The cars : Land Rover Discovery development story

The 1989 Land Rover Discovery was an object lesson in clever parts bin engineering and intelligent design to create something new and special.

Keith Adams tells the story of how and why the Disco came about, and how it went on to redfine Land Rover.

Land Rover Discovery: expanding the portfolio

The story of the Land Rover Discovery actually begins at the dawn of the 1980s, and with company reshuffles that saw Land Rover separated from the car making divisions of British Leyland, Austin Rover and Jaguar. The company’s success in producing off-road vehicles had endured almost criminal neglect during the 1970s – a situation that saw the Range and Land Rover product lines receiving nowhere near enough development.

British Leyland may have involuntarily ignored the Land Rover cashcow in the ‘dark years’, but the opposition certainly didn’t. Companies such as Nissan and Toyota were already building their own alternatives, and had established themselves as desirable and rugged in extreme situations. The Land Cruiser, in particular, provided options that the Range Rover didn’t – and that allowed sales of the rivals to expand.

Sales were struggling badly, as Nigel Garton recalls, ‘The Engineering Team felt that we were going in the wrong direction. Our competitors were now flooding the Market with smaller vehicles – Daihatsu, Suzuki, and Toyota were producing these cheaper, more accessible cars, and Land Rover was nowhere to be seen.’

Land Rover’s re-emergence in the 1980s

The arrival of Michael Edwardes in the Chairman/Chief Executive role at British Leyland in 1977 ensured that Land Rover’s autonomy within the post-Ryder sprawl of British Leyland was guaranteed. However, the effects of the influx of rivals, and the emergence of the second oil crisis in 1979 began to bite.

‘Dwindling demand in struggling third-world nations, coupled with huge revenue losses in oil producing countries, such as Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, hit Land Rover Sales hard. The Directors expended massive effort trying to seek alternatives to hard currency, but got nowhere,’ Nigel said. A drip of new models followed – with the much demanded V8-powered Land Rover arriving in 1979, the five-door Range Rover in 1982, and general shifting of the product lines into a more polarised pairing – the Land Rover, a more utilitarian option, and its bigger brother pushed increasingly upmarket.

That created a widening gap – which would need to be filled. By 1984, and with Solihull expanding to meet demand for the newly-energised Range Rover, the obvious answer was to introduce a third model line, which would not only introduce a new generation of buyers into the Land Rover fold, but also answer the challenge issued by upstarts such as the Mitubishi Shogun (Pajero) and Isuzu Trooper…

Enter Project Jay

What Land Rover needed in order to expand in a sustained way was a product led recovery – mirroring the work being done at Longbridge and Cowley on the volume cars. Nigel relates: ‘Work on a replacement for the improved Range Rover, codenamed Pegasus (which would become the 38A), would be commenced as soon as possible, and work on a new model, codenamed Project Jay, would start even sooner – its task: to take on and beat the Japanese.’

To pay for this massive programme, Land Rover would cease its 13 worldwide plants, concentrating all production at one vast site in Solihull. The ex-SD1 factory and Paint Shop were to be reopened to accommodate the new models. All Engineers were to support cost cutting activities to further support this investment.

Serious work on the third model line commenced in late 1986, and the project name ‘Jay’ was chosen shortly afterwards. The plan was to base the new challenger on the running gear of the Range Rover, but with a simplified specification, and more down to earth styling to meet the the mid-market ambitions of the new car. The project’s impetus was blunted by the expansion of the Range Rover – with each new model variation came a boost in sales, and a further push upmarket.

Creating a new mid-ranger

Mike Sampson’s design for Project Jay was worked on throughout 1986 and 1987, and would form the basis of the production Land Rover Discovery

land_rover_discovery_prototype_3 land_rover_discovery_prototype_2

Boom years for Land Rover

The mid-1980s were a frantic time for Land Rover, though – the Range Rover’s development proved to be one of the most unlikely success stories of the decade, as did its major global push. By March 1987, the process was almost complete – the Range Rover had been introduced into the US market, where it met with instant success.

This finally gave the Rover Board the confidence to release further funding – and approval was finally given to Project Jay the following August; the third line was finally going to make it to production. Even at this early stage, it was clear that Project Jay would use as much carry-over hardware from the Range Rover as possible.

The side benefits of this policy was that the development process would be far less glacial than usual – and the deadline date for introduction would be the autumn of 1989. Even so, this was one of the most ambitious development programmes to be undertaken in the motor industry at the time.

A new diesel for a new Land Rover

 1988, and the style was almost complete...
By 1988, the style is almost complete…

The running gear was almost pure Range Rover – even down to the use of that car’s V8 engine and LT77 manual gearbox. In order not to damage the Range Rover brand, it preserved the use of twin SU carburettors, whereas the 2.5-litre 200 Tdi diesel engine (codenamed Gemini 1) – a direct injection unit – was all-new to Land Rover, and had actually been in development since August 1985, before Jay saw the light of day.

The 200 Tdi engine was a genuine Land Rover-developed engine, produced when there was a great deal of pressure to buy-in a turbo diesel from VM.

In the end, the decision was taken to go with the advanced power unit as late as 1988. It shared is bore centres with the existing Land Rover 2.5-litre turbo diesel, but the block casting was all-new, and topped with an aluminium-alloy cylinder head. Featuring OHV valvetrain, it developed 111bhp at 4000rpm and 195lb ft at just 1800rpm.

Racing to launch

Between the initial programme start in 1987 and its launch at the Frankfurt Motor Show on 16 September 1989, a huge amount of work was undertaken to create a substantially new and cheaper vehicle.

Although the carry-over parts were highly visible – doors and windscreen – the Discovery was visually different enough for Land Rover marketeers to work their magic on the new car, while preserving the prestige of the original. The vehicle naming policy also ushered in a change of tack – Land Rover was now the brand with Discovery being the model. The original Land Rover would now be known as the Defender.

The names Highlander and Prairie Rover were also in the running, but the former was taken by Volvo for its off-road truck range, and the latter wouldn’t fit into the company’s new three-model strategy.

A new Landie is born

When the Discovery made its first public appearance at the Frankfurt Motor Show, it made an immediate splash. Heralded as the first all-new Land Rover in nearly 20 years, it was seen as the vehicle that would guarantee the company’s survival well into the 21st century.

The vitally important third line gave the Solihull company a vital weapon to counter the Japanese invasion. Chris Woodark, Land Rover’s Commercial Director put it simply: ‘It’s a leisure vehicle not aimed at the luxury sector at all. Discovery, if you like, is for Yuppies and Range Rover is for people who’ve already made it.’

Offered initially in three-door form only – again, to protect the Range Rover – the Discovery was a stylish vehicle, suitably perked up with the addition of side graphics and those Alpine windows.

Interior innovations

The main innovation on the styling front was reserved for inside, though. Styled by the Conran Design Group, the Discovery’s interior was a genuine breath of fresh air, featuring light colours, soft-feel plastics and plenty of family friendly features.

The brief had been to position the vehicle as a ‘lifestyle accessory’, and had originally featured plenty of novel ideas that didn’t make it to production, such as custom sunglasses holder built into the centre of the steering wheel.

The opposition must have wanted to follow suit – one Japanese Engineer was rapidly escorted off the Frankfurt stand for shaving off texture samples…

Everyone loved the Terence Conran interior...
Everyone loved the Terence Conran interior…

What the road testers said

When Autocar magazine finally got its hands on an example it came away suitably impressed after comparing it with the Trooper and Shogun, concluding: ‘Faster, more economical, better riding and with the extra traction and balance of permanent four-wheel drive, Discovery has the measure of its rivals.

‘The cleverly designed, well-executed interior is way ahead of the opposition and it has a clear advantage should anyone actually venture off-road. Where Land Rover will struggle initially is in trying to sell the Discovery to people who have grown used to five doors – but its other qualities more than make up for a slight struggle to get into the rear.

‘It has been a long time coming, but with the Discovery, Land Rover shows just how good a recreational vehicle can be. With the right build quality, this new champion of Britain’s motor industry is good enough to send the Japanese back to the drawing board.’

Model development

The first raft of model improvements were soon ushered in. Firstly, in September 1990 the Rover V8 engine received a Lucas EFi system it should have enjoyed from the beginning, and then secondly, the five-door model – again, using Range Rover doors – was introduced.

By this time, Discovery had established its own niche in the marketplace, and any notion that its upward expansion would dent the appeal of its bigger brother were soon forgotten. If anything, it allowed the more expensive car to plough its own field in the luxury car sector.

The unpopular 2.0MPi version was then introduced in June 1993. This was a Rover T-Series power unit, widely used across the passenger car range, including the 200-, 400-, 600- and 800-series model ranges. This was the firm’s only inline installation of this engine (a fact useful to MGB tuners in later years). It might have been a fleet-manager special, but on the road – and off it – this version was condsidered by many UK buyers to be next to useless. However, it fared in well in tax-conscious markets such as Italy, and it remained in production until 1997, despite being dropped much earlier than that from UK price lists.

Further improvements came in 1994 for the 1995MY facelift, when the 200Tdi and 3.5-litre V8 engines were replaced by the uprated 300 Tdi and 3.9-litre ex-Range Rover engines. Along with the new engines, a stronger R380 gearbox became available in all manual models, which also boasted improved change quality. There were few external differences to be seen, but larger headlamps and a second set of rear lights in the bumper were the main giveaway.

1994 Land Rover Discovery received minor running changes and lightly updated styling
The 1994 Land Rover Discovery received minor running changes and lightly updated styling
The 1994 Land Rover Discovery lost its appealing Conran interior in favour of a more high quality design
The 1994 Land Rover Discovery lost its appealing Conran interior in favour of a more high quality design

Tempest: more than a facelift

The basic Discovery style lasted far longer than many people would have predicted, thanks to the launch of the Series II models in 1998. The heavily-revised car was to all intents and purposes, a brand new vehicle, with all the body panels apart from the rear door being brand-new.

Project Tempest was influenced by BMW, the firm’s owner since 1994. There were rumblings that the German company’s management felt it didn’t look different enough to the original Discovery, but vetoed an all-new body design (allegedly looking rather like David Saddington’s brilliant 2006 LR3), instead concentrating on quality and durability.

As it was, the completely reskinned Series II Discovery was unveiled in 1998, carrying the slogan ‘The evolution that hides a revolution’. Clearly, the Disco had became an early Rover Group beneficiary of BMW-era financial and technical investment. Quality and performance were indeed drastically improved over the original models and, in the aftermath of the Freelander launch, the range was further pushed further upmarket.

The interior and exterior were significantly reworked and the rear end was extended to give more boot and passenger space. The warbly TD5 engine was introduced, and the V8 versions were now offered in 4.0-litre form – and the classic engine line would end up seeing out its days housed under the Discovery’s bonnet.

Land Rover Discovery II alongside its predecessor in the viewing gardens at the Canley design studio
Land Rover Discovery II alongside its predecessor in the viewing gardens at the Canley Design Studio

Making it handle properly

The chassis took a great leap forward, too, and ACE (Active Cornering Enhancement, an electronically controlled hydraulic anti-roll bar system) was introduced on the more expensive models, introducing the concept of low-roll cornering to Discovery drivers.

At the heart of the ACE system was a suite of sensors linked to an electronic control unit (ECU) to make sense of it all. When the car goes into a corner, sensors monitor the lateral forces acting on the vehicle. These forces can cause the vehicle to roll, which is where ACE comes into play. The system will make real-time adjustments to the vehicle’s suspension, often employing hydraulic or electronic actuators. It’s a system that influenced the air suspension set-up in the , model, albeit in a more advanced form.

A simpler version of the system using Hydragas as its springing medium (the intention being to offer two very different suspension set-ups for off- and on-road use) was also planned by the engineers, but never made it into production. Hill Descent Control – a Land Rover Freelander innovation – was also introduced. It proved to be a winning formula and, when production ended in 2004, more than 279,000 had been built.

The introduction of the Tempest saw the beginning of the end of the Dicovery being a utilitatarian vehicle.
The introduction of the Tempest saw the beginning of the end of the Discovery being a utilitarian vehicle


The Discovery was indeed a massively important car for Land Rover – and, as the press had rightly predicted back at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1989, it guaranteed not only the survival of Land Rover into the 21st century, but ushered in an era of continued growth and success that remains with us to this day.

The introduction of the original car raised buyer expectations and saw the Japanese rivals raise their game in order to meet the new challenge. The huge sales came at a price, though – and burgeoning numbers of 4x4s and SUVs in city streets caused their own problems, leading eventually to a social backlash that is gaining momentum to this day.

However, that aside, it’s a genuine British success story, and the sustained profitability of Land Rover against the backdrop of the Ford PAG division break-up and throughout the Tata-led JLR era, is a clear demonstration that the right product delivered at the right time can still go an awful long way…

The LR3 from 2006 - Discovery's push upmarket continued...
The David Saddington-designed LR3 from 2006: Discovery’s push upmarket continued
Keith Adams


  1. An interesting article on the Discovery… However, there are several points I would make.

    Firstly, the EFi version of the 3.5-litre V8 engine arrived in September 1990 along with the availability of the five-door bodystyle and the Bahama Beige interior option which complemented the existing Sonar Blue hue.

    Secondly, the MPi version arrived in June 1993 and was actually quite a popular seller in export markets such as Italy where diesel cars still found limited appeal and petrol engines over 2-litres were heavily taxed. The T-Series engine continued to be offered up until the summer of 1997 before being quietly dropped.

    Thirdly, the 3.9-litre engine arrived from October 1993 along with an automatic transmission option on the existing 200TDi engine, before the facelifted 1995 Model Year Discovery was ushered in five months later complete with the updated 300TDi unit and R380 gearbox.

    Finally, on the Series 2 Discovery, all the body panels apart from the rear door were brand-new and the model was marketed with the strapline: “Behind the evolution lies a revolution”.

  2. “Discovery, if you like, is for Yuppies and Range Rover is for people who’ve already made it.” They were 20 years ahead of the current SUV craze.

    The use of Range Rover doors was less obvious than the Landcrab door reuse.

    Here are a couple of possible additions:

    – Honda Crossroad. Given the Rover/Honda collaborations, Honda used the Discovery to fill a gap in its lineup in the Asia/Australia-NZ markets. A badge-engineered Discovery Mk1 with subtly different headlights. (The name was later used on an unrelated model.)

    – The commercial vehicle. These were especially popular in Ireland where tax breaks are an incentive to buy ‘van’ versions of SUVs. They were supposedly shipped to Ireland in three-door form but the seats were then removed and the rear windows smashed in the presence of a Revenue Inspector. (A similar situation applies to the Ford Transit Connect in the USA – it’s imported from Turkey as a passenger vehicle and the rear seats and windows are destroyed to get around van-import restrictions which Ford themselves proposed when it suited them to sell domestic vans!).

    Incidentally, there are versions of the Discovery 4 which are still marketed as commercial vehicle even though the new tax rules mean that it is often cheaper to import a passenger vehicle from NI than buy an RoI commerical.

  3. @Adrian
    The original Discovery did have the same design of door handles as fitted to the Marina and the five-door Range Rover, although they were finished in satin black rather than having an alumnium finish.

    Actually, to keep costs down, the Discovery also used the same rear lights as found on the Maestro van and the same headlamps as the Sherpa 200/400 Series.

    I guess that it was a clever way of looking in a variety of parts bins which ultimately did not diminsh the appeal of owning a Discovery.

  4. There was nothing wrong with the Marina’s handles. I never understand why people have such a problem with the Wilmot and Breedon items. They looked great on Range Rovers, Loti, Allegros and many other cars.

  5. @David 3500
    I have never seen a T-Series engined Discovery in Italy. They received some terrible feedback in the press about a lack of torque and heavy fuel consumption, very near the V8 unit’s, made it unpopular in Italy. Diesel versions always sold well here – the performance was quite good and they were economical cars to drive.

  6. @Merlin Milner
    Don’t forget the Marina’s door handles were also used on the TR7/8 and Lotus Esprit S1/2/3.

    People always used to take the p**s out of my TR7 and its ‘Marina door handles’- I also owned an Esprit at the time and would point to its door furniture by way of reply…

  7. The original “Project Jay” concept didn’t have the Marina/Range Rover/Esprit handles. The doors also look bespoke and not recycled from the Range Rover. Was the parts bin plan taken at a later stage?

    Anyway, for all the naysayers, it makes sense to consolidate manufacturing of common components across a range. VAG are currently doing it successfully, sharing platforms, engines, components, even entire bodies (Audi A4 and Seat Exeo) across their ranges!

  8. @Will
    I agree that consolidating manufacture and sharing components gives us a wider range of vehicles – FGA and VAG are past masters of this practice. Why invest in new and untested designs when existing parts will fit the bill?

    I think I am right in saying that the Japanese used a very high percentage of carry-over components in each new model resulting in higher reliability, lower development costs and reduced warranty claims.

  9. Yes, both it and the Range Rover did. They were finally dropped in 1998 and replaced with conventional grab handles.

  10. I have never liked the Discovery’s styling,I think the design team were too heavily influenced by the Matra Simca Rancho especially that high roof.
    Shows that more is less, the Range Rover Classic SWB was a much better looking design IMO.

    As for its door handles, at least it shows that one component used on the Marina was well designed!

    • I think their influence from the Matra Simca rancho was good thinking and benefited the new Range Rover to begin wit. Even from the launch to marketing onwards. One must remember that the Rancho was not originally expected to be such a big seller as it eventually did, it was originally thought to last only as a “niche”, a small quantity special development/version of the Simca 1100. But it´s success and popularity, even without a Four-Wheel drive, came as a surprise to the manufacturer. And what a positive surprise it was!!! The Rancho sales surpassed all the original plans of manufacturing quantities and expectations, even so much that the factory made a decision to extend the originally plan of the EOL, because of the unexpectedly greater demand on the markets. So while the “trend” was set and established by the Rancho, surely the Engineering/Design team at Rover would have been blind to pass/ignore the idea and success of the Rancho as a whole, that would have been quite an unforgiven move.

      • I remember the A-Z of Cars of The 1980s describing the Rancho as being years ahead of it’s time, due to the growth of the 4X4 market in the first half of the 1990s, something the Discovery was launched at just the right time for.

  11. I have to laugh at the most idiotic exclaimation that “Land Rover is for yuppies and Range Rover is for those who have already made it…” since everyone I know that has far above,just making it drives Land Rovers and in fact the Disco is easy the most premier vehicle in Beverly Hills!

  12. Got to say I suddenly want an early Disco TDi. I might have a lazy memory (like my colon), but I’ve just remembered I’ve had a ride in two: a 200 Tdi and the later 300 Tdi. Preferred the earlier car, somehow.

    What’s great about it was its sheer unalloyed success. We didn’t have to than Honda for any of it and as “Car” said at the time it was a rare example of a European car taking on the Japanese in a market sector the latter had made their own. The only other example at the time was the Calibra.

    The Disco is a great unsung hero of the whole saga, the reason L-R is prospering today, and now we learn they’ve built a million of them.

    Couple of quibbles though, starting with the daft MPi. If they wanted to produce a tax break special they should have adopted the 8-valve 2-litre Montego turbo engine. It had the same amount of torque at similarly low engine revolutions as the 2.5 Land Rover normally-aspirated petrol. Later on, they could have added a T16 turbo, and left the V8 exclusively for Range Rover.

    And when you consider the development of the 200 Tdi…

    “In the end, the decision was taken to go with the advanced power unit as late as 1988. It shared is bore centres with the existing Land Rover 2.5-litre tubo diesel, but the block casting was all-new, and topped with an aluminium-alloy cylinder head. Featuring an OHC head, it developed 111bhp at 4000rpm and 195lb ft at just 1800rpm.”

    …you have to ask if they could have found a few more million to produce a six-cylinder diesel as well? If Santana (with the aid of Solihull) produced six-cylinder petrol and diesel variants of the old L-R unit you wonder if L-R could have somehow worked that into the 200Ti development programme.

    Just looked at the ahead-of-its time 1989 launch commercial. It’s so cinematic and sophisticated
    that it could have been shot yesterday:

    Unlike the cheesy stuff the Blue Oval was turning out five years later:

    I’m going to look on eBay now for a 200 Tdi.

  13. I currently own a D2 TD5 and used to own a 300tdi. The 300 was a good engine, robust and reliable but doing the cam belt was time consuming and the early ones had a nasty habit of chewing the belt due to a design fault on the tensioner. Modified pulleys cured this and there are loads around with well over 150k miles on them. 300s sound like a tractor and are almost as easy to maintain as a little grey Fergie, but rust is an issue especially on sills which is difficult to cure.

    The D2 is smoother and less tractor like as well as the boot being 6″ longer. Downside is that the TD5 has lots of electrickery built in. They do, however, also seem to be long lived.

    If you want a car that will do almost anything for you (other than go fast) then a Disco will be that car. It will carry anything, go through rain, sleet and snow and also not look out of place when you need to go posh.

    If only it did more mpg….

  14. The Austrian engine engineering consultants AVL were involved in both the 200Tdi and TD5 engines. In the 90s Austin-Rover were AVL’s biggest UK customer for engine consultancy projects. The 200Tdi was one of the first direct injection diesels in a passenger vehicle. The L-series diesel was also an AVL project.

  15. I think project Jay means take on Japan. The door handles are an interesting feature. I owned a disco 1 v8 for 8 years and now have a disco 2. I always thought the door handles were the wrong way around especially when you had your hands full. Other than that the handles were fine and well made. I ended up using by thumb to open the door rather than fingers. alex

  16. I was lucky to be working for a dealer at the time of the Disco Launch and there was a lot of cross over parts I spotted.

    The Range Rover Classic and Disc 200/300 both had marina door handles. It was a good thing as the back door handle was a bespoke land rover item and was our first warranty claim one of many. The two shared peddle rubbers with new discos being delivered to the show rooms with R and R on the Brake and Clutch rubbers. When it was launched I was amazed no one worked out it was a re-skinned range rover.

    They had the same heater and controls which Conrad managed to make a feature off.

    I think my favourite land rover part share was paint one part number 3 different names depended if it was defender discovery or range rover.

  17. What´s with the roof corner windows called “Alpine windows”? More like the idea is copied from the Matra-Simca Rancho, in fact the whole car´s outer looks like copied from the Rancho.

  18. It’s hard to believe now how successful the Disco was. I looked after HVAC purchasing at the time and Marketing underpredicted the demand for aircon (as usual – P38a had the same problem at launch) and our Japanese supplier found it very hard to believe that Disco soon had 60% of the total UK SUV 4×4 market.

    The Conran interior definitely helped sales, including the matching shoulder bag in the centre console which is sought after. I wonder if a manufacturer could get away with a light blue colourway these days – makes a change from Germanic charcoal black.

  19. Great article. I had a 4 door 200 tdi, purchased with a failed cam belt and repaired after which it was one of the best and most useful cars i ever owned. One small correction though- neither the 200 nor 300 tdi engines were OHC – as the bent pushrods after the aforementioned belt failure could prove. Cam was in the block with pushrod actuated valves. Ive got 2 V8 Discovery 3s now, really versatile and classless cars.

  20. The Discovery was a breakthrough for Land Rover, as the Defender was too crude for many people and the Range Rover too expensive. The Disco took the fight to the growing number of Japanese 4wds and is now in its fifth generation and helped establish Land Rover in the upmarket 4wd srctor.

    • I always found it interesting that they replaced the Marina handles for the 1980 Ital facelift but the Discovery, launched many years later, still had the old Marina style handles – wonder if they had a job lot in a warehouse somewhere. The Ital handles we’re not that great IIRC.

      • And more so considering the Discovery mules did not have Marina style handles but something a little more modern. Surely there were other handles across the AR range that would have been less antiquated?

      • The “Marina” handles were also used on the 5 door Range Rover, and since the Discovery was based on the Range Rover, they thought it would be simpler to keep them, rather than reengineer the doors for the sake of the door handles.

  21. Had a 2000 Td5 7 seater. Kept it 6 years. Absolutely fantastic vehicle.
    Only ever major problem, in tank fuel pump broke down!
    Sold unfortunately. But we bought a 2001 P38A after it, so we went from great, to FANTASTIC!

  22. People say bad things about the MPi version, but I had one for a while and liked it. I guess if you have a visceral dislike of changing gear then the bottom end torque of a V8 or Diesel would be more to your liking, but drive a MPi like a sporting vehicle and it is as fast as a V8, you just need to get used to keeping the engine on the boil rather than driving it like grandad and expecting it to pull from 40MPH in fifth.

  23. Once the 5 door was launched, I can’t imagine many 3 doors were sold (other than the van version). Yet another example of a BL model being pointlessly hampered due to worries it would impact sister products.

  24. The other parts bin which was raided, was the one containing the Maestro van tail lights, which dictated the shape of the rear corners

    • The headlights were from the Sherpa, & probably a few other off the shelf components apart from the Range Rover parts.

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