Raise a glass to : 25 years of the Land Rover Discovery

David Morgan

Now and then - it's hard to believe that 25 years have passed since the Disco started dancing...
Now and then – it’s hard to believe that 25 years have passed since the Disco started dancing…

It’s hard to believe it’s 25 years this week since the first Land Rover Discovery was revealed. The vehicle that, in many ways, was the catalyst for Land Rover’s success of today has built up a huge fan base in quarter of a century, as David Morgan’s truly excellent contribution testifies – (ed).

Let’s be honest here – without the Discovery, Land Rover would not be enjoying the success it experiences today. For a company that was once an integral part of the then recently privatised Rover Group, the Discovery proved to be a much needed and significant revenue earner. Its success also helped strength the case for heavily funding an all-new Range Rover. And let us not forget that sales of the Discovery also encouraged Rover Group executives that the Green Oval had potential to conquer other market sectors too. Too right we should be raising a glass to the Discovery and its achievements over the past 25 years.

Announced on 16th September 1989, the Discovery was revealed to an astonished motoring press at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Here was a vehicle that only sat in the middle ground between the existing 90/110 and the Range Rover but, dare I say it, looked modern and stylish. The same also applied on the inside too, even though the original Sonar Blue colourway did not command universal praise. Nor did the funky ‘Alpine’ side graphics offered with either blue or green feature detailing.

Parts bin spotters were in their element as the Discovery relied heavily on the Range Rover and also used components found on the Maestro and Montego and Freight Rover van in order to keep costs down. But there was no denying the Discovery had the makings of a seriously competent vehicle that could not only fight back against the likes of the established Mitsubishi Shogun and Daihatsu Fourtrak, but also give conventional estate cars a hard time in the showroom. Even representatives from rival Japanese companies were bewildered how, just 34 months after Project Jay, the Land Rover Discovery, had been given production approval by the Rover Group board of directors, it was now a production reality set to go on sale from November.

I remember seeing it at Motorfair ’89 held at Earls Court. What’s this, a trendy Land Rover, I remember thinking as an impressionable teenager. That distinctive side-on silhouette coupled with the side graphics treatment and blue interior quickly won me over. Not even Top Gear presenter Chris Goffey’s less than complimentary remark of comparing it with the unloved Matra Rancho could dissuade people from wanting to own one.

One of the earlist G---WAC Discoverys, this one is now in Land Rover's own collection.
One of the earlist G—WAC Discoverys, this one is now in Land Rover’s own collection

Priced from £15,750, the Discovery was offered with a choice of either the familiar carburettor-fed 3.5-litre V8 petrol engine found in the 90 and 110 or the new 2.5-litre 200 Tdi direct injection turbo diesel engine. Initially offered in a 3-door bodystyle only, the Discovery was hardly comprehensively equipped, with the electric pack comprising of central door locking, electric windows and door mirrors being on the options list. Not that this mattered as most owners were only too happy to pay for this. As they were for the Skyline choice, comprising of two glass sunroofs and also the seven-seat option featuring two inwards facing rear seats that stowed neatly into the sides of the loadspace area.

Land Rover had clearly been very clever in forecasting how certain options would regularly provide additional revenue for them. If that was not enough, then there was always the 20-page Accessories brochure to encourage owners to personalise their Discovery with accessories that had been designed and developed as part of the Discovery’s development programme. With rave reviews also coming from the motoring press it came as no surprise to learn that Land Rover dealers were quoting delivery times of up to twelve months in its first year of production.

Successful as the Discovery was, Land Rover did not rest on their laurels. A year after its unveiling came a 5-door bodystyle to complement the 3-door, together with a more powerful 164Ps fuel-injected V8i engine to replace the carburettor fed unit. Bahama Beige was introduced as a second colourway for the interior and a higher spec ‘S’ trim level for the five-door range was introduced, which took the price of the range-topping V8i S to £20,470.

Five-door added more versatility to the range from 1990. It was popualr enough for the three-door variant to be dropped when the Series II came out.
Five-door added more versatility to the range from 1990. It was popular enough for the three-door variant to be dropped when the Series II came out

New options packs and optional extras would continue to dominate ongoing enhancements over the next few years, with the Freestyle Choice comprising of front and rear anti-roll bars and new 16-inch alloy wheels being introduced from October 1992 to answer the criticism of body lean through the corners. Automatic transmission was offered on the V8i from October 1992 and on the Tdi the following year.

One major new development that did not receive a huge take-up in the home market was the availability of the 136Ps 2-litre T-Series petrol engine. Introduced from June 1993 and known as the MPi, this new engine from the Rover Cars range was aimed at those company car users who were not swayed by an oil burner. Thankfully the Discovery Commercial, essentially a 3-door bodystyle with the side windows behind the doors blanked off by painted panels, did prove to be a popular choice with company vehicle users who wanted something more comfortable to drive than a Defender.

By 1994 the Discovery received its first major revision under the codename of ‘Romulus’ to sport a new, more car-like dashboard fascia and revised switchgear courtesy of the Rover 800 Series and Montego. Safety also took a big leap forward too, with the Discovery being one of the first off-road vehicles to offer impact absorbing crush cans in the front bumper and supplementary restraint systems (airbags) for both the driver and front seat passenger. Luxury was now high on the agenda for the Discovery, mainly to prepare it for going on sale in North America alongside the Range Rover. This was emphasised in the new range-topping ES model costing £28,000 which offered leather seats, air conditioning and supplementary restraint systems as standard. At the lower end of the range, the 3-door model lost some of its funky, youthful personality from the withdrawal of its ‘Compass points’ side stripe treatment. Meanwhile, there was an updated version of the diesel engine, now referred to as the 300 Tdi.

'Romulus' facelift launched in early '94 is known in L-R circles as the 300-Series (even for V8s) to distinguish between the 200Tdi and 300Tdi engines in diesel versions.
‘Romulus’ facelift launched in early ’94 is known in L-R circles as the 300-Series (even for V8s) to distinguish between the 200Tdi and 300Tdi engines in diesel versions

Demand for the Discovery was now so strong that a three-shift rota had to be introduced. In 1995 annual production of the Discovery had exceed 70,000 examples.

If the luxury ES did not tempt you then perhaps a dash of ‘eXcesS’ in the form of the 5-door XS model announced in June 1995 might have. In keeping with its ‘excess’ appeal it featured a new Deeped Dish alloy wheel design, leather and ‘Land Rover’ oval branded fabric for the seat facings and grey vinyl graphics along the lower sides of the body. Keen not to lose the model’s appeal below the ‘halo’ ES derivative, Land Rover would also emphasise a value-for-money appeal of its 5-door models through numerous special edition models.

the 'sports-themed' XS was one of the more popular 5-dr models
the ‘sports-themed’ XS was one of the more popular 5-dr models


This started out with the Arden announced in October 1996 and limited to 500 examples based on the entry trim level. As well as offering extra equipment it was also finished in a ‘unique’ British Racing Green metallic paint finish taken from the Autobiography colour palette, normally reserved for the Range Rover. This was followed by the Argyle and Aviemore in 1997, Anniversary 50 and Safari in 1998 and the Argyll (the name was reused) as a run-out edition for the 3-door bodystyle.

Admittedly, I found the special edition models to be rather intriguing as their feature content was not that different over that of a standard production model, even though the Argyll could be ordered in the Rover Cars colour of Woodcote Green, the Aviemore in British Racing Green metallic and the Safari in exclusive Highland Green. However, clever consumer psychology clearly worked as these models were all quick to sell, even for those editions which had a production run in excess of 1,000 examples for the home market.

‘Beneath the evolution hides a revolution’ was how Land Rover described ‘Tempest’, the Discovery Series 2, when it was unveiled in September 1998. The Series 2 was longer than its predecessor due to the occasional two rear seats now being forward facing which resulted in the length of the rear overhang being increased. While the body’s styling and silhouette looked familiar the Series 2’s body and chassis were actually new. Apart from the tailgate, all the body panels were new pressings and now made from steel. Typical of Land Rover’s innovative approach to the challenge of achieving exemplary on-road handling in an authentic off-road vehicle, was its Active Cornering Enhancement. Combined with self-levelling suspension, ACE took New Discovery into a different league by providing a flatter, almost car-like response when cornering on-road. The latest ‘Thor’ generation of the classic Land Rover V8 engine still remained in 190Ps 4-litre form. However, the familiar 4-cylinder 300 Tdi engine had now been replaced by an all-new 2.5-litre 5-cylinder Td5 engine, which was the sole survivor of the modular Storm diesel engine project originally conceived by Rover Group executives before the BMW takeover in 1994.

Codenamed 'Tempest', the Series II was the first Discovery to feature the chain-driven Td5 engine. Although very similar in appearance to the Series I, it began the Discovery's shift upmarket
Codenamed ‘Tempest’, the Series II was the first Discovery to feature the chain-driven Td5 engine. Although very similar in appearance to the Series I, it began the Discovery’s shift upmarket

Despite the lack of a 3-door bodystyle – it had been canned late on in the Tempest’s development programme – the Series 2 sold well and had a noticeably higher feeling of quality and finish than its predecessor. Again, luxury was well promoted through the ES trim level and the Metropolis limited editions of 2002 and 2003, while numerous special editions such as the Adventurer, Serengeti and G4 reinforced a more active lifestyle connotation using colour and trim.

By Series II time, the range-topping ES had evolved into a proper luxury vehicle as Range Rovers became unattainable
By Series II time, the range-topping ES had evolved into a proper luxury vehicle as Range Rovers became unattainable

By July 2002 the Series 2 received its first major update under the codename L318 to sport a ‘twin-pocket’ headlamp design similar to that featured on the third generation Range Rover. There was also a new front bumper design to improve its approach angle and revised rear lamp clusters that now promoted the directional indicators to the rear pillars. In North America the 4-litre engine was replaced by the same 220Ps 4554cc V8 that had provided loyal service in the 38A generation Range Rover although for reason unknown, the bigger engine had not been homologated for use in the Discovery for the home market.

L38 facelift - or Series 2.5!
L318 facelift – or Series 2.5!

On 27th May 2004 the Series 2 bowed out to make way for the bigger, more expensive and luxurious Series 3 which had been unveiled the previous month at the New York Auto Show. More than 670,000 Discoverys in Series 1 and 2 form had been built and over 100,000 examples had been exported to North America. The last example was a Td5 ES Premium finished in Zambezi Silver.

I must admit to being rather saddened by the passing of the Series 2. Since 1999 I had driven no less than three examples from the Land Rover press fleet over the years and had loved them all, especially the Td5 with automatic transmission and, of course, the V8. Its distinctive silhouette still appealed to me and it lacked the chintzy look that would afflict more recent Land Rover products. It still felt honest and functional where you did not mind getting it dirty or filling the loadspace area with rubbish to take to the tip. I also drove a Discovery Series 2 off road under the tuition of Land Rover’s driving instructors at their off-road centre in Awliscombe, East Devon, and quickly gained confidence in both my abilities to tackle the rough stuff and the capabilities of Land Rover’s products in general. In my eyes the third generation Discovery had a hard act to follow.

On sale from November 2004, the L319 generation Discovery 3 had been designed as an all-new vehicle from the wheels up with no carryover technology or parts from its predecessor. It was also the first Discovery to have received financial support from Land Rover’s new keeper, Ford. Bigger and more brutal is in its stature than its predecessor, the Discovery 3 brought the benefit of the Jaguar and Land Rover alliance with the PSA Group in the form of the new 2.7-litre TDV6 diesel engine. For those less concerned about economy there was a Jaguar-supplied 4.4-litre V8 petrol engine. The range-topping HSE model at £47,000 might have represented a near 35% increase in showroom price over the flagship ES Premium in the Series 2 range, but that did not prevent it or the other derivatives from being big sellers.

Enter the Disco 3 - off-road ability was still peerless, but by now Land Rover had stepped up its marketing into true luxury car territory and that was reflected in the pricing
Enter the Disco 3 – off-road ability was still peerless, but by now Land Rover had stepped up its marketing into true luxury car territory and that was reflected in the pricing

Having driven one of the first press demonstrators of the third generation model, I recall how this felt even more composed and reassuring on the tarmac than the Series 2 and easier to park thanks to having a smaller turning circle. Despite the luxury accoutrements I still wanted to find an excuse to take it off road or fill the loadspace area up.

The updated Discovery range (renamed as Discovery 4) from late 2009 and now having a twin-turbocharged 3-litre SDV6 engine answered criticisms relating to the lack of performance from the 2.7-litre engine. Meanwhile, revisions to the exterior’s frontal profile softened its aggression a little. However, like its predecessor, it still combined versatility to meet the needs of its owners.

Discovery 4 - in many ways it's 'spot the difference' - but reliability is much improved over the 3...
Discovery 4 – in many ways it’s ‘spot the difference’ – but reliability is much improved over the 3…

Despite Land Rover’s more recent success with the Range Rover Sport and Evoque, demand for the Discovery still continues to be healthy. So much so that on 29th February 2012, the 1 Millionth example, a 5-litre V8, rolled off the assembly line. Demand for the latest Discovery XXV special edition, designed to commemorate 25 years of the Discovery, is also reported to be strong even though its on-the road price of £64,790 is currently the highest charged for any Discovery derivative sold in the home market.

Discovery 1,000,000 arrived in 2012
Discovery 1,000,000 arrived in 2012

Ironically, Mazda has just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the MX 5 sports car which has seen more than 970,000 examples being built since 1989. However, despite being cheaper to buy and run than a Discovery and having this sector of the sports car market to itself through no longer having any direct rivals, is this as much of an achievement when compared with almost 1.1 million Discoverys having been built over the same period?

All of this was achieved thanks to the standards and versatility set by the first Land Rover Discovery and Rover Group’s decision back in late 1986 to fund it rather than a new MG sports car. This in turn gave the Land Rover name a great sense of opportunity and appeal beyond the 90 and 110 and also meant the Land Rover itself could no longer be referred to as just that, but now needed its own model name identity – Defender.

Whether you have owned a Discovery or not, or like me simply admire them, the 16th September represents a significant anniversary in the chapter of Land Rover’s current success story. So raise your stainless steel flask of coffee and toast 25 years of the Land Rover Discovery.

The shape of things to come... New Discovery Sport will appear in 2015
The shape of things to come… The new Discovery Sport will appear in 2015
Craig Cheetham


  1. Disco was a runaway success – so much so that a major Japanese system supplier could not believe what market share it soon achieved. Shame it wasn’t able to maintain it as the competition caught up.

    There was going to be a Goodwood limited edition, featuring lots of real walnut ( = good wood) trim and green paint, but rather late in the day Land Rover found it couldn’t use the name.

    • Yes, there was to be a Goodwood limited edition – 500 units, all finished in British Racing Green metallic with a Bahama Beige interior featuring cloth seats and burr wood trim to the dashboard fascia in front of the passenger, and surrounding the heating/ventilation control knobs. It was announced at the 1996 British Motor Show held at the NEC, with an actual example complete with ‘Goodwood’ decals on the front wings being displayed on the Land Rover stand. That particular car was a Tdi manual. As well as a press release and image being released there was also a two-sided A4-size sales leaflet (these are very rare as they were quickly withdrawn from circulation).

      As you say, permission to use the ‘Goodwood’ name was not granted by the owners of Goodwood horse racing circuit. As a consequence the variant was quickly renamed as ‘Arden’.

  2. So is it an urban myth or is it really true?…the early versions of these were incredibly unreliable with terrible build quality.

        • Incidentally, despite all the reliability issues alleged against early Discoverys, I had a Series 1 200TDi for three years and it didn’t give me a minute’s trouble. One of the few vehicles I’d have happily got into and driven anywhere in the world.

          My wife now has a W-plate Discovery Series 2 TD5 ES Auto. We paid £1,800 for it earlier this year with 165,000 on the clock. It’s now up to almost 173k and, likewise, it doesn’t give us a hint of trouble. I can’t think of a better (or better value) seven-seat family battle bus, truth be told, and unlike most W-plate cars it still looks pretty smart and upmarket. I park it next to my shabby Defender and can’t believe it cost us less than half the price…

  3. I’m intrigued to read that the Series 2 used a completely new body and chassis, having previously assumed that most of the structure and other parts were carried over from the Series 1 due to the Series 2’s (in my eyes) short-looking wheelbase.

    • Many, many people assumed this was the case because of the similarly of the exterior style and it was only when the headlights changed to match the 3rd generation Range Rover did they realise that it was in fact an ‘all-new’ vehicle!

  4. Ive run a Td5 Discovery for nearly 8 years, at 10 years old and with 126000 miles on the clock I really cannot imagine what I will replace it with. It is a superb family car and caravan tug!

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