Concepts and Prototypes : Land Rover Project Jay (1986-1989)

The original Land Rover Discovery was a hugely important model in the marque’s evolution and, from the moment it went on sale in Autumn 1989, it had an assured and highly distinctive shape.

Astonishingly, that exterior was designed in less than a year, during 1986 and the early part of 1987. It was a major achievement, and it’s interesting to see how the shape evolved, as James Taylor explains.


Creating a new Discovery on a budget

Project Jay (Land Rover Discovery)

Land Rover utility sales began to slip in the early 1980s, thanks largely to changes in overseas funding and to the ready availability of cheap Japanese 4x4s. The company’s top management quickly decided on a rescue strategy, which was to create a third model range, under the codename Project Jay, to attract new customers. Once they had agreed that it should be a seven-seater family-oriented model that would use the existing Range Rover chassis, the next stage was to create an attractive and appealing design.

The Styling Department (as it was still called) was not given the luxury of time to come up with the goods. The vehicle was needed in production in just over three years to meet the company’s business targets. That was going to require a highly concentrated effort, and the earliest known sketch proposals are dated April 1986.

At that stage, 4×4 Styling was based at Land Rover’s Drayton Road Engineering Headquarters. The man in charge was David Evans, who had recently joined Land Rover from Chrysler UK, and he gave the job of designing the exterior to a team managed by George Thomson. The other team members were Mike Sampson and Richard Bartlam. Interior design was done separately, and started rather later.

Project Jay
Mike Sampson’s early proposal for Project Jay
Project Jay
Richard Bartlam had a more progressive approach

Raising the roof

From the start, it was clear that a raised rear roof would be necessary to provide headroom for the passengers in the rear – these seats could not be mounted low down because they were directly above the fuel tank. Mike Sampson remembers that his first sketches in April 1986 borrowed the idea of a tapering roof from the existing Land Rover Station Wagons, and even incorporated Alpine lights.

Richard Bartlam worked along similar lines and, in the usual design studio fashion, the most promising sketches were chosen to be worked up into models.

Project Jay
The first mock-up was built on a Range Rover chassis and body frame. Here, a hoop has been added to the rear to represent the height needed for the rear of the roof

To save time, the scale-model stage appears to have been omitted. Instead, a Range Rover chassis and inner body structure (with doors) was delivered to the Design Studio and was turned into the first full-size mock-up over the summer of 1986.

On its right-hand side was a Mike Sampson design (top of page), which majored on the shape of the bonnet, which needed to be curved and look as different as possible from the castellated design on the Range Rover. On the other side was one by Richard Bartlam (below). As there was a full body structure underneath, the windscreen and door glasses were real, although the rear windows were mocked-up with black panels over the modelling clay that formed the outer skin panels.

Project Jay
This is the Richard Bartlam side of that first mock-up. The taller rear window (actually just a black panel) added distinction, but the roof again depended on a smooth curve

Winning through the best design

It was a promising start, but it did not yet have the character that the team wanted, and its tapering roof made it look too much like the Mitsubishi Shogun that would be a key rival. So, George Thomson came up with a more radical approach that used a stepped roof and added flared wheelarches to give the design character.

Again to save time, the left side of the mock-up was re-made using this new design. The mock-up with its two alternative design proposals was presented at the scheduled top management review as work-in-progress during September 1986.

The stepped-roof design won the day, but was considered a little too radical. So, the Styling Team now set about toning it down while retaining its essential character. The most promising of the sketches came from Richard Bartlam in November 1986, and this was turned into a full-size mock-up (this time a conventional clay on a wooden frame and not built on a Range Rover base).

Project Jay
The left side of the mock-up was rebuilt with the stepped-roof George Thomson design and a different wheel style

Concept to production almost unchanged

With a little more work, this was refined for the management viewing of February 1987, when it was signed off for production. The eventual production vehicle stayed remarkably faithful to this concept, even though there was further refinement before production actually began (as there always is).

Most notably, both the headlights and the tail lights were changed. The headlights, originally round, were swapped for rectangular units from the Leyland Sherpa van to give a more distinctive front end, and the tail lights were replaced by those already in production for the Austin Maestro van.

That saved not only time but also many thousands in tooling costs, although the body did have to be modified with a chamfer at the rear corners to suit the new lights. It was hardly a major sacrifice, and added a further characterful feature to the finished product.

Project Jay
The mock-up with its two different sides was positioned between a Ninety and a Range Rover to show how the new shape would fit into the current Land Rover line-up
Project Jay
This Richard Bartlam sketch from November 1986 gathered all the ideas together very successfully, and there were only minor changes for the production model
Project Jay
This was very nearly the last stage in design. The round headlights were swapped for rectangular ones, the centre of the bonnet was raised to clear the Tdi diesel engine, and styled steel wheels replaced the proposed alloy design. This was clearly the Discovery as we came to know it!
James Taylor

10 Comments

  1. Can’t help thinking that Disco 2 with its stepped roof and low waistline, albeit less colourful interior, was the design peak of the series.

  2. It was the original Land Rover Discovery that kick started my enthusiasm for the green oval badge (although I always had a soft spot for the Range Rover). Compared to the Range Rover and Land Rover 90/110, the Discovery looked funky and stylish, right down to those ‘alpine’ side graphics and bold exterior colours with their cosmopolitan sounding names. Even the Sonar Blue colourway for the interior got the thumbs up.

    Project Jay was an amazing achievement for Land Rover and it certainly didn’t rest on its laurels as additional trim levels, options, accessories and a 5-door bodystyle soon followed. Its hard to believe that in standard entry level form it originally cost £15,750, with electric windows and door mirrors being optional extras.

  3. What a great bit of design, quick and on a tight budget. Hilarious though, when you consider how expensive and up market LR products are now, that the headlamps were from the Sherpa van, and the tail lights from the Maestro van – they couldn’t have picked more downmarket donors!

  4. The Disco was quite a game changer both for Land Rover and for the market in general.

    One of my clients had been using Land Rover 90s extensively as survey vehicles to map mobile phone coverage, visit possible transmitter sites etc; the teams loathed the 90 because it was slow, noisy, uncomfortable…

    When the Disco ‘commercial’ appeared, it was immediately taken up as a replacement for the 90/Defender. The option of an automatic box being a big attraction, as was the heater that actually works, and the ability to drive 300 miles on motorways without incurring hearing damage.

    That the Land Rover guys got the design right for the market at the time is shown by the sales… For half a decade or so I suspect that the Disco was the car that kept LR from going to be wall.

  5. I always felt that the Discovery took a lot of styling points from the Matra’s Rancho developed in conjunction with Chrysler Europe and given that so many of the design and engineering team had come from Whitley with the run down and eventual closure of the former Chrysler UK design centre in the early 80s following Peugeot’s takeover in 1979.

    • It is interesting you mention the Matra Rancho. I recall watching the Top Gear review of Motorfair ’89 where the Discovery was previewed and co-presenter Chris Goffey said the very same thing about the Discovery reminding him of the Matra Rancho.

  6. I was the body and quality project manager for Disovery 2 (project Tempest). It was a super fast moving project and aimed not only at making it more attractive but also better quality. On the body I think we replaced virtually every panel as most of the old Range Rover and Jay tooling was in bad shape leading to fit/finish issues. We had a lot of taboos to break including retooling the doors in coated steel as the aluminium skins could not be hemmed successfully. So we made the door fit the body side with good gap and flush. We had a lot of challenges and had to increase tooling budget, all the aluminium tooling was made in Japan. Pressings were done at Swindon. Really enjoyed the project and had several discovery vehicles as my management cars. My children loved them and learnt to drive in them. We were based in the Slumberland building at Solihull.

  7. I was the body and quality project manager for Disovery 2 (project Tempest). It was a super fast moving project and aimed not only at making it more attractive but also better quality. On the body I think we replaced virtually every panel as most of the old Range Rover and Jay tooling was in bad shape leading to fit/finish issues. We had a lot of taboos to break including retooling the doors in coated steel as the aluminium skins could not be hemmed successfully. So we made the door fit the body side with good gap and flush. We had a lot of challenges and had to increase tooling budget, all the aluminium tooling was made in Japan. Pressings were done at Swindon. Really enjoyed the project and had several discovery vehicles as my management cars. My children loved them and learnt to drive in them. We were based in the Slumberland building at Solihull.

  8. I am a dyed in the wool Landy man, having owned no less than 40 vehicles bearing the green oval. From 80″ thru 86″ 88″ 109″ 110 County and then finally………..30 odd years after my first 80″ Landy I bought a Disco! In my ignorance, I never rated them whilst I was banging around in my leafers, casting a disdainful eye at the “ugly duckling’ Well, HOW things change, I have now owned 6 Disco’s (4 x D1 and 2 x D2) and I absolutely LOVE my ’92 200tdi manual. YES it has issues, its a disco, but it is a VERY capable vehicle and I love the pre-facelift styling, particularly the dash!. It is destined to become a Camel replica as I have the HUGEST admiration for the Disco’s achievements around the globe. Funny how things change!

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