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.
From then on, the Discovery was created in record time, using procedures previously unseen at Solihull but still in use today. “The Discovery was our first entry into a project team environment,” says John Bragg, head of engineering at the time. “It was far more efficient than anything we’d done before. One of our bosses referred to us as the paperless society, because team members carried much detail in their heads. If someone had left at the time, we’d have been in all sorts of trouble.”
Only now, looking back over the Discovery 1’s nine-year life from a decent distance, is its essential ‘rightness’ visible. This is what we were doing one sunny morning last week at Eastnor Castle, near Ledbury, the magnificent country estate on which the off-road abilities of every Land Rover since 1970 have been developed. Irrepressible heritage expert Roger Crathorne, a 50-year company man, had brought one of each of the four Discovery models and I was to be treated to a ramble through the model’s history.
We started our exercise with a fine Discovery 1. Not just any example, either, but the first saleable unit: a highly prized 2.5 Tdi 200 diesel from the company’s heritage collection that has done only a handful of miles and is in better-than-new condition.
I remember plenty about this model’s launch, having been among the pressing crowds that watched its unveiling at the Birmingham motor show in 1989. The company had also revealed it in Frankfurt a few weeks earlier – in a bold attempt to underscore its challenge to international rivals – but this was very definitely the main event.