Thirty years of Land Rover Discovery: meet five generations of 4x4 fabulousness

Thirty years of Land Rover Discovery: meet five generations of 4x4 fabulousness

We drive five generations of Land Rover's 'lifestyle' 4x4

IN THE early 1980s, Land Rover had two models: the rugged Defender (known then as the 90, 110 or 127, depending on wheelbase) and the upmarket Range Rover. Both were quite niche, the Defender being seriously utilitarian and unrefined, while the Range Rover was rather too high end and expensive for the masses. What was needed was a “liftesyle product”, somewhere in between.

Japanese car makers like Toyota, Nissan, Isuzu and Mitsubishi had already realised this, and new, more affordable 4×4 SUVs started to emerge. According to Land Rover Classic’s Michael Bishop, getting the board to sign-off for an all-new model to take them on was unlikely, so Tony Gilroy, Land Rover’s managing director, sneakily introduced incremental updates for the Range Rover — including a new Gemini 200 TDI diesel engine, handling and body structure improvements — that could eventually be put together in a Range Rover-based third model.

“Rather than going and saying to the board, ‘Right, we’re going to do the whole programme,’ of which they would have said, ‘No, you’re not a big enough manufacturer to be able to do that,’ he managed to get it through by hook and crook,” said Bishop.

So in 1987 “Project Jay” was born, creating a model sitting directly between the Range Rover and the Defender. The resulting Land Rover Discovery was introduced at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1989.

The Disco was an instant hit and by 1995 it had become Land Rover’s biggest seller. In 2012, the one millionth model rolled off the Solihull production line and, over its three decades, the Discovery has enabled owners to reach some of the most far-flung corners of the world across some of the trickiest terrain imaginable.

To mark its 30th anniversary, we climbed behind the wheel of the original car and all four subsequent generations to get a feel for how the model has evolved over the years, and will be updating this page with details of each generations throughout the week.

Land Rover Discovery 1 guide

Land Rover Discovery 1 guide

Essentially, the original Discovery of 1989 was based on the Range Rover but given a new body and fewer luxuries. Initially only available as a three-door, the original Disco looks rather odd to modern eyes — like a design concept that made production by mistake. The thinking, says Land Rover, was that the new Discovery had to be clearly distinct from the Range Rover (but just a year later it did introduce a Disco with rear doors).

Climbing into the back of the three-door isn’t too tricky, as the front seats slide forwards easily, and once inside you find there’s plenty of space in the second row for tall passengers, though the lack of a door handle may make claustrophobes feel rather enclosed.

That aside, the interior is a masterpiece. Land Rover subcontracted the cabin design to Conran Design Studio with a brief to ignore convention and instead create a “lifestyle accessory”. The striking result (especially in “Sonar Blue”) is both minimalist and functional, with a large grab handle in front of the front passenger and the characteristic rubber dashboard mat running from the door right across to the instrument binnacle.

Its most interesting feature was the removable bag that sits between the front seats, instead of a cubby hole. This enabled owners to take it with them when they left the car. The bag was in the model we drove though many have gone missing over the years, making them a collectors’ item.

There are five fixed seats in the original Discovery, with the option of two jump seats for the boot, making it a seven-seater. The model we drove was fitted with all the bells and whistles, including electric windows and electric mirrors (both still amazingly perky for 30-year-old tech). It also had a manual low range gearbox and locking differentials from launch.

In 1994, the model got a facelift that included a new dashboard, airbags, updated lights, a new 300 TDI diesel engine and an improved gearbox.

What’s it like to drive?

We drove a 1989 three-door Disco fitted with Rover’s 3.5-litre V8 engine and five-speed manual ‘box. Land Rover Classic’s cars get turned over and taken for drives but this car has only done 31,000 miles from new and is rarely taken out on the road, so the big lump under the bonnet needed some coaxing to get going.

Once fired up, though, it purred away happily and proved keen and decently torquey, though in terms of outfits performance the V8 Discovery 1 is sluggish by modern standards. The suspension is also comparatively crude, with large amounts of body lean, the cabin rolling significantly through turns. Combine that with vague steering and the first generation model feels more like a barge than a car.

But it dispatches off-road terrain with ease and you cruise along in comfort, whatever the road surface. It’s a reminder of why owners have become very fond of it — a dependable, capable companion for those living in rural locations.

This page is being updated. Come back later for details of the:
Discovery 2 (1998)
Discovery 3 (2004)
Discovery 4 (2010)
Discovery 5 (2016)