Things couldn’t stay like that, and they didn’t. The gap has been filled over the years until today it contains four models that last year shared most of Land Rover’s sales of 425,000 units. But, truth be told, the whole move began with the launch of the Discovery, which has since sold just over a million copies.
Twenty-five years ago an air of expectation surrounded Land Rover as spy pictures gave fuzzy details of a mysterious new ‘leisure’ model codenamed Project Jay. Launching a third model seemed a bold step for a company still recovering from the upheaval of nationalisation (1975) and privatisation (1988), but in world terms Land Rover was actually years behind the game.
The Japanese, who understood world markets better than anyone, had been expanding sales of their Shoguns, Patrols, Land Cruisers and Fourtraks. Partly because of these, and helped by a growing US vogue for lifestyle 4x4s such as the Ford Bronco and Chevy Blazer, a demand for softer off-roaders was growing in Europe.
Between 1983 and 1988, sales of 4x4s expanded from 80,000 to 200,000. The figures look paltry now, but they disguised a four-fold increase in demand for leisure off-roaders, and by the mid-1980s even the preoccupied management of Land Rover had spotted the trend.
That word ‘even’ isn’t intended to denigrate those in charge at the time. It’s just that within the nationalised environment, things took years longer than they should have. It had taken 10 years for the original Range Rover to be made as a four-door and 16 for it to be launched in the US.
There were other distractions, too. Even as the Discovery project was starting in 1986, hundreds of Land Rover stalwarts were protesting a plan espoused by Mrs Thatcher to sell Land Rover to GM. (They occupied Hyde Park as a protest and were so effective that Number 10 did a deal with British Aerospace instead.)
What we didn’t know then was the extent to which the Discovery would change life at Land Rover. Against the glacial timetables of previous projects, it went with amazing speed. Led by Mike Donovan, the company decided a fast-to-market leisure model would need to use existing hardware and know-how, so it settled on Range Rover underpinnings.