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The Land Rover Discovery at 30

We take a look through the Disco's back catalogue in search of its greatest hits

By Dafydd Wood / Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Amongst the many significant motoring anniversaries being celebrated in 2019, there's one that's been somewhat overlooked. But while it may be understandable that it falls into the shadow of Bentley's centenary or Mini's diamond jubilee, the 30th birthday of Land Rover's Discovery is an occasion worth marking nonetheless.

Much as the Series I and Range Rover had before it, the Discovery carved out a new niche in the 4x4 landscape when it entered production in 1989. With its combination of go-anywhere ability and stylish Conran-designed interior, the Discovery's emphasis on lifestyle can, for better or worse, be claimed to have shaped the mould for SUVs as we understand them today. So, despite last week's Goodwood Festival of Speed roaring on nearby, when Land Rover gave PH the chance to get to grips with its entire lineage, right the way from the prototype to the latest incarnation, it was an opportunity we were more than happy to take.

We start at the very beginning; well almost, JLR's 1988 Discovery prototype being the oldest surviving example, but not quite the absolute first car. It's not here to be driven, but to be taken in as a reference point for everything that was yet to come; at first glance, though, it doesn't appear to be anything that remarkable at all. Although it wears its many thousands of punishing miles on its paint, bodywork and interior, to look at it now you'd be forgiven for thinking it was just a slightly unloved production car. While testing, however, it would have worn a shell over its distinctive roof, hiding the trademark raised section and side windows from prying eyes. Matte black paint around the headlamps and bonnet masked their lines, too, while Range Rover-style wheels and a B-reg plate threw onlookers off the scent of the first new Land Rover variant to be launched in nearly 20 years. There was certainly no prolonged campaign of leaked 'spy shots' in those days...

The lessons learned from those many development miles led to this: Discovery number one, the first ever car off the production line. Based on Range Rover underpinnings with a cheaper, more practical body, at launch the Discovery was available with a choice of 2.5-litre, four-cylinder diesel or a 170hp, 3.5-litre V8 - this car being fitted with the latter. It came in three-door format only (it took till the next year for a five-door option to enter the market) and buyers would have to make peace with the mandatory 'Sonar Blue' interior, beige not becoming an alternative until 1992.

This particular, immaculate car resides in the Gaydon Museum collection, with the majority of its 1,200 miles having been incurred by journalists on the initial media drives around Millbrook Proving Ground. Only road registered in 2012, it's a rare privilege to start the engine, let alone slip it into first and ease away on the surfeit of low-down torque. Having seen first much of West Sussex from the back seat of a car very similar to this growing up, though, it's a more than familiar environment, and as it rumbles into life the Disco brings childhood memories flooding back.

This is the first indication of what makes the Discovery such a special car to so many people. In combining the most desirable traits of the workhorse hero Defender and status-symbol Range Rover, it was able to appeal to a far broader swathe of the population. When new, its unique design, characterful performance and rugged dependability helped owners form a connection with it which proved just as strong as those which fans of the brand's previous models had enjoyed. The Disco was cool, and it was about to become cooler still.

Between 1990 and 1997 the Discovery became the vehicle of choice for the Camel Trophy. This made it a longer-serving steed than any other model used for the epic adventure, and photos of yellow-painted Discos fording swollen rivers and conquering muddy trails made the 4x4 synonymous with the gruelling expedition. There are no Camel Trophy cars present here unfortunately, but their place on this voyage of Discovery is represented by the (apparently appropriate in the nineties) 'Schizo Disco'.

Created for the 1994 British International Motor Show, the 'Schizo Disco' was intended to demonstrate just how closely related the modified Camel cars were to standard showroom examples. With two machines needing to be painstakingly sliced in half to build it, right down to the tyre cover, sunroof and winch, a second vehicle was also able to be constructed in its mirror image. Its fate, however, is unknown, meaning that far from having multiple personalities, this example is the only one of its kind.

With the Camel Trophy having come a cropper in the late 90s, and the pushback against tobacco sponsorship in motorsport having gained sufficient momentum by the early 2000s, Land Rover launched the replacement G4 Challenge in 2003. The first running of the event traversed the United States, South Africa and Australia over the course of 28 days. Having replaced the original car in 1998, Discovery 2s modified with a winch, snorkel, fuel cans, access ladders, shovels and other essentials were used for the journey with a total of 16 teams taking part.

Although incredibly similar in external appearance, upon climbing into the driver's seat the difference between this Disco and its predecessor is immediately apparent. There are a total of 720 changes in all, some more major than others but all adding up to equal a more mature, though slightly less characterful machine. The opportunity to try out the newly introduced electronic off-road systems Traction Control, Electronic Brake Distribution and Hill Descent Control doesn't present itself, but to drive the Discovery 2 is certainly more refined; the steering weightier and more direct, the accelerator more responsive and the cabin a good deal more insulated from the vibration of the 4.6-litre V8.

If that car was more evolution than revolution, then the Discovery 3 stormed the Winter Palace when it launched in 2004. Its first big test came in the G4 Challenge of 2006, which pitted the new Disco's Integrated Body Frame construction and 2.7-litre diesel V6 against 4,000km of Bolivia, Brazil, Thailand and Laos. With 200hp and 324lb ft sent to all four wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission, the Discovery 3 unsurprisingly feels to be the most modern and refined iteration yet. Although its noughties sat-nav and myriad dashboard buttons age it in a far less graceful way than its older relatives, its interior design also manages to retain familiar styling cues, tying the model as successfully to its heritage as its boxy exterior.

Which can't entirely be said for the current generation. We've spent plenty of time behind the wheel of the latest Discovery and found it to be supremely capable both on- and off-road, but in its slick, polished interior and corporate external styling, which manages to be both overly generic from the front and uniquely ungainly from the rear, it hasn't quite captured the imagination like those illustrious predecessors. It's smooth and comfortable underway, but many rivals are now as well, and, where the original Disco represented a distinct proposition in the Land Rover range, the Discovery 5 doesn't seem marked enough from the Range Rover Sport, Discovery Sport and Evoque which have since joined it on forecourts.

Perhaps, then, by marrying the rugged off-road ability of its forebears with unique design, lifestyle appeal and brand cachet, the future of the Discovery spirit in fact lies in the upcoming Defender. It may not be the straight replacement for the 90 many of us hoped, but in the current market of copycat SUVs it certainly wouldn't be such a bad thing. We bet it'd look damn good in Camel yellow, too...

Should a Discovery be the only car for you, though, there are certainly plenty to choose from in the PH classifieds

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