History of the Land Rover Discovery

Let’s be honest, most things that were fashionable in the 80s didn’t last long. Shoulder pads, shell suits and Swatch watches were never for keeps, were they? But there’s one 80s icon that was always destined for longevity and still shines brighter than the neon make-up everyone was wearing – the Land Rover Discovery.

Three decades on, the ‘Disco’ is in its fifth generation, and has evolved into a premium, go-anywhere, do-anything family SUV. Let’s take a look back at the Discovery’s journey…

Discovery Series I (1989-1998)

More than forty years after brothers Maurice and Spencer Wilks built the first ever Rover from a US military 4×4 Jeep, the late 1980s market was filling with SUVs from Japanese brands such as Toyota and Mitsubishi. The Range Rover had been pushed up market, which left Land Rover room for a more family-friendly off-roader to counter new competition.

Enter the Discovery Series I, presented at the 1989 Frankfurt Motor Show. Largely based on the more upmarket Range Rover, it shared the same chassis, suspension, 4WD-system and four-door body structure but with smaller engines and just two doors at introduction, the cost was more affordable.

The first model was designed to be fully off-road capable as well as suitable for daily use, with increased luggage space and more seats than the Range Rover. It was given a longer rear, and the spare wheel was moved outside to accommodate optional third row jump seats. Comfort was improved further by a raised roof and a safari-style side window cluster.

The original transmission was a dual-ratio five-speed manual, with many components from other Rover Group cars – switchgears and instrument pod from the Maestro and Montego, dashboard air vents from the Rover 800, headlights from the Freight Rover van as well as the easily-identifiable Marina door handles. Interior styling was handed over to Conrad Design Group, who trimmed the Discovery in light ‘Sonar Blue’ upholstery and added the magazine holder above the windscreen, twin removable sunroof panels and Land Rover-branded holdall for the front centre console. It was removable, to be worn as a handbag, though these days they’re really collectable so keep a look out!

The year 1992 saw additions and improvements to the Discovery, such as a more traditional beige interior option and an automatic gearbox availability on 200 TDI models. Pre-1994 models were available with either a 2.5-litre 200 TDI engine or a 3.5-litre Rover V8 engine and transmission was a permanent four-wheel drive system. These were upgraded in 1994, to 2.5-litre 300Tdi 4-cylinder and 3.9-litre Rover V8 engines, while a stronger R380 gearbox was fitted to all manuals.

Discovery Series II (1998-2004)

Land Rover claimed that the Discovery Series II was subject to a whopping 720 ‘updates’. Every panel was altered except the outer skin on the rear doors, and full-size adults could now be accommodated on all seven seats, which were all now forward-facing.

Some traces of the original 1970 Range Rover underpinnings remained (the last Land Rover product to do so), but there were changes to the diesel engines – in line with the updated Land Rover Defender – to produce a smoother engine with more useable torque at lower revs. ACE (Active Cornering Enhancement) and self-levelling air springs were added to some models to improve stability.

A ‘facelift’ in 2002 was identified by ‘pocketed’ headlamps, redesigned indicator and brake lights at the rear, and removal of indicators from the bumper to the high side fixtures. Beginning to sound like the distinctive Discovery we all know and love yet?

Discovery 3 (2004-2009)

Key features such as the stepped roofline and the steeply raked windscreen were retained, when the Discovery 3 was unveiled at the British International Motorshow in 2004, but there were also lots of changes.

Strength, toughness, and adaptability were enhanced by an Integrated Body Frame (IBF) construction method and the Discovery 3 was fitted with full independent suspension (FIS), enabling ride-height adjustment for the first time. Heading off-road? Raise the vehicle for better ground clearance. Hitting the motorway for a roadtrip? Keep it lower for better air flow and fuel economy. Smart!

For those with less experience or confidence with off-roading, there were no more excuses – the new Terrain Response system allowed drivers to select a terrain type (Sand, Grass, Gravel & Snow, Mud & Ruts, Rock Crawl), for the on-board computer system to adjust gearbox, suspension and throttle settings accordingly.

The most controversial change? Gone was the externally-mounted spare wheel, giving the rear door a smooth appearance that caused a couple of ripples among Land Rover fans.

Discovery 4 (2009-2016)

Largely an updated version of the Discovery 3, this newest Disco had altered front and rears light units and a restyled front grille and bumper, producing a smoother, rounder-style vehicle which was more in line with the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport of the time.

Spec was improved for the luxury and executive markets too, with advances in technology such as the ‘Surround Camera System’, a single TFT info screen and an updated instrument cluster, with redesigned speedometer and tachometer gauges for improved clarity.

On top of that, mechanical changes included improvements to engines, gearboxes, brake, and suspension refinements.

In March 2012, the Discovery achieved a major landmark when the one millionth example rolled off the production line in Solihull. To celebrate, it was driven all the way to China to appear at the Beijing Motorshow – what a road trip!

Discovery 5 (2016-present)

The Discovery 5 has the most rounded shape yet, leaving behind the traditional angular design for a more sophisticated form.

The tailgate is now top-hinged, taillights have switched from vertical orientation to horizontal, and the third-row side glass no longer blends into the roof glass. Five-seat, seven-seat and commercial van versions are available in the UK, and fuel efficiency is improved compared to earlier generations.

Take a look at the new Discovery, which is offered with a combination of V6 petrol and diesel engines, equipped with 8-speed automatic transmissions, and the most recent mid-term update includes a mild hybrid engine. You might also want to take a look at the Discovery Sport while you’re there, especially if you don’t need the size and space the Discovery affords.

One thing the Discovery retains is the asymmetrically-mounted license plate, as a nod to the traditional accommodation of the spare tyre. After all, who doesn’t love a throwback to their younger days?

Are you ready to start your Land Rover Discovery adventure? Talk to the team at JCT600 Land Rover about our Discovery stock. Or maybe you’re thinking of buy new? Book an appointment to configure your Land Rover Discovery to order from the factory.


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