First Drive : Land Rover Discovery – first off the line

Mike Humble drives the very first Land Rover Discovery off the line – and finds himself transported back in time…

Land Rover Discovery (1)

You know, it’s a really long time since I have driven an early Land Rover Discovery. Many of you are bound to know that this year marks some very important birthdays on the British automotive calendar, one of which is the Rover 214/216, and the other being the Land Rover Discovery – both are 25 years young towards the end of 2014.

At the recent SMMT Test Day, Land Rover, along with BMIHT, brought the very first Discovery off the Solihul production line. It’s a red three-door manual 200Tdi, which looks as good today as it did when it rolled off the line. Invited media were given a free reign of the extensive Millbrook proving ground, and Disco number one was available for a drive around the high speed bowl.

This Discovery normally lives a very sheltered life as a part of the Gaydon museum collection - in fact, it was only registered for road use in March 2012 and the speedometer reads a paltry 1200 miles. As you would expect for the mileage, that works out at less than 50 miles per year, this very special car is in pristine condition and created a great deal of interest at the event that was aimed to showcase new and upcoming cars.

In the best interest of all things nostalgic, AROnline made a beeline for the Land Rover display in order to grab a steer of this incredible and ground-breaking Land Rover. Just walking around the vehicle before grabbing the keys, the fixtures and fittings on their own prove to be a treat for all followers of Rover Group and its previous owners.

Tail lamps donated from the Maestro Van, door handles that have graced cars from the Marina to the Lotus Esprit, and front lights that have fitted commercials as small as the Freight Rover 300 series through to the heavyweight Seddon Atkinson 2 and 3-11 truck. Today you just wouldn’t get away with such rampant parts sharing, but bear in mind that the Discovery hailed from an era where budgets were tight – and all assets had to utilised.

This process of identification continues once you have clambered in. Drivers of Metro/Maestro/Montego models will feel right at home thanks to those familiar looking column stalks. Rover 800 owners will appreciate the dashboard air vents – even the pedals are taken straight from the classic Range Rover – as are much of the Discovery’s underpinnings.

Familiarity breeds… happiness

Land Rover Discovery (6)

Placing the blue Austin Rover wing branded key into the barrel fires up the well known Land Rover 200 series Tdi engine. Shifting the LT77 gearbox (a transmission with its roots well and truly in the BL-era) into first, away we go – and the incredibly long throttle pedal travel reminds you of a time where fly by wire was strictly for the likes of Concorde.

Being an early model there are no fancy anti-roll bars fitted and the first corner before entering the bowl circuit sees the Land Rover lean over to the side enough to make me quietly gasp in slight alarm. The direct injection engine pulls strongly and cleanly, and soon enough we are through all five gears running around the bowl at an indicated 80mph.

One thing that does impress is the way a conversation can be heard even at these speeds; sure there is engine and tyre noise in abundance but never enough to make you wince or wish you were driving something more civilised. Even the steering needs little more than an occasional token correction.

The Discovery was met with universal praise, and the light and airy interior styled by Conran Design is – in today’s terms – very retro, blending both form and function. And yet still looks great. Not an inch of space is wasted either, and the soft padded front seats are a joy to sit on.

A quarter century down the road and the Discovery still impresses – it’s so easy to concur with the motoring pundits of the time, who gave it a universal thumbs up when Maggie still ruled the waves.

Oh dear! We seem to have missed the exit from the bowl – looks like we will have to go around again just one more time. As capable as a Defender and yet comfortable like the Range Rover, it’s easy to see why the Discovery has evolved so well over the past 25 years, maturing into a superb luxury vehicle losing none of its off road ability or character. AROnline would like to thank Jaguar Land Rover and BMIHT Gaydon for a most enjoyable drive down memory lane.

Happy Birthday Land Rover Discovery!

Land Rover Discovery (3)

Mike Humble

About the Author:

Bus and Coach sales exec in Surrey, South London & Kent Former MG Rover Salesperson, Mechanic and Self Employed Motor Trader with companies including Henlys - Reg Vardy - Stratstone - Evans Halshaw & Phoenix Venture Holdings (retail)

27 Comments on "First Drive : Land Rover Discovery – first off the line"

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  1. Dynamoo says:

    “Those door handles” are almost as famous as “those doors” from the Austin 1800.

  2. Will M says:

    The Discovery concept in it’s purest form, bridging the Defender and Range Rover.

  3. Dave Dawson says:

    A truly great car – very resourceful engineering, using many existing parts, but none the worse for it. A very clever design which so successfully combined the virtues of Defender and Range Rover.

    Its more minimal style is so appealing.

  4. maestrowoff says:

    A great design. No idea why they built it as a 3 door though…

  5. Oliver says:

    A nice disign which combines the Simca/Talbot Matra Rancho design with the 4WD handling of an early Pajero!
    It was the first European 4WD which was available for the price of a japanese 4WD!

  6. francis brett francis brett says:

    Bomb proof engines, good use of Maestro van rear pillars and lights and the purity of the Conran designed interior, this is why I bemoan the current and future Disco’s.

  7. guy kendal says:

    @ 4 they (Land Rover) were concerned that a 5 door version would takes sales away from Range Rover… “You want back doors? Buy a Range Rover!”… “You want fuel injection? Buy a Range Rover!”.. “Automatic? Buy a Range Rover!” It was only later as the Discovery became such a run away sales success that they felt confident enough to expand the range.
    I doubt very much Land Rover would still be around if it wasn’t for the Discovery, that paved the way for the P38 & Freelander & Land Rover as we know them today; An absolutely marvelous bit of British engineering on a shoe string!

  8. cookie1600 says:

    If the first one off the line was red, what is the brown one featured in the pictures above, or am I missing something?

  9. David 3500 says:

    A nice write-up, Mike, and nice to see someone getting the rare opportunity to drive No. 1.

    The launch of the five-door version from September 1990 was part of a gradual phased launch programme as it was clear from Land Rover’s forecasts that the Discovery would be a huge seller when it went on sale. It obviously was, while the onwards and upwards approach through the introduction of the five-door version and higher specification ‘S’ trim level from September 1990 proved to be a shrewd move on Land Rover’s part.

    I must admit that it was the Discovery that really sparked off my enthusiasm for all things Land Rover, even though I was already a fan of the Range Rover. I was at Motorfair ’89 when the Discovery was shown on UK soil for the first time and I loved its styling and those funky Alpine graphics. I still prefer the three-door bodystyle to the five-door and particularly like seeing them sporting those Alpine graphics, together with steel wheels and the Sonar Blue interior colourway.

    There is, however, one irritating error about No. 1 that really bugs me – why are those number plates displaying a 2001 font? There are so many companies out there who can reproduce the original pre-2001 font and even the correct dealer/manufacturer details for the bottom of the number plate. Yet Land Rover Ltd seems to have taken the cheap and easy option and got the number plates made up with the wrong font at their local motor factors. Arrrgghhh!!!

  10. David 3500 says:

    A nice write-up, Mike, and nice to see someone getting the rare opportunity to drive No. 1.

    The launch of the five-door version from September 1990 was part of a gradual phased launch programme as it was clear from Land Rover’s forecasts that the Discovery would be a huge seller when it went on sale. It obviously was, while the onwards and upwards approach through the introduction of the five-door version and higher specification ‘S’ trim level from September 1990 proved to be a shrewd move on Land Rover’s part.

    I must admit that it was the Discovery that really sparked off my enthusiasm for all things Land Rover, even though I was already a fan of the Range Rover. I was at Motorfair ’89 when the Discovery was shown on UK soil for the first time and I loved its styling and those funky Alpine graphics. I still prefer the three-door bodystyle to the five-door and particularly like seeing them sporting those Alpine graphics, together with steel wheels and the Sonar Blue interior colourway.

    There is, however, one irritating error about No. 1 that really bugs me – why are those number plates displaying a 2001 font? There are so many companies out there who can reproduce the original pre-2001 font and even the correct dealer/manufacturer details for the bottom of the number plate. Yet Land Rover Ltd seems to have taken the cheap and easy option and got the number plates made up with the wrong font at their local motor factors. Arrrgghhh!!!

  11. maestrowoff says:

    The thing is, how many people but a vehicle of that size and choose 3 doors? It’s not as if it was designed as a military vehicle with those sideways benches that are now banned? Surely the extra cost of tooling up the 3 door model would outweigh the benefits of ‘upselling’ 5 door customers to the Range Rover, many of which probably walked out and bought a Shogun instead anyway!

  12. Kev says:

    Re 11: A three door variant allowed the product to be sold into certain overseas markets as a van/light commercial. This was due to the very poor crash performance of it’s inherited Range Rover chassis frame. Quite simply, as a van the car didn’t have to meet car crash performance requirements. In these markets, a dealer fit kit was supplied to convert the ‘van’ to a ‘car’ post registration.

  13. alexscott says:

    maestraowoff, the discovery 1 is not a big car (but yes heavy), they are actually quite short and easy to park an great around town. The upright seating position makes them look big and you can see for miles, my kids travel very well in them. I see a reference to handling above too, they handle very very well, even with the body roll (ever driven an older Citroen? -talk about body roll) I did thousands of miles in my Disco 1 v8, I drive hard and never once had it crossed up. The benefits of AWD :-) ! I drive a Disco II v8 now…and yes I now see why they call land rovers unreliable, the disco ii is a much bigger problem than the disco 1 was. alex

  14. climbsyke says:

    Does anyone else remember the launch advert?

    A team of Japanese/far eastern explorers trekking across the ice only to find a 4X4 entombed in the ice.
    After talking in an amazed (probably made up) Asian language they rub away at the front to reveal the Land Rover Badge!

    Clearly a massive snub to the Shogun/Patrol/Trooper cars that were making some headway at the time!

    The advert really stuck in my mind, and I wasn’t a fan then as I was too young!

  15. Jemma says:

    I really like the way they’ve done the dash – some of the stuff nowadays is just downright weird.
    Theres one thing bugging me though – there are what look like rotating ash trays in the front doors above the door latches and I know I have seen them before but I cant for the life of me remember where.. anyone know what other cars these were on?
    Would this car be susceptible to the fibre gear eating oil pump by any chance – I know at 200 miles its not really a risk, but it would be a shame not to replace the part if its the suspect one..

    • Jemma,

      these ash trays have been used on the rear doors of the Maestro and possibly some Metro variants too. The early Discovery interior is indeed a very beautiful design, despite incorporating the full BL – ARG parts bin (which contained plenty nice bits, like the lit up Maestro/Montego column stalks).

  16. Andy says:

    Nice article, I do like all the Discoveries from these ones to the latest. I have never seen an F reg one before, the pre-production cars at the launch were all G-WAC registered. The first pre-production P38a Rangies are L reg, some are preserved with enthusiasts. The top spec ‘ES’ Discovery came in with the 1994 facelift, with wood & leather interior & special dark alloys.

  17. David 3500 says:

    @ Andy – Comment #17:

    That is a good point about why the first example was registered on an F registration and not a G plate, in line with the Press cars. The ‘ENV’ part of the registration is also intriguing as it originates from Milton Keynes, if I am not mistaken, not Birmingham, Coventry or Warwickshire.

    Incidentally, the very last Discovery Series 1 to be built, a 3.9-litre V8 ES automatic finished in Charlstone Green metallic, and originally part of the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust collection until July 2003, is currently for sale on the website carandclassic.co.uk. It is a low mileage example although sadly has been fitted with LPG by one of its keepers, despite its historical status and original condition.

  18. ant80 says:

    had my 300 tdi 96 model for nearly 8 years love it, it does what it says on the tin comfy just enough luxuries parts are dirt cheap 7 seater so like a small minibus if needed quite nippy really for its size came back from wales yesterday with a 23 foot twin axle caravan and fully loaded bags of power no trouble and very reliable also looks good for its age i do use auto glym polish on it and the wheels and is in rioja red, which i always thought was one of the best colours. people do admire it now as its gettin on a bit!!
    plus if you want after all that you can just turn off road into the rough stuff, cant do that in a car!! oh and its pretty good on fuel. i love it anyway….

  19. ant80 says:

    i always thought the PREMIUM edition was the run out model see a couple and they seem to be fully loaded??

  20. Andy says:

    ‘ES Premium’ was the top spec for the last Series II Td5 & V8 ’03-’04. I remember the last SIIs to make way for the new D3 sold out quicker than LR expected.

  21. David 3500 says:

    The Series 2 ES Premium was one of the three runout ‘definitive editions’ announced in early 2004, and as Andy says, sold out quicker than anticipated, including the V8 version. Today an immaculate condition example with under 60,000 miles can still command a forecourt price of £10,000.

    The ES Premium designation was also used for the 1998 Model Year Discovery Series 1, albeit as an extra cost option pack whereby you got leather seats finished in Lightstone (Bahama Beige and Granite Grey were the standard colourways) and stainless steel sill threshold plates engraved with ‘Discovery’. On the front wings were ‘Premium’ badges.

    However, on the Series 1 the ES Premium was not a runout edition, more a way of promoting a tad more opulence for the range-topping ES variant. During the final three months of Series 1 production there were several special edition models to help boost sales. These comprised of the Anniversary 50, Safari (a value-for-money proposition) and the rare Argyll 3-door model (the name was first used in 1997 on a 5-door variant).

  22. ant80 says:

    thanks for the info lads, very interesting…

  23. Landyboy says:

    The 5-door and injected V8 was always in the plan, it was a phased launch to make the most of available resources.

    Kev, surely by then it was just Portugal that was on the convert a van to a normal 3-door scheme and that was driven by import duties, rather than crash?

  24. Kev says:

    Re 24: Greece, Norway, and most importantly, the US.

  25. Landyboy says:

    Re 25: I can’t comment on Greece or Norway, but three door Discos or Range Rovers never went to the US in any form as factory exports. Ford have been sending Transit Connects built as passenger vehicles in Turkey to the US and then converting them to vans to avoid the so called “chicken tax”.

  26. WarrenL says:

    That interior is a remarkable piece of design, not only for the integrity with which it was executed despite using so many parts from the corporate bin, but also for how good it looks 25 years later.

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