of 5,770 pounds, it maxed out with a weight less than some of the trucks that you could buy today. Winnebago didn’t skimp out on quality in keeping the weight low, either. LeSharos have steel unibodies, fiberglass end caps, and aluminum is used in the roof.
Winnebago was quite proud of the LeSharo. In its advertising, the RV builder touted its quality by saying: “Most Manufacturers Don’t Offer 5 Year/50,000 Mile Protection. Maybe They Know Something You Don’t.”
While quality may have been good for the day, the LeSharo had some undesirable quirks. The first LeSharos had a 2.068-liter diesel four-cylinder borrowed from the Trafic. It made all of 66 horsepower and 94 lb-ft torque, delivered to the front wheels. If those low numbers somehow didn’t scare you already, consider that given the LeSharo’s GVWR of 5,770 pounds, this RV weighs three times as much as Smart Fortwo while having less power. You may have been able to score 22 to 24 mpg with a LeSharo, but you weren’t getting anywhere fast.
The LeSharo hit the road in 1983 and a year later, Winnebago tried to help the low power with the addition of a Garrett T04 turbocharger. That bumped output up to 75 HP. By 1985, a 2.2-liter Renault gas engine arrived on the scene and offered up 100 HP. The LeSharo was granted a second generation in 1987 that lasted until 1992. The 2.2-liter engine was the only choice for second-generation models. If you scroll through LeSharo forums, you’ll find claims that these campers can hit about 80 mph at most, and speed can be reduced by wind or hills. Keep in mind that when the LeSharo was in production, there was a 55 mph national speed limit, so you didn’t have a legal reason to go faster.
However, the highways of today have speed limits of 70 mph and sometimes higher, meaning the little LeSharo might not have enough power for some people. Only making things worse is the fact that the LeSharo had a choice of either a 3-speed automatic or a 4-speed manual. If you could live slowly, maybe the LeSharo itself let you down. Reportedly, these can have drivetrain issues ranging from engine overheating to transmissions that get stuck in a gear or don’t shift. Regardless of the reason, some people have traded the Renault bones for other stuff, and this LeSharo Windstar is probably one of the weirder builds.
Introduced in 1995, the Ford Windstar was Blue Oval’s follow-up to the Aerostar. The Windstar was Ford’s answer to Chrysler’s highly successful minivans. The Aerostar was a rear-wheel-drive van with a unibody featuring full rails. This gave it a truck-like 5,000-pound tow rating, but it wasn’t a direct competitor to something like the Dodge Caravan. That would be the job for the Ford Windstar. As the Orlando Sentinel reported in 1989, development on the Windstar began in 1988. The new van would better compete with Chrysler’s vans by adopting a front-wheel-drive layout and carlike driving dynamics.
Perhaps the neatest part about the Windstar’s development was the fact that women led the van’s design. Ford saw women as the primary buyer of the Windstar, so Ford decided to let women design, engineer, and market the van.
This resulted in handy features for the women who might be found behind the wheel of a Windstar. The driver seat gets close to the pedals, there’s a hanging pull strap on the tailgate, and the seatbelt adjusts so that it wouldn’t cut into the driver’s neck. All of this was done to make the van easier to live with for shorter drivers. In addition to the features for shorter drivers, the design team gave the van a low floor so women wearing dresses or skirts could get in and out easily. Dashboard controls were designed to be operated by someone with long nails. The seats and doors were even designed so that a pregnant woman wearing high heels could secure a baby in the minivan. This feminine touch also extended to the rear cupholders, which were shaped just right for juice boxes.
All of these made the Windstar a fine minivan. I grew up riding in one of these and while it wasn’t as cool as a Chrysler van, it got the job done. For the LeSharo, swapping out the Renault for a Windstar gave the camper some big gains.
In 1998, the base engine of the Windstar was a 3.0-liter Vulcan V6, good for 150 HP and 172 lb-ft of torque. Right out of the gate, that’s a big improvement over the original Renault Trafic. However, the engine in this Windstar LeSharo on Facebook Marketplace is the 3.8-liter Essex V6 good for 200 HP and 225 lb-ft of torque. That’s double the power over the base Renault!
The transmission is an improvement also, with the Windstar’s 4-speed automatic offering one more ratio over a Renault-underpinned LeSharo’s 3-speed auto. In theory, this LeSharo Windstar should be much faster than stock. The seller also notes that it still gets 15 mpg, so the fuel economy hasn’t been entirely ruined. What might be of concern is weight. The original LeSharo was designed to weigh as much as 5,770 pounds. The Windstar? It has a GVWR of 5,380 pounds, so it might not be happy pulling a loaded LeSharo.
Aside from getting a new nose, the rest of the LeSharo is business as usual. The seller says the camper still has an electrical hookup and features include two beds, a cooler, a stove, a microwave, a bathroom, and more. From the pictures, it would appear that the interior layout changed slightly where the Windstar was attached. The interior also appears to have seen better days. There’s a nightstand sort of shoved where the factory refrigerator sat and there’s a mess on the counter obscuring whatever could be going on there.
The seller states that the conversion was done in 2002 by a fabricator. Despite how the interior looks, the seller also says that the camper is functional and it was last camped in about a month ago. Sadly, the seller doesn’t say why the fabricator went through with this project. Did something break in the original Renault? Was it in a crash? How did they achieve the conversion? I have so many questions!
What I can say is that like the Aironado Airstream, the LeSharo Windstar is sort of internet famous. You’ll see pictures of the van on camper forums and even on Reddit, but no story ever follows those pictures. I reached out to the seller and will update if I hear back.
Until then, the seller wants $5,000 for this 1985 Winnebago LeSharo with a 1998 Ford Windstar. You just have to go to Buchanan, Michigan, to pick it up. Is that too much? I don’t know, but I love silly custom campers like these.
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