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 scant development.
British Leyland may have involuntarily ignored the Land Rover marque 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.’
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 P38A), would be commenced as soon as possible, and work on a new model, codenamed Jay, would start even sooner – its task: to take on 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.
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.
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 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 200Tdi 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.
Between the initial programme start in 1987 and its launch at the Frankfurt Motor Show on the 16th 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 Frankfurt, it made an immediate splash. Heralded as the first 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. 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…
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 4wd, 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 to the drawing board.’
In 1990, the first raft of model improvements were ushered in – firstly, the V8 engine received the EFi system it should have enjoyed from the beginning, and then the five-door model – 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 further upward development of the more expensive car.
The unpopular 2.0MPi version was also introduced – a T-Series power unit (as seen in the 200, 400, 600 and 800 model ranges) was used, making the Discovery the 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-road – it was next to useless, and was quietly dropped shortly after introduction.
Further improvements came in 1994, 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.
The basic Discovery style lasted far longer than many people would have predicted, thanks to the launch of the Series II models. Codenamed Tempest, the heavily-revised car was to all intents and purposes, a brand new vehicle – and, according to industry rumours, should have received a brand new body closely related to the style of the 2006 LR3 models.
As it was, the completely reskinned Series II Discovery was unveiled in 1998, and became one of the main Rover Group beneficiaries of BMW-era financial investment. Quality and performance was drastically improved over the original models and, in the aftermath of the Freelander launch, the range was predictably 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 sat under the Discovery’s bonnet.
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. 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 Freelander innovation – was also introduced.
The Discovery was indeed a massive car for Land Rover – and, as the press rightly predicted back in Franfurt 1989, it guaranteed not only the survival of Land Rover into the 21st century, but ushered in an era of continued growth and success. 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 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 in a backdrop of the Ford PAG division break-up, is a clear demonstration that the right product delivered at the right time can still go an awful long way…
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.