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Land Rover Discovery (Mk1, 1989-1998) icon review

We drive the 4x4 legend that stayed true to its roots

By the eighties, there was a gaping hole in the Land Rover line-up. While the brand was still fairly young, having been repositioned as a British Leyland subsidiary only in 1978, it was making the same eponymous 4x4 it had been churning out since 1948 with few advances in the way of civility, alongside the upmarket Range Rover.

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The Rangie was for ‘posh’ people and the Land Rover was for farmers. The brand needed a model in the middle for families – those engaging in lifestyle pursuits, or who merely wanted to make it look as if they were. Enter Project Jay. Ambitious but pragmatic, this new off-roader was to borrow much from the Range Rover, including the ladder frame, a lot of the suspension components, the four-wheel drive system and even elements of the body. 

Launched in 1989, the Discovery was ready to claw back ground from myriad rivals that had encroached over the previous decade. The motoring press loved it, and so did buyers. It helped reinvent Land Rover and broaden the brand’s appeal – but what’s the Mk1 like to drive more than 30 years on? 

Heritage

Thanks to this Marseilles Blue 1991 Discovery I, complete with fetching factory-applied side decals, we can find out. The example had had only one owner from new when Land Rover picked it up in 2017 to induct into its heritage fleet – a move that coincided with the US-based launch of the then-new Discovery 5. 

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It’s curious to see such a large vehicle sporting only three doors, but initially that was the only way you could buy a Discovery I, ostensibly to stop the newcomer treading on the Range Rover’s toes. This strategy didn’t last, however – by 1990, a more practical five-door version was added to the line-up.

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The front doors are curiously small, because they’re the same ones that are fitted to the five-door model – they weren’t made any longer to enable easier rear access. Opening them reveals a Sonar Blue interior that’s worn the years fairly well, showing its age in only a few places. 

The dash features an abundance of straight lines, big buttons flanking the instrument cluster, and chunky heater sliders. Behind the centre console there’s a Land Rover-fabric storage compartment that converts into a small holdall. A rearward glance reveals the famed, stepped roof, complemented by twin sunroofs – opened and closed via chunky dials – and the ‘alpine’ windows, which sit between the roof and the side panels. 

A twist of the key wakes the 3.5-litre Rover V8 to a muted, rumbling idle. One of only two engines available at launch – the other being a four-cylinder diesel – it’s not what you’d call over-stressed, producing a leisurely delivered 154bhp. Yes, you read that right. 

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Transmission choice was also limited at launch – you had to have a five-speed manual, although an automatic was eventually offered. Our test car has the former, and it’s strangely inconsistent between shifts. Some ratios slide in easier than others, while engaging reverse involves a herculean effort which, after turning around a few times on our photoshoot, leaves my arms feeling rather worse for wear. 

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On the move, you get some of the shudders that are usually associated with body-on-frame-construction cars, but on the whole the ride is fairly comfortable. The seating position is lofty, which – combined with the generous ride height – makes for a commanding view. This excellent panorama is also helped by the delicately thin A-pillars. 

The V8 never sounds particularly loud, with the combustion side of the equation largely drowned out by fan noise from around 4,000rpm. Straight-line performance is best described as ‘adequate’, but that’s just fine. For one thing, smoothness is more important, and for another, you don’t want to be going too quickly in the Discovery I. 

It’s a very effective demonstration of how far SUV dynamics have come in recent years, because the body roll is considerable, at times feeling as though the Discovery might tip over onto its door handles. You also don’t have to be going particularly fast through a corner to make the chunky Goodyear Wrangler tyres squeal in protest as the front end washes out into understeer. 

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Driven ‘normally’, however, the Discovery is perfectly agreeable on the road. Refinement isn’t bad at all, with even tyre noise kept to a minimum, and while the steering is slow and short on feedback, it’s surprisingly light. And, of course, you have the knowledge that should you want to, you can take the Disco over demanding terrain without it breaking a sweat. 

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Along with that generous ground clearance, the car has plenty of suspension travel, a low-range gearbox and a locking centre diff. Given the typical customer profile when new, Land Rover could easily have made the Discovery far less capable, but that simply wasn’t an option. This dogmatic approach  continues today – whether it’s an Evoque or Defender, it needs to cut the mustard on the rough stuff.

This leads us to the Discovery I’s modern successor, the Discovery 5. As it’s become posher, plusher and, in the main, better over the years, the model has lost its identity a touch, while the current Defender seems to be more closely aligned with the original Discovery as the ‘lifestyle Landie’. The Defender, it should be noted, outsells the Discovery several times over. 

That doesn’t mean the name will be consigned to history, however; in fact, JLR wants to transition Range Rover, Defender and Discovery into brands in their own right. Whether or not you think that’s a good plan, the Discovery name is iconic enough to give JLR a good shot at pulling it off. And it’s largely thanks to the excellent, company-defining Discovery I.

What we said then

  • Issue 59, November 1989
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 “It’s exactly what we’ve been telling Land Rover they needed for years - in many ways it’s a return to the original Range Rover concept. It looks good, and it should provide the Japanese with formidable opposition. 

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But all those customers who went for Japanese products vouch for the utter reliability of their vehicles. If Land Rover are to reconquer and then keep those customers, they must match the reliability and build quality they have come to expect.”

Interested in buying one?

As with a lot of the cars in our Icons series, your first challenge is finding a decent one. For a long time, the average Discovery I was cheap as chips, but over time, the number of models available has dropped, as vehicles die off due to rust or have invasive modifications. 

You’ll likely need to spend upwards of £2,000 for a Discovery I in good working order, and many thousands more for an early V8 three-door like this one. 

Lots are taken off road, which takes a heavy toll on the body, suspension and gearbox. Check for damage underneath and at the extremities, listen for knocks from the suspension, feel for excessive play in the steering, and check the transmission is smooth. Leaks are common, particularly from the sunroof, making the rust even worse. The inner front wings are a notorious rot spot, but Discos are so prone to tinworm that you need to check every inch of the car. 

Model:Land Rover Discovery Mk1
Production dates:1989-1998
Price then:£15,750
Price now:£4,000
Engine:3.5-litre V8 petrol, 145bhp
0-62mph:12.7 seconds
Top speed:106mph
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