The cars : Land Rover Discovery 116-inch

The 116-inch Discovery is another example of a rare and interesting Land Rover conversion. Here’s the full story as told by noted author and historian, James Taylor.

Several of a probable 15 examples built still survive, although updates would be welcome!


Discovery 116-inch: the long and short of it

Land Rover Discovery 116-inch

At the time the original Land Rover Discovery was launched in 1989, it was standard procedure at the firm to treat every new model as a potential basis for conversions that would broaden its customer appeal.

In earlier times, most of this had been left to the aftermarket conversions specialists, but company policy was now to use its Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) division to shut the aftermarket converters out of the picture and bring as much profit as possible in-house.

The plan was also to withdraw the Range Rover from the conversions market to protect its luxury image and to move the Discovery into its place.

Stretching the story

A fairly obvious move was to create a long-wheelbase model, as had been done for the Range Rover, and SVO constructed two prototypes, beginning probably in late 1990. One was based on a three-door Discovery and one on a five-door model, in each case with the wheelbase extended by 16 inches.

Either would work as a cross-country ambulance, but SVO probably wanted to see which would be more cost-effective to build as well as to see how potential customers would react to each one.

It’s far from clear which one was converted first, but most of the evidence suggests that the five-door (registered H711 JRW) was completed before the three-door (which became J140 OAC). Both were initially equipped as ambulances, and it may be that the 116-inch wheelbase had been chosen because it allowed a full-size stretcher to be carried behind the front seats without extending the rear overhang.

The three-door 116-inch Discoverys

The initial marketing focused on the three-door model, which was announced at the annual Ambulance Services’ Exhibition in August 1991 as the Paramedic Discovery. An order for six followed, from the Northumbria Ambulance Service.

They needed them as first-response vehicles in the more remote areas of the county where walkers and climbers regularly got themselves into difficulties.

The six were delivered in late 1991 and were registered consecutively as J462 HVK to J467 HVK, being allocated probably to the Weardale and Teesdale areas.

Land Rover Discovery 116-inch
J464 HVK was one of the Northumbrian three-door batch. They all carried the ambulance service logo proudly on the side locker lid

Standing room only

Both the Derbyshire and Lancashire Ambulance Services followed suit and for similar reasons, although they only took one vehicle each, which became L23 LCH and L999 LAS (below) respectively. By this time, Land Rover had developed a new GRP roof moulding that gave standing room through the full length of the vehicle, perhaps in response to feedback about the Northumbrian vehicles.

Both of these conversions had it, and apparently so did a third vehicle, which in this case is said to have become a support vehicle for Land Rover’s Events Team. This one may well have had the prototype of that new roof, but I’ve never found it and don’t know its registration number. Equally possible is that there is some confusion here and that the new roof was prototyped on J140 OAC, which certainly had received a high-roof conversion before it was sold on.

However, those ten (or nine) were the only 116-inch Paramedic Ambulances built. Demand was low, probably because ambulance and rescue services were beginning to rely on helicopters rather than road vehicles to reach casualties in remote areas.

Land Rover Discovery 116-inch
The Lancashire one had the high-roof body. The service kept the registration number of L999 LAS when they sold it on, for fairly obvious reasons!

The five-door 116-inch Discoverys

As for the five-door, the H-registered prototype became a demonstrator, and then served as the works ambulance at Austin Rover’s Longbridge plant.

Orders for this variant were clearly hard to come by, and the only multiple-vehicle order came from the Mobil oil company, which ordered three in 1992-1993 for its Field Engineers. They were registered as K1 DDU (below) to K3 DDU, those letters being chosen to stand for Diesel Diagnostic Unit.

There was then just one more five-door, which was very much a special build. It was based on a Discovery ES in spring 1994 and became the only 116-inch Discovery built from a ‘facelift’ (or 300Tdi-era) model.

Land Rover Discovery 116-inch
Pictures of the Mobil ones are rare, and this is the only one I’ve ever seen

The customer was the Chief Executive of British Aerospace (which had owned Land Rover up to the end of 1993, so the order had probably gone in before then), and he is said to have used it for trips to his villa in the south of France.

It was fitted with a 4.2-litre Range Rover V8 engine and automatic gearbox and was finished in metallic green, while the interior was fitted out in limousine style with a video tape player system in the rear.

Initially registered as A1 WRG, it was re-registered after being sold on.

Land Rover Discovery 116-inch
This is the only one built with a petrol engine, and the only one on a facelift Discovery. It was equipped as a limousine

How many were there?

In calculating that figure of 15 for the 116-inch Discoverys, I’ve assumed two demonstrators, six for Northumbria, one each for Lancashire and Derbyshire, one for the Land Rover Events Team, three for Mobil and one for BAe.

That may be wrong: if there was no vehicle for the Events Team, the total is down to 14. Several of these vehicles had further lives with rally-rescue teams or St John’s Ambulance branches, and there have been some attempts to turn survivors into campers.

Registration numbers have been changed, too, which makes it harder to keep up with where they all are. But if you have details of one that you think I haven’t included here, or know more about the supposed Land Rover Events Team vehicle, please get in touch!

Land Rover Discovery 116-inch
This view inside the back of J140 OAC, the three-door prototype, gives an idea of the interior layout. This was the only one to have the Land Rover logo on its rear side glasses.
James Taylor

5 Comments

  1. At the time there were two divisions, often confused – Special Vehicles (LRSV) based at Solihull who did vehicle conversions and Special Vehicle Operations at Gaydon who were involved in press car preparation, etc. The Mobil Discovery shows the LRSV badge on the front wing in a commonly found location – not to be confused with the independent Foley Specialist Vehicles whose logo was once more than a bit influenced by the LRSV one…

  2. I was a new start graduate trainee when the early stretched discos we’re built. I was on a placement as engineer in Special Vehicle Operations which at that time operated out of an office and workshop at Solihull. I was meant to be there for a couple of months but managed to stay for nearly six. I loved it! Roland Maturi was the boss, and SVO effectively ran as an aftermarket vehicle converter. I think I missed the first prototype of the disco stretch, but worked with the amazingly skilled fitters on the jig that was used to stretch the vehicles once the method had been proved. Irrelevant fact, discos we’re the first stretches to be cut in half with a plasma cutter. Other things I worked on, the first Police Discos, for Thames Valley motorway police, discreetly armoured RRs, and just before I left, they were starting a defender which was being double stretched, first to a 127 ( which was an SVO conversion at that time) and then given an extra axle which added a metre I think. It was for a utility company, who needed the long load bed and low ground pressure. Eventually,personally managed to remove me from SVO and sent me on to my next placement, with press and demo who at that time had office space in Solihull, and a large workshop at Gaydon.

  3. Trolley, not stretcher! This was the 90’s not 50’s! A trolley used today costs over £16k new! You can see the trolley in the Disco on the left, in the photo taken of the ambulance part.

    It was a ridiculous idea. There is absolutely no room in the ambulance part at all. How could a paramedic work on a patient in that tiny space? There is hardly a space at all between the trolley and the storage units. And if you needed both of the crew in the back to attend to the patient, then that would be impossible.

    What do you do with a suspected spinal injury in the terrain shown? It would be safer and more comfortable to walk the patient than try to drive over that terrain with a patient in the back.

    The other problem is that it’s a lot of resources tied up in a vehicle that is useless as a “normal” ambulance, so it just sits at a station waiting for an “off-road” job, whereas a “normal” ambulance is almost always in use. And which ambulance service can afford to have a crew sitting around with it, in case an “off-road” job comes in? So you have to find a crew, tell them to come back to base in their “normal” ambulance, swap into the Disco, check all the kit is present, in date and working, and then go to the “off-road” job. That just causes delay.

    Cornwall had the first Air Ambulance in 1987. North East got theirs in 1995. Very few hospitals had a dedicated landing site anywhere near A&E and so another transfer by ambulance was required. That is still often the case, even now. No Air Ambulance flew at night back then, and many of them still do not.

  4. I worked for the local Land Rover dealer Nr.Newbury from 1994. We used to service and repair K1 DDU on a regular basis as the Mobil technician lived locally. On odd occasions we would also repair K2 DDU which I think was based in Milton Keynes but was always delivered to us. I beleive K3 DDU was based in Scotland

    We also used to PDi, prep and service various Land Rovers inc an extended Discovery 1 which was for a senior memberod staff. These vehicles were on Direct Supply for offices in Theale that were part of British Aerospace Group.

    I have other information of the relationship we had with Land Rover and for a short while Rover Cars

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