4x4

The History of the Land Rover Discovery

The Discovery has been on sale for almost 28 years, from the introduction of the first generation in 1989. We take a quick look at where it started, and how it evolved into its current forms.

Up until the late 1980s, Land Rover operated with a two model strategy, the luxurious Range Rover and the utilitarian models we now know as the Defender. This meant that there was a gap in their line up. In Australia at least, that gap was occupied by Japanese 4WDs like the Toyota LandCruiser, Nissan Patrol and Mitsubishi Pajero. As they grew in popularity, Land Rover felt they needed a third model to sit between their existing vehicles.

The Discovery was first launched in the UK in October 1989, and Australia in April 1991, and is now into its fifth iteration. Anecdotally, it has been referred to as the vehicle that saved Land Rover, as it soon became a best seller in its home market. There have been three distinct generations of Discovery, as the second and fourth models were facelifted versions of the first and third respectively.

In March of 2014, Land Rover announced a ‘3 pillar’ model, where the Range Rover, Discovery and Defender nameplates would now each become sub-brands representing the three different vehicle types in the range. According to the ‘New Age Discovery’ mini site, it would “build upon its foundations of capability, versatility and exceptional design to reach new heights.” The existing Discovery continues to evolve along the same path without a number on the end, and the Freelander2 replacement is now called Discovery Sport.

G-WAC Discoverys

In the UK, the earliest first generation Discoveries are identifiable via their registration, for example G526-WAC. The ‘G’ denotes vehicles built between August  1989 and July 1990, and the last two letters denote which region the vehicle was built in, with AC being Coventry, Warwickshire. The three numbers and W are unique to each vehicle. 86 D1s were registered for the launch event, all with Gxxx-WAC registration. The numbers ran from 451 – 537, with the exception of 500. 43 of the vehicles were retained by Land Rover and eventually scrapped, but the other half were later sold off. These models are now highly sought after by British enthusiasts.

Discovery I

The Discovery I was heavily based on the Range Rover Classic. Initially released as a 3 door model, the five door soon followed.

Both variants had the option of five or seven seats, with the third row being side facing. It retained the long travel coil sprung solid axles, 3.5L carburetted V8, constant 4WD and four wheel disc brakes of its older brother. A direct injection 2.5L four cylinder turbo diesel known as the 200tdi was added, based on the older units used in the utilitarian models since the 1950s. Fuel injected models were available from 1990, and for its midlife update in 1994, the Disco gained the 3.9L version of the V8. The diesel engine was also revised and renamed the 300tdi. The updated version also gained now mandatory safety features like airbags and ABS.

Discovery II

1998 saw the release of the Discovery II as a 5 door model only. The most obvious change was the extended rear overhang to make room for forward facing third row seating. The second row seats were moved forward slightly as well, reducing legroom slightly compared to the D1. The V8 engine was a revised version of the existing unit, marketed as a 4.0L, but the capacity was still the same as the 3.9L.  An all new 2.5L five cylinder diesel known as the TD5 made its debut, same engine as used in the Defender of the time but with slightly more power in the Discovery. This was designed as part of Project Storm, with a 2.0L four cylinder and 3.0L six to be developed alongside it. However, when BMW bought Land Rover in 1994, they cancelled the development of the latter engines and instead supplied their own units to supplement the TD5.

This also saw the introduction of a number of features to the Discovery designed to improve its capabilities both on and off road, including Electronic Traction Control, Hill Descent Control (HDC), Active Cornering Enhancement (ACE) and Self Levelling (rear) Suspension (SLS)At the time, Land Rover believed that the traction control worked sufficiently well that the centre diff lock was no longer needed, removing the actuators from the transfer case so it couldn’t be engaged/disengaged. This proved to be a mistake, as while the traction control was effective at redirecting drive across an axle, it was less effective at doing so between them.

Discovery IIa

A minor update for the Discovery II came in 2003, with Land Rover offroad drivers heralding the return of the centre diff lock. This worked well offroad with the traction control by ensuring a constant 50/50 front/rear torque distribution to both axles at all times, much more effective offroad and safer on hills.

This was the last Discovery model to share its basic underpinnings with the original Range Rover of 1970, giving the platform a remarkable 34 year run. Given that the Classic was well ahead of its time though, maybe it isn’t so surprising.

Discovery 3 and 4

Ford purchased Land Rover from BMW in the year 2000, and immediately set its engineers to work designing an all new model in the form of the Discovery 3. Released in 2005, it was a radical departure from the previous Discos. The fully independent air suspension could be raised for offroad use, and Land Rover’s Terrain Response system allowed the behaviour of the vehicle’s drive systems and traction aids to be modified to optimise the vehicle for a variety of offroad disciplines, and the centre clutch (not differential) was computer-controlled.

Credit: Robert Pepper

The improvements in refinement and onroad ability combined with its offroad smarts allowed the D3 to be pitched against both SUVs like the Mercedes M Class, and more traditional 4WDs like the LandCruiser. There was a new engine lineup as well, with a 4.0L petrol V6, a 2.7L V6 turbodiesel, and a 4.4L V8 petrol.

The Discovery 4 was released in 2009, as a facelifted version of the 3. The 2.7L diesel was carried over for some models, with an upgraded version of it in the form of the 3.0L engine debuting. The 4.4L V8 was replaced by a 5.0L unit.

From 2012 on, the vehicle would be known only as Discovery, presumably in anticipation of the ‘3 Pillar’ strategy mentioned above. An eight speed auto was added in the same year with the shifter stick changed to a dial, and the V8 replaced by a 3.0L supercharged V6 in 2014. The bonnet badge was changed from LAND ROVER to DISCOVERY.

2015 Land Rover Discovery TDV6 review

Discovery L462

The dropping of the series number from the Discovery name presented a conundrum for Land Rover enthusiasts with the launch of an all new Disco this year. As our own Robert Pepper discussed here, its internal model code is L462.

Land Rover has moved the L462 upmarket with this iteration, and the switch to an aluminium monocoque means it is up to 480kg lighter than its predecessor. This has enabled Land Rover to go back to a four cylinder diesel engine for some variants, a 2.0L ingenium unit with two different tunes. The 3.0L V6 diesel was carried over, and there are no petrol engines offered for the Australian market.

The new model builds on the offroad credentials of the previous one, retaining height adjustable air suspension and an updated version of Terrain Response.

Discovery Sport

The Discovery Sport was launched late in 2014, sharing its platform with the Range Rover Evoque and replacing the Freelander2. The engines were initially Ford units, however they were replaced by Land Rover’s new Ingenium range 12 months after its launch. Like the Freelander and Evoque, it uses a transverse engine and front drive biased single range AWD system. The new nine speed auto has a wide ratio spread with a short first gear, and combined with terrain response, gives it decent offroad ability for the segment.

Camel Trophy and G4 Challenge

Land Rover have supplied various Discovery models (and others) for both these events, however, this is worthy of an article in its own right, and will be covered separately at a later date.

Discovery Points of Significance

  • 1989: First Generation Discovery Launched in the UK as 3 door model only
  • 1990: Five door added to the range, EFI added to V8
  • 1991: Discovery launched in Australia. Initially 3 door only, 5 door added by end of year
  • 1994: Midlife update. Land Rover Purchased by BMW
  • 1998: Discovery II Launched. Centre diff lock disabled in favour of traction control
  • 2000: BMW sells Land Rover to Ford.
  • 2003: Discovery IIa update: Centre diff lock reinstated to work with traction control
  • 2005: All new Discovery 3 launched
  • 2008: Tata motors buys Land Rover (and Jaguar) from Ford
  • 2009: Discovery 4 released. Mild update on Discovery 3
  • 2014: 3 pillars model announced. Discovery to spawn family of vehicles, starting with Discovery Sport
  • 2017: L462 Discovery launched


Andrew Riles

Andrew Riles

My parents knew I was a car enthusiast when I was about 15months old, as I could already tell the difference between our Subaru and other similar vehicles. I have since had an almost insatiable appetite for almost anything car related. My main interest now is 4WDing, though one day I'd like to take part in 24hrs of LeMons, and maybe one of the rallies that raises money for charity.