Land Rover has existed, first as a badge and later as a brand, since 1948, but its current popularity could be said to date back to the launch of the first-generation Discovery 30 years ago. The Discovery took up a position in the very large gap between Land Rover’s other 1989 offerings, the basic original model (shortly to become known as the Defender) and the luxury Range Rover. An increasing number of Land Rover products have occupied this middle ground in the three decades since then, but it was the Discovery that started it all.
The earliest Discovery was initially offered only as a three-door, though a five-door body style became available not long after the model’s introduction. Customers could choose between a 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel engine or the celebrated Rover V8 petrol unit of first 3.5 and later 3.9 litres. This was also the only Discovery offered until the current model with a two-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, though this was not a popular option.
Five years after its launch, the Discovery was refreshed with new engines, a stronger manual gearbox and some minor styling changes. Cars built between then and 1998 are still regarded as being first-generation models.
The Camel Trophy was an extremely tough off-road competition held 20 times in various parts of the world. Land Rover supplied vehicles for 18 of the events, providing Discovery diesels every year from 1990 to 1997.
Land Rover created an amphibious Discovery which was demonstrated at Cowes Week in 1990. It was later restored and driven on Lake Geneva during a heritage event in 2012.
Under the skin, the second Discovery was much the same as the first, but nearly every body panel was new and there was more luggage space. There were also some styling changes, most noticeably the introduction of larger headlights. The old diesel engine was abandoned in favour of a more modern five-cylinder one, and there were several changes to the petrol V8.
Despite all the detail improvements, the Discovery was not radically altered for 15 years, or half of its lifetime to date. The first major change came in 2004. That year’s Discovery was a completely new car, with new and almost minimalist styling, engines previously found in Jaguars (one of them, a 4.4-litre petrol V8, being the most powerful yet fitted to a Land Rover) and, in all but the cheapest version, seven seats.
This was the first Discovery fitted with air suspension, a system Land Rover had already used in the Range Rover. Cheaper versions were available with the more traditional metal coil springs.
For a decade and a half, the off-road ability of a Discovery had depended largely on the skill of its driver. The Discovery 3 was much easier to drive in difficult conditions thanks to its Terrain Response system, which enabled even novice drivers to tackle pieces of ground they would have struggled to walk over.
Although it was marketed as a new model, the Discovery 4 of 2009 was really just an update of the Discovery 3. But what an update. The most obvious difference was a restyle which included a honeycomb front grille and jewel-effect headlights, and made the car look far more like a upmarket product. The previous 2.7-litre V6 diesel engine made way for a three-litre version which was more powerful, more economical on the official EU test and significantly quieter.
The Terrain Response system was updated for the Discovery 4, but even more impressive was the improvement in the car’s handling on tarmac. Body roll had been reduced, making it far easier to swoop through a series of bends on a country road than you would expect in something as tall and heavy as this.
One millionth Discovery
The millionth Discovery left the factory early in 2012 and was taken on a 50-day journey from Birmingham to Beijing, raising money for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. It stopped briefly in Geneva to join other significant Land Rovers, including the amphibious car mentioned previously and the very first Discovery to leave the production line in 1989.
The Discovery name was so highly regarded by 2014 that Land Rover decided abandon the Freelander badge and name its latest small SUV the Discovery Sport instead. The Sport is related to the Range Rover Evoque and, unlike any other Discovery, has a structural body rather than a chassis with a body attached on top.
The current Discovery was introduced in 2017 and immediately criticised in this country for its appearance, mostly as seen from the rear. Designer Gerry McGovern said the problem was that UK dealers were fitting larger number plates than the car was intended to have.
The new Discovery was also the first to be built largely out of alumnium, which had become something of a Jaguar Land Rover speciality. Aluminium is more difficult to work with than steel but is also much lighter, which helps with performance, handling and fuel economy.
The Terrain Response system first seen in the Discovery 3 has been adapted over the years. Off-road driving is now simpler than it has ever been, though as with the Range Rover it’s unlikely that more than a very small proportion of Discovery owners will ever use their cars to their full potential.