It was 30 years ago that Land Rover launched the model which would save it as a brand. We revisit the origins and history of the original Discovery.

Until a few years ago, visitors to the Devon city of Plymouth were welcomed by signs proclaiming it to be the ‘City of Discovery’ which made it ideal as the venue for the launch in October 1989 of the Land Rover product bearing the same name. Indeed, just as countless vessels had sailed from Plymouth to discover new lands, so Land Rover was on its own voyage of discovery – and similarly heading into rather uncharted waters, too.

Unlike Drake who famously idled away the time on the Hoe playing bowls waiting for the tide to turn before vanquishing the Spanish Armada, Land Rover was one step ahead of the game, having been painfully aware for some time that it needed a wider range.

Stiff competition was already on the way from the Japanese makers with a new wave of leisure-orientated 4×4 vehicles aimed at families rather than farmers and without a response, this would have hit Land Rover hard in its most vulnerable area.

What the Solihull brand was lacking was an affordable middle ground: at one end it had the original Land Rover itself, dependable and capable but agricultural both to ride and drive in, even in upmarket County Station Wagon trim. The brand’s sole other offering was the Range Rover, which had moved steadily upmarket since its 1970 introduction to the point where it was competing in the executive car market against products like the Jaguar XJ6.

Land Rover Discovery

Clearly something was needed to plug the gap, but as a subsidiary of perennially cash-strapped Austin Rover, Land Rover didn’t have a massive budget.

It didn’t need one as it turned out, though. With some clever lateral thinking by the teams at Solihull, the essence of the Range Rover’s structure was used to good effect and a new vehicle line was created which has since become the backbone of the Land Rover line-up and a sub-brand in its own right. Industry watchers have even suggested that without the Discovery it’s doubtful whether Land Rover would have survived as a brand in the long term.

Development

Project Jay, as the Discovery was initially known, began in 1985 as part of an initiative to investigate potential new markets for the Land Rover brand. Very quickly the team settled on the glaringly obvious idea of a new model to sit between Land Rover and Range Rover but time was tight: vehicles like the Jeep Cherokee were already popular in the USA while the Shogun was making inroads into the European market and it would have taken only a change in car buying fashion to leave Land Rover high and dry. Indeed, Land Rover executives were well aware that GM was already developing a potential European rival – although as luck would have it, the Frontera which eventually resulted would be a laughably weak competitor to the Discovery.

With the benefit of hindsight 30 years later, it seems obvious to us that what was needed was a vehicle which was visually very different from either Land Rover or Range Rover but as Nick Hull points out in his title Land Rover Design, discussion at Land Rover initially centred around an entirely different issue. In the mid ’80s diesel was just beginning its rise and it was already an important factor in European and Asian markets. This was to be an important feature differentiating the car from the Range Rover which had never been offered in a satisfactory diesel form and so inside Land Rover, efforts were concentrated on developing a decent diesel option rather than creating a different body style.

The result was the Gemini project (see our separate section) which was marketed as the 200Tdi engine and which provided Land Rover with the drivetrain it needed to be competitive. Intriguingly, although the seven-seat capacity has since become one of the Discovery’s prime selling points, a measure of the importance of the diesel question comes with the fact that budget constraints very nearly prevented the neat folding mechanism for the third-row seats.

As ever, cost was an issue and it had been decided early on that Project Jay would be based on the 100-inch Range Rover chassis complete with its 4×4 drivetrain but would use an entirely new body style.

To further complicate matters, cost saving dictated that the new vehicle would also carry over the Range Rover’s bulkhead, windscreen and doors. Automotive designers acknowledge that the windscreen is one of the hardest parts of a design to camouflage in this manner and the stylists had their work cut out to successfully integrate a structure designed back in the late 1960s for the original Range Rover into a design for the ’90s.

The Range Rover chassis was also longer than the body length required for the new model and changing fashions dictated a shorter rear overhang than that of the classic Range Rover, but stylists Mike Sampson and Dick Bartlam managed to accommodate this neatly by effectively making the rearmost chassis crossmember the rear bumper. The resulting bumper was also then chunky enough to be used as a step for passengers entering the rear seats.

The design brief also called for seven seats but with the additional two positions located above the rear axle, headroom was an issue. This was solved in the Land Rover Station Wagon by using the familiar raised roof and a modern version of this was added to the Discovery. The addition of the ‘Alpine’ windows and stepped roofline turned it into a feature which would become a signature of the Discovery which continues today.

With a £25m budget allocated by the British Leyland board, the project gathered pace quickly, with the first clay model constructed on a Range Rover chassis in 1986. Intriguingly, photos of the models from this era don’t show the Range Rover doors, which were a requirement added later. Photos from the era show the overall styling theme was little changed from this early model, with mainly only detail changes made before the design was frozen in February 1987.

The goal was to deliver the production-ready car within three years rather than the usual five and Hull points out that Project Jay was the first Land Rover model to use a simultaneous engineering approach, with the styling and drivetrain developed alongside each other.

Even the most charitable would admit that Land Rover’s expertise with interior style was at best minimal. The original Range Rover’s cabin did have an appealingly chunky style but was decidedly utilitarian – the original designers famously weren’t even told of the need to accommodate a manual choke on the original car, while the radio was always an afterthought, initially tucked away behind the driver’s knee on early cars.

It was perhaps because of this that the firm decided to approach outside consultancies for the interior of the new model. The choice of automotive styling consultancy IAD was no surprise, but in an effort to inject a bold new style, Land Rover also invited Conran to submit a proposal. With the IAD proposal discounted early on, the choice came down to a pair of in-house proposals plus the Conran proposal. Designed along tubular themes, this was felt to be the most interesting and so was selected for production, although Land Rover insiders of the time admit that it needed considerable refinement. Conran was famous for its architectural and interior design but had limited familiarity with the world of automotive styling and technology. Parts of the design couldn’t be translated to tooling requirements and needed modifying for production but the overall result was a modern and airy place to be, especially with the twin glass sunroofs. It was practical, too – Conran had perhaps unwittingly included the dashboard shelf which was a feature of Rovers from the era, while storage nets were included in the roof and rear tailgate.

The centre console was envisaged as being a canvas design which could be removed from the vehicle and used as a shoulder bag, but this was one item which proved impractical in use. The rigid edges of the bag made it uncomfortable as an armrest while walking around with it over your shoulder just made you look as if you were carrying car parts around. Land Rover very quickly developed a lockable centre box armrest as a bolt-in alternative.

Elsewhere, cost saving was achieved by plucking parts from right across the Austin Rover range, both past and present. The instrument binnacle came from the Metro, while the dashboard vents were borrowed from the Rover 800, their circular profile fitting neatly into the rounded dashboard moulding. The headlamps were provided by the Sherpa van, while the Maestro van was the source for the tail lamps.

By September 1987, the project was ready to be prepared for production but the name was still undecided. Alongside Discovery, candidates included Highlander and Prairie Rover but it proved to be a bigger issue than simply naming the one new model. The sensible solution was to use Land Rover as the brand name, but this would mean a product called Land Rover Land Rover. The solution was then to rename the original Land Rover as the Defender to solve the problem.

In the market

The Discovery was launched to the world at the Frankfurt show in September 1989 and then rather than an exotic overseas location, was presented to the world’s press in Plymouth in October and November 1989, reflecting the launch of the original Range Rover in Falmouth in 1970.

In what today seems like a curious decision (and which was frankly a bit odd even in 1989) Land Rover launched the Discovery only in its three-door form, a layout which may have worked for the original Range Rover but which was a curious move for a seven-seater.

Engines at launch included the 200Tdi rated at 113bhp and the 3.5-litre Rover V8 in carburetted form good for 150bhp. Both were offered with only manual transmission.

Unlike the Range Rover, a five-door model was added very quickly, appearing in September 1990, at which point the V8 was also given fuel injection.

In September 1992 the ZF 4HP22 automatic became available on V8 and diesel models and in October 1993, the V8 was taken up to 3.9 litres following the Range Rover and the automatic was offered with the diesel engine for the first time. In the same year the 2-litre four-cylinder petrol engine was offered. Sold as Discovery MPi, it was aimed at the specific taxation markets in certain European countries which penalised engines over 2 litres.

In March 1994 a more comprehensive revision was undertaken, aimed at preparing the Discovery for the US market. This added refinements including twin front airbags which involved a more conventional dashboard shared with the late model Range Rover. A redesigned diesel engine badged as 300Tdi was also introduced, the name taken from the fact that it had some 300 new components. The LT77 manual gearbox was also replaced by the more robust R380 unit. These facelifted cars are often referred to as the ‘300 series’ models and can be identified by larger headlights with a redesigned grille and bumpers, plus new indicators and a send set of rear lights in the bumper. Anti-roll bars front and rear improved on-road handling and bodyshell rigidity was improved. ABS also became standard from 1996 onwards.

Originally produced at around the 300 cars a week, this increased to 500 by 1992, out-selling both other Land Rover models. Sales were up to 50,000 units in 1994 thanks to drivability, speed and comfort, in addition to the eager pricing. It was the Discovery’s success which allowed Land Rover to sell over 100,000 vehicles for the first year in 1995.

The heavily revised Discovery 2 arrived in 1998, meaning that the original Discovery really ends at this point with a total of 392,443 produced.

You didn’t know…

  • The Discovery was the first Land Rover product to use CAD during its design.
  • The Discovery’s interior is six inches taller than the Range Rover classic.
  • Land Rover MD Tony Gillroy was concerned at the cost of the folding mechanism for the boot-mounted sixth and seventh seats. Marketing director John Russell reckoned it would sell an additional 100 vehicles and so that became the cost break-even point. In the end, the seats worked out at the profit of 95 vehicles sales.
  • A novel approach to the interior style involved taking the seat facing fabric over the side bolsters without a seam, which made the seats look wider.
  • Although the Discovery was launched with the Sherpa’s square headlights, the stylists had always envisaged it having round lamps.
  • A range of 50 accessories was developed in-house prior to the launch of the Discovery ,Land Rover had never done anything like this before. They included bull bars, winches and steps as well as hip flasks and sports bags.
  • On five-seat models, storage bins were offered in the boot where the extra seats would have been.
  • The bold decals were dropped as an option after the 1994 facelift,
  • Rover Group designer Geoff Upex later admitted that the Rover 800 door assemblies cost as much as the entire Project Jay programme.
  • An extended-length Discovery was produced on the 116-inch chassis for special vehicles.
  • A handful of armoured Discoveries was produced on the 110-inch chassis shared with the armoured Range Rover.
  • The proposed Project Heartland would have included a flat-roofed five-seater and a longer stepped-roof seven-seater.
  • IAD’s interior styling proposal was rejected because they ignored the brief for the radio positioning.
  • One of the key changes with the post-1994 dashboard was raising the radio away from the heat of the transmission tunnel.
  • The original Conran interior proposal included a funky roof console.
  • The dimples on grab handle and gearknob were originally intended as raised pimples by Conran but couldn’t be tooled for production.
  • A Hi-Lux style pickup was investigated under the name Challenger using Discovery-style front panels.
  • During the press launch a stunt was organised where a Discovery successfully pulled a train on the South Devon Railway.
  • Alloy wheels weren’t even an option at launch – they hadn’t been finalised in time, so had to be a dealer-fit option.
  • During development of the Discovery, MD Tony Gillroy was concerned at the lack of female involvement and recruited a ‘Ladies Panel’ from within the company to review trim and colour options. It seems old-fashioned today but was an admirably forward-thinking move at the time.
  • A three-door Discovery 2 was built as a full-size mock-up but it was felt that customer demand was insufficient.
  • Very early production Discoveries still had the Austin Rover logo on the rear lights.
  • From 1994 to 1996 the Discovery was sold in Japan badged as the Honda Crossroad.

Project Gemini

Key to differentiating the Discovery from the Range Rover was the diesel engine and Land Rover bosses were well aware that they were drastically uncompetitive in this respect. The 2.5-litre engine marketed as Diesel Turbo in the Land Rover was essentially an updated version of the older engine which was itself derived from the original Land Rover diesel engine dating from 1957 and although it was good enough for the Land Rover it wasn’t deemed smooth enough for the Range Rover. For this, Land Rover bought in an engine from Italian maker VM which was branded as Turbo D but although it did the job well enough, it was neither refined or powerful enough to be a convincing proposition as the 1990s dawned.

The solution was to develop a new power unit and the starting point was the existing 2.5-litre diesel. At that time passenger car diesel engines still employed an indirect injection system, using a pre-chamber to avoid HGV-style diesel rattle at the expense of power. The Perkins Prima engine used in the Maestro and Montego however had proved that direct injection could be made to work in a small-capacity high-speed diesel engine and so the new engine developed under the codename project Gemini took this approach.

Once again budget constraints arose, this time the need to machine the components on the existing production line which dictated the use of the same block, bore spacings and crankshaft – hence the carried-over 2499cc capacity.

An alloy cylinder head was added to reduce weight and noise, while a Bosch injection system with two-stage injectors was both more reliable and smoother than previous Lucas CAV systems.

Running with an intercooler, the end result was 113bhp and 195lbf.ft of torque which translated into the respectable on-road performance required for the Discovery. It would also be fitted to the Defender from 1990.

The engine was subsequently developed into the 300Tdi – so called on account of its 300 new components – which majored on improving refinement and noise and would be introduced with the facelifted Discovery in 1994.

Project Romulus

The success of the Discovery took even Land Rover by surprise and before long the more obvious cost-cutting was starting to become more obvious as the competition became stronger. The Sonar Blue interior had been complemented by a more conservative Bahama beige interior scheme in 1990, but the Discovery still needed detail improvement and a facelifted car was developed under code name Romulus for the 1995 model year. An all-new Discovery project was already planned under the name Heartland, but with this unlikely to be production-ready for several years, it was Romulus which would need to prop up sales.

Key to the modifications was the need to prepare the vehicle for sale in the USA, something which required a passenger airbag. This couldn’t be accommodated in the original Conran design and so a new dashboard was developed which would also find its way into the late-model Range Rover. With an airbagged steering wheel courtesy of the Rover 800, the Discovery duly became the first off-road vehicle with twin airbags.

Although it lost the distinctive style of the original layout, the new dashboard was far more conventional and represented multi-purpose vehicles like the Discovery moving into the mainstream.

On the outside, the most obvious change was the replacement of the small Sherpa headlights with larger units unique to the Discovery. This in turn involved a revised front panel with smaller indicator lamps, while on the inside the Rover 800 dashboard vents were replaced by square units and switchgear was a mixture of Rover 800 and Montego.

Mechanically, the R380 five-speed gearbox replaced the old LT77 unit dating from the days of the Rover SD1, while the 200Tdi engine became the 300Tdi and the V8 was uprated to 3.9 litres.

The Romulus update worked well, which was fortunate for Land Rover, since the project which would become the Freelander had been given the green light, funding for which meant the ambitious all-new Discovery replacement codenamed Heartland would become an extensive revision instead under the codename Tempest.