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Future Classic Friday: Land Rover Discovery

Published 25 August 2017

British Leyland, Austin Rover, Rover Group - call it what you will - but for all its many failings, the company was nothing if not resourceful.

The Land Rover Discovery was arguably its greatest success, though even Land Rover's own bosses weren't quite prepared for how much the model would fire the imagination of the car buying public. 

Up until the 'Disco' made its debut, Land Rover relied on two models with very different characters. The 90/110 (which didn't become the Defender until after the Discovery was launched), and the Range Rover, which had evolved from a semi-luxurious 4x4 to a really quite posh one. But there was no middle ground.

And that, to Land Rover, was a massive threat, because it was an area rapidly filling up with Japanese newcomers. If Land Rover was to continue to rule the 4x4 roost, it needed to compete with vehicles such as the Mitsubishi Shogun, Toyota Land Cruiser and Daihatsu Fourtrak, and it needed to do so quickly.

Land Rover Discovery (4) (1)

But, as ever, Rover Group's coffers were empty. What money British Aerospace had made available for product development had been sunk into the new 'R8' hatchback, which became the Rover 200, it's four-door sibling, the 400, the new 'K-series' engine and significant facelifts for the Metro and Rover 800, without which the company was staring down the barrel of a gun.

Land Rover did get a new engine out of the investement - and it was a cracker, too. Indeed, even today, Land Rover die-hards claim that the 200 Tdi was the best engine the company ever made. Clattery, maybe, but torquey and doggedly reliable. But it was also told to make do and mend, using whatever parts it could from the Rover Group parts bin.

As well as the limited investment, this was also a ploy to reduce development time so as to minimise the impact of the new models on the market, light trucks from the Far East, which coined the phrase 'Sports Utility Vehicle', or SUV. As a result, the Discovery was based on the chassis of the Range Rover. It used its floors, most of its drivetrain, door frames and glass. Elsewhere from the parts bin came the headlights from the Freight Rover van, along with the tail light clusters from the Maestro van. Much of the switchgear was shared with the Metro and Rover 800, while the door handles were a throwback to the Austin Allegro and Morris Marina. 

Where Land Rover did invest, though, was in the Discovery's cabin, appointing fashion designer Jasper Conran's agency to create the interior. Initially only available in blue, the plastics had a dimpled finish to the steering wheel and distinctive seat-mounted grab handles, while behind the gear lever the Discovery had a removable fabric cubby box. The interior layout was dubbed 'theatre-style', meaning that those in the second row sat higher than those in the front, a feature that gave the model its distinctive stepped roofline.

Land Rover Discovery (2) (1)

Launched in 1989 as a three-door only, it was an overnight success. A more family-friendly five-door model arrived in 1991, followed by a significant facelift and new, quieter 300Tdi engines in 1994. Even the 1999 Discovery Td5, which had a far more conventional cabin and innovative technology such as ACE, or Advanced Cornering Enhancement, was based on primarily the same vehicle, and by then Land Rover's fortunes had really started to turn. It may have been based on a 30-year old chassis, but by now the Discovery was a genuine premium vehicle. 

Today, Discovery is not just a nameplate, but a model range of its own within the modern Land Rover line-up. And while the current incarnation may have very little in common with its ancestor in terms of styling, it has it to thank for everything the Discovery name has come to stand for - not least for keeping Land Rover in the game to start with. 

A flawed car in many ways, yes, but the Discovery is a sure-fire classic in waiting without a doubt.


tigeraqua    on 26 August 2017

It is (I agree) a slumbering giant in the classic landscape. However - the build quality of the early models was terrible - with rusting and dropping doors, and disintegrating interiors. Better models came with the TD5 - despite much more complex electronics with them.

   on 15 November 2023

I remember when they came out with the poor unreliable and slow tdi.
Ss said the TD5 came along and was the people's choice.
The 3.9 V8 made no sence with dreadfull economy with 15mpg on a good day if you didn't thrash it.
The early ones did not just suffer with poor engines they had very bad build quality and plastics were not strong and were not fit for the discovery's task in hand of being Rugged off reader/ large family off roader.
Rust was always a issue with these which found their way into later models, although not as bad as early models....Land Rover Rustcovery
Clearly with the British manufacturer they were not learning lessons of past cars for reliability and poor quality everywhere you looked.

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