Looking down the time tunnel to the Plymouth-based UK launch of the Land-Rover Discovery in October 1989, 25 years now feels like several lifetimes in automotive history.

The launch was masterminded by the marque’s new owner, British Aerospace, which had somehow recently been persuaded by the government to buy remaining remnants of the vast, sprawling BL empire for the knockdown price of £150M. 

Sitting in the bar of a certain Plymouth Hoe Hotel after dinner discussing current cars and the marketplace with fellow writers and the latest dynasty of Rover Group management, one fact still sticks in the mind today. Hindsight is of course wonderful – but neither my copious notes or event recollections suggest any calculated vision of how the Discovery might impact on the market it was about to enter. 

Press material and company people alike saw the first all-new Land-Rover since the Range Rover – 19 years earlier – as a vital plug for a wide gap in their range. 

There was no statement of bold intention to kick-start a totally new, leisure-oriented market sector or any real sign of a master plan for the Discovery to head up a new corner of the 1990’s motoring landscape, or become Land-Rover’s best seller – perhaps even the marque’s saviour. 

In 1989, the SUV concept was still in the future, so the three-door-only Discovery entered a sparsely populated sector of the British market. 

The closest competition came from Japanese vehicles like the Mitsubishi Shogun, Isuzu Trooper, the Nissan Patrol and Toyota’s Land Cruiser. In three-door form most of these undercut the Discovery’s £18,660 starting price, though some compared more closely with the long established and more expensive Range Rover. 

Today its unthinkable, but back then mainstream manufacturers didn’t really do spacious, stylish, comfortable, luxurious, seven-seat 4×4 vehicles – because the modest market looked for quite modest specifications – and genuine off road ability.

1989 SMMT sales figures illustrate a very different market back then. The best-selling Ford Escort alone sold an eye-opening 181,218 units that year, while the Range Rover, then 19 years on from launch, had no automatic diesel option.It accounted for just 5027 sales – 0.25% of a 2.3 million new-car market. The Discovery thus didn’t appear likely to be a major profit centre any time soon.

The morning after the speeches and mathematics, over 40 new Discoverys left the Hoe car park and added to Plymouth’s traffic jams, en route to create more traffic jams in the minor lanes of Dartmoor.

Opinion was divided on the zig-zag exterior graphics, and there was puzzlement over the optional, colour keyed handbags – now collectors items – sported by some vehicles in the surprisingly spacious and plush turquoise-blue interior, crafted by Conran Design. It was alleged this created a ‘contemporary edge.

‘Comfort was a keynote, though the soft ride made for roll angles which limited enthusiastic cornering.

However, off road ability, tested ‘somewhere on Dartmoor’ fully lived up to eager anticipation – and established legend. 

There was smooth, quite lively performance and – judging by the plummeting fuel gauge – depressing fuel economy from Rover’s stalwart petrol V8, equipped with standard-fit manual transmission and offering, ahem, 144 horsepower.

An optional, new, 2.5 litre direct injection diesel engine mustered a mere 111 horses, which, though in their element off road, gamely struggled to cope with higher-speed life on Plymouth’s dual carriageways.

The diesel provided much better economy, but refinement and power output were not its strongest points.

It was far from perfect, but it was the right car at the right time, and the Discovery has come a long way since then. From being in at the start of a new market sector, it went on to play a central role in the development of today’s vast lifestyle and family oriented 4×4 marketplace, becoming a steady and consistent seller, and a key part of Land Rover’s growth around the globe. 

Discovery facts

1. 392,443 first-generation Discoverys were built in nine years – an average of 43,604 each year.

There were 278,570 Series II models in six years, an average of 46,428 a year. Discovery 3 reached a total of 220,057 in five years, averaging 44,011 per year.

The Discovery 4 is the current model, though the “4” badging has recently been dropped…

2. To avoid impacting on Range Rover sales, Discoverys built from original launch in 1989 were three-door models.

The five-door followed in 1990 – once the Range Rover had been pushed further upmarket with appropriately higher prices. 

3. In December 1989, soon after the Discovery was launched, it was announced that the hyphen in Land-Rover was being dropped. It has not featured since.

4. A three-door Discovery Series II was built as a full-size mock-up in the mid-1990’s, but no such car ever went into production. 

5. The first Discoverys shared their headlights with the Freight Rover van, and rear lights with the Austin Maestro van. The door handles came from the Morris Marina…

6. A Discovery 3 was the four millionth Land Rover to leave the production lines on 8th May 2007. It was donated to one of Land Rover’s key conservation sponsors – the Born Free Foundation, and deployed as a ‘Rapid Response Rescue’ vehicle.

7. Between 1994 and 1996, the Discovery was sold in Japan as the Honda Crossroad. It carried Honda badges, but was otherwise almost identical to the standard product.

8. By the beginning of 2014, 1,088,000 examples of  the Discovery had been produced at Jaguar Land Rover’s Solihull manufacturing plant in the West Midlands.

9. The Discovery has picked up 219 awards to date around the world, from both automotive titles and non-automotive bodies alike, including a ‘Best of What’s New’ Award from US magazine Popular Science – and a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the Innovation category for its Terrain Response system.

 10. In 2008, as part of Land Rover’s 60th Anniversary and the 100th anniversary of the Royal Charter being granted to The British Red Cross by HM King Edward VII, the company donated 60 vehicles to the charity.Half of the vehicles were allocated to projects around the world and the other half were distributed throughout the UK.

Today it faces plenty of competition, but its talents are many and various: its a go-anywhere workhorse, tow car, law enforcer, people carrier, mud plugger – and much more. 

Since UK introduction on 16 November 1989, the Discovery has carved its own place in motoring folklore. Twenty-five years on and well into its fourth generation, the side graphics are thankfully long gone, but it remains distinctive, competent… and unmistakeable.

Dave Moss
Dave Moss

Dave Moss has a lifetime connection with the world of motoring. His father was a time-served skilled engineer from an age when car repairs really meant repairs: he ran his own garage from the 1930’s to the 60’s, while Mum was the boss’s secretary at a big Austin distributor. Both worked their entire lives in the motor trade, so if motor oil’s not in Dave’s blood, its surely a very close thing.

Though qualified in Electronics, for Dave it seemed a natural step into restoring a succession of classic cars, culminating in a variety of Minis. Writing and broadcasting about these, and a widening range of motoring matters ancient and modern, gathered pace in the 1970’s and has taken over since. Topics nowadays range across the modern motoring mainstream to the offbeat and more arcane aspects of motoring history, and outlets embrace books, websites national and international magazines, newspapers, radio programmes, phone-ins and guest appearances. Spare time: hard graft on the garage floor attending to vehicles old and new. Latest projects: that 1968 Mini Cooper S has finally moved again after 30 years, and when the paint is finished, the 1960 Morris Mini 850 will also soon be ready for the road again…

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