Disco Revival

History repeats at Land Rover.

1989 LR Discovery. (c) Iroac.com

Thirty years ago, in the hope of reviving their ailing business, Land Rover introduced the Discovery at the 1989 Frankfurt motor show, inspired (in part) by the vehicle that had made their name, but aimed at a very different customer. Three decades later, facing an even more precipitous climb, they appear to be doing something broadly similar, this time however, based squarely upon the original.

The eternal Defender, in production in various forms since 1948 had become a very dated proposition by the close of the 1980s. Starved of meaningful investment throughout the previous troubled decade, the Land Rover’s best days were well past. The global market it once enjoyed was being eaten alive by more modern, better developed and more reliable Japanese rivals and with BL’s apathy being equal to its empty coffers, the outlook seemed as stark as a contemporary Landie’s cabin.

As the Defender’s sales situation became increasingly worrisome during the early ’80s, the only glimmer of hope for Land Rover lay in the growing success of the Range Rover model as it was gradually and somewhat belatedly shifted further upmarket, culminating in the successful launch of the model in the US market in 1987.

Emboldened by this late flowering, LR management proposed a mid-market model, ‘project Jay’ gaining full management approval in Autumn 1987. Owing to the fact that it was to be fast-tracked for a spectacularly short two year lead time, large swathes of Range Rover hardware (including platform, running gear, A-pillars, bulkhead and doors), were carried over.

The resultant vehicle was by consequence something of a creative raid on the corporate parts bin, the Disco sporting amongst other borrowed items, BL Sherpa headlamps, Maestro Van tail-lamps and the inevitable Harris Mann door handles, beloved of so many BL-era designs.

But despite some clever work by the designers to differentiate the styling, the completed Discovery not only failed to mask its bones, but emerged as a curiously unpolished confection, with the appearance of being built down to a price-point, which of course, it had. A matter the addition of crude bodyside decals did little at the time to assuage. Having said that, the later addition of two additional (also RR-donated) doors and some additional visual refinements worked wonders.

(c) autocar

But if the exterior proved less satisfactory, the interior was more of a triumph. Designed in conjunction with the (contemporary flavour of the day) Conran Design consultancy, the Discovery’s cabin employed bright colours, soft-touch plastics, an airy low-rise dashboard architecture and useful features like storage cubbies above the windscreen, and a detachable shoulder bag mounted to the centre console.

Touted by Land Rover as a ‘leisure vehicle’ aimed at lifestyle-conscious customers, its market proposition straddled that of the cinderella Def’ner and the luxury carriage Range Rover, a stratification which resonated with customers who flocked to Solihull’s doors. The fact that it undercut its Japanese rivals on price hardly hurt its case either.

What was apparent even then that the case for the Defender was weakening by the year, and that what the market really wanted was a vehicle which combined its virtues with a more civilised ambience and on-road competence. Therefore, the advent of the Discovery, while bolstering Land Rover’s balance sheet in the most pleasing fashion, also served to further untether the Defender’s rationale.

2017 Land Rover Discovery: (c) telegraph.co.uk

Thirty years on and the Discovery is a vastly different product; larger, more sophisticated, and while just as off-road capable as its forebear, it’s far less likely to be taken off metalled roads. It’s appearance too, while carrying stylistic cues which are intended to tie it to the original, are reduced to contrivances, which no longer convince. A brand in its own right, Discovery is now a family of two, its lifestyle proposition seemingly embedded.

Well, it would perhaps have been but for the events of last week. With the advent of the new-generation Defender, the entire rationale for the Discovery V must now be called into question. Because in an eerily similar manner to that of the 1989 Discovery, the new Defender is being handed a far broader remit to that of its sackcloth and ashes predecessor.

The old warhorse was a crude, penitential device, hopelessly uncivilised on-road, but unbreakable and like an elderly, periodically incontinent family canine, eminently lovable. And therein lies the problem. Land Rover couldn’t find it within itself to replace the Defender in 1989, electing instead to create a similar yet differentiated product, and thirty years later, has essentially opted for a similar approach, for broadly similar reasons.

(c) Auto-Didakt

For JLR, not only was establishing a robust business case essential to the viability of the new Defender programme, but also the realisation that regardless of what direction they ended up taking, they would be accused of selling out. Now as truth becomes an amorphous concept, the perception of authenticity is prized like never before. In the eyes of the aficionado therefore, the old Defender’s austerity is a marker of its honesty.

Some believe JLR ought to have aped Mercedes with a slavish recreation (even if nu-G is really nothing of the sort), but in a similar manner to the true believers of Britain’s imminent departure from the cool-headed political pragmatism it was once celebrated for, nothing would have been sufficiently authentic. Probably correctly, they took the view that it’s better to be solvent and ridiculed, than respected and destitute.

(c) Autoevolution

The question now however is where this leaves the Disco? It’s evident that it must again evolve, but room for manoeuvre is narrow. It clearly cannot revert to what it was, just as it equally must not remain as it is. This is the increasingly intractable conundrum occupying the minds of JLR product strategists and senior management. It’s likely to be as difficult a circle to square as it was thirty years ago, but then as now, it’s a problem largely of their own making.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

19 thoughts on “Disco Revival”

  1. Considering how the Disco 3 (d)evolved into the chintzy Disco 4, presumably based on customer feedback, maybe there’s space for both. Perhaps with both the new Defender and Discovery 5 in the range, Land Rover will refrain from painting the black plastic bits and adding horrid bauble lights to the Defender.

  2. My memory may be wrong, but this is not quite how I remember things.

    Yes, the Defender was indeed increasingly elderly and losing its market to Japanese rivals (much as the British motorcycle industry had lost its export markets in previous decades), but it solderied on, propped up by loyal customers such as the British Army.

    The Range Rover can of course lay claim to originating the concept of the ‘luxury’ SUV, but it took time – I am not sure its move upmarket was belated, but rather each step was greeted with astonishment at the time. They kept on adding upmarket features, and increasing the price – and customers kept on buying them.

    The Discovery arrived just as demand for SUVs started to boom, and was a very clever piece of design, given its parts-bin origins and cheapskate development. It proved popular from the off.

    The current Discovery does seem to have lost its mojo, and the new Defender seems like it will steal the hearts of ‘active lifestyle’ families instead.

    Now that Land Rover no longer makes a true utility vehicle, will this reduce the authenticity of the brand? I suspect it might, but time will tell. They have now given up on that market, and I think it’s a huge risk.

  3. I’m somewhat perplexed by Eóin’s description of the Land Rover (it was always a Land Rover in the days of my youth, not this trendy “Defender”) as unbreakable. I understand that one of the Land Rover’s problems was that it was all too breakable, a fact soon evident in the former colonies where buyers graduated to the Land Cruiser when the option became available to them. As some said, a Land Rover will take you anywhere but a Land Cruiser will bring you back again too.
    Also, and this is a thing I saw somewhat to my surprise at a show a couple of years ago, the non-rusting aluminium panels are literally only skin deep. Everything beneath them and to which they’re attached will and often does convert itself to iron oxide with some enthusiasm.

    1. Given that a sizeable proportion of Land Rovers built over its lengthy lifespan remain on the roads, I suppose the term ‘unbreakable’ is open to a degree of interpretation, but your point is taken nonetheless. Certainly, if we accept that Landies are breakable, they are at least relatively straightforward to repair – which is perhaps one of their charms.

      I was looking at a late-era Defender today and heavens, it’s a rudimentary device, and while its appeal is undeniable, I fear it would pale fairly quickly unless one had a genuine and regular requirement for its off-road capabilities. A lady of my acquaintance not so long ago expressed an ambition to obtain a Landie. However, a close encounter was sufficient to disabuse her – and I suspect she would not be alone in that. The new one however is probably another matter entirely.

      But to return to the article, it puzzles me to an extent that LR didn’t consider repurposing the original Discovery as a more up to date replacement for the ‘Landie as the ‘Disco shifted upmarket. It may have lacked the Defender’s rugged appeal, and lacking a separate chassis, would not have been available with as many alternative bodies, but it would have done a good 95% of the job in my estimation.

      Instead, they have produced in effect two versions of a broadly similar offer, one more tough-looking and for those to whom it appeals, more desirable and the other, more refined, more suburban (if not very well resolved, visually). A LR spokesman told a journalist last week that with the advent of the Defender, the Discovery can refocus as a family holdall. I suspect an element of wishful thinking there.

  4. Eóin’s photo of the current Discovery above reminds me how clumsy it looks in profile. It’s amazing how apparently minor changes compared to the Discovery Sport have ruined its stance:

    It looks as though the Discovery’s body has been shunted backwards on the chassis, giving it an extreme “cab backwards” stance and a very heavy rear end, exacerbated by the depth of the bodywork above the rear wheels. Also, I hadn’t noticed before that the A-pillar treatment on both is poor, with an awkward resolution at the bottom.

    I drove a late-model Discovery 1 TDi (facelifted grille, different dashboard, additional lights in rear bumper) for three years as a company car. If was a thoroughly pleasant thing (once you got used to the extreme body roll through roundabouts!) and eminently fit for purpose as an unpretentious holdall. It was also completely reliable, despite its reputation at the time, which would havd deterred me from putting my own money into one. One of my clients even bought it second hand from the leasing company that managed the bank’s company car scheme. I saw it a few years after he sold it on, looking rather battle scarred and, after 22 years, an MOT check shows it’s still on the road.

  5. Here’s a rather better expression of the same styling theme, the US Ford Explorer:

  6. The thing I think JLR forgot along the way was the original two brands – “Land…. ” was utility “Range… ” was luxury. Now some are ‘Land…’ and some are ‘Range…’ but there isn’t a clear stylistic divide between the two marques nor any massive aspirational propositions either – some are bigger than others, some faster but they all look like large dung-beetles, whether a base-model Evoque or a top-dollar Vogue Rangie.

    Seems to me they need to work on that so Freelander, Disco and Defender are all a bit more honest, a bit cheaper and a bit less hitech bling so they can appeal to the people that now all buy Toyota and Mitsubishi tricks with hard-top covers over the pickup bed.

    Or just abolish the near meaningless distinction between Land and Range.

    1. Huw, the marketing strategy became even more confused and incoherent with the repositioning of “Discovery” from a single model to a third sub-brand, somewhere between Land-Rover / Defender and Range-Rover. This started with an update to the Discovery 4 a few years ago when the LAND ROVER lettering across the leading edge of the bonnet was replaced by DISCOVERY. Then the Freelander replacement was named Discovery Sport. Does anyone really understand what Discovery stands for now? A bit less utilitarian than the (in any event, no longer utilitarian) Defender, but a bit less luxurious than a Range Rover? Yep, that’s really clear…

  7. Let’s not forget that the reason for the original Disco was the phenomenal worldwide success of the Mitsubishi Shogun / Pajero and Isuzu Trooper. These two offered close to Range Rover levels of off-road capability and car-like comfort at Land Rover prices, backed up with Japanese dependability and mechanical integrity. The Japanese 4X4s made their own case, but were finding strong favour with traditional Land Rover customers as well as with the fast-growing ‘lifestyle’ market.

    With the “gentlemens agreement” limiting Japanese imports across Europe, Rover were shooting at an open goal, and hit the back of the net square on.

    Three decades on, the Trooper is long dead, The Shogun is in limbo, and the latest Disco is an odd thing, neither utilitarian nor stylish enough, and competing only with its manufacturer’s other products.

    I can’t quite fathom why the demand for the Shogun and Trooper, with their separate chassis and serious off road and towing capability, declined to the point where it wasn’t worth making them.

    The irresistble rise of the pick-up?

    1. I can think of a couple of reasons for the demise of the traditional working 4wd, which happened quite suddenly in many cases. Take the Nissan Patrol, the 1980s one with the white (removable?) roof. At one time it was everywhere. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t. Same with the Trooper and then the Pajero. One reason is the arrival of those pseudo offroaders like the original Hyundai Santa Fe and Tucson which gave the owner the high seating position and illusion of sturdiness of a traditional vehicle without the lack of refinement. The other is the move upmarket of the Discovery which retained the traditional values of a Patrol or Landcruiser (without the quality of course!) while still being a comfortable vehicle when used as a normal car, which of course it usually was. Buyers wanted the illusion of a rough, tough vehicle without having to actually drive a rough, tough vehicle. Finally, pickups have become more popular, although not obviously American popular, and they’ve taken up the residual market for a working vehicle. Not that most pickups are actually used for hard work of course!

  8. And not a word here about Jeep Wranglers, which sell at a rate any JLR manager would die to attain. They’re closer to being an updated old Landie than the new Defender, which adds the poseur look for trendy wannabe off-roaders keen to jump kerbs and parking lot concrete dividers. I predict the Defender will return JLR to the forefront of the Chelsea tractor brigade. But it’s small beans in terms of unit sales.

    JLR products are all pretty much boutique items to me, and being tragically overpriced is just one of their issues. Jeep also makes a new pickup version of the Wrangler called the Gladiator, which sells very well, but it just seems to me JLR manage to miss the point deliberately by not creating a real best seller – they just cannot allow themselves to let down their hair a bit, and appeal to a more mass market with more basic vehicles, A better and bigger Jimny, for example. Oh well.

    Still, I am desperately trying to pre-order the Lego Technic version of the Defender due out next week. But I’ll probably have to wait months to get mine. Hopefully in time for Xmas.

    1. Bill, As DTW’s peripatetic US correspondent (until tomorrow, that is) I did give the Ford Explorer a mention. Does that count?

  9. As someone who had some experience of the original Nissan Patrol – driving one from Cork to Limerick during the late 1980s lives long in the memory – its highly approximate relationship twixt’ handwheel and roadwheels was something I really don’t wish to reacquaint myself with – and that’s before I come to the subject of ride and handling. And it wasn’t as if this was an errant example – ‘they’re all like that sir’. Ghastly device – on metalled roads at least.

    Yes, the remodelled Wrangler is closer to its roots (steering shimmy issues notwithstanding) and in our defence Bill, we have covered it here in the past. I suspect there is more actual requirement for a utilitarian, genuine off-road capable machine in places like the USA and Canada, given the landscape and climate factors than here in these damp, temperate isles and I will probably be branded a heretic for saying so, but it’s my belief that JLR have probably called it about right for the Landie’s target market.

    I suspect anyway, that they are quite keen to hold down their volumes so as not to incur the wrath of EU regulators when the new emissions regulations shortly come into effect. Which might go some way to explaining the high transaction prices – if you can’t bang ’em out, you’ve got to price ’em high.

    1. “I suspect there is more actual requirement for a utilitarian, genuine off-road capable machine in places like the USA and Canada, given the landscape and climate factors …”

      Actually, Canada has the most urbanized population of all the G7, although we certainly do have the weather (in most of the country).

      Land Rover / Range Rover is starting to remind me of British Leland in the 1970: a proliferation of niche models with all the costs based on narrowly defined demographics that only make sense to JLR internal marketing.

      Remember, there is a supermajority of vehicle buyers who know next to nothing about the mechanical underpinnings of the vehicles they are looking at. How many SUV buyers know which vehicles are body on frame, or have traverse engines, or solid axles, or can remember which vehicles have which 4wd or awd format ?

  10. The previous Disco was far too heavy for its size, but had its fans, especially in face-lifted guise, turning over a steady 40-50,000 units a year. Why JLR never leveraged the body on frame chassis to create a new Defender or pick up, I cannot fathom.

    In turn, the current Disco is an awkward beast, hamstrung by an inexplicable decision to align the styling closer to the Range Rover Sport than previous models. And really, the Disco Sport delivers the seven seat proposition far more compellingly.

  11. The Disco 5 is a sales failure. Now built only in Slovakia, there were fields full of the things stock piled when Solihull stopped producing them. I imagine it will become a very niche product once Nu-Offender goes on sale. Gary McGovern really fucked-up with this one. His head should roll, but it won’t.

    1. McGovern can – and will – point to the number of hits he has landed over his tenure.

      There have been more fundamental strategic mistakes at JLR. They banked everything on their extremely expensive aluminium architecture, and then on the Ingenium engine programme which has simply not delivered the benefits they thought it would, resulting in a £3bn + asset write off.

      A braver, better strategy, true to their words, would have been to create a proper, worthy replacement for the Defender… either on their own or through partnership with another manufacturer.

      Interestingly, this week Ricardo revealed a military vehicle concept based on the Ford Ranger. Could JLR have collaborated with Ford on creating a worthy Defender based on that platform?

    2. Gerry Mc Govern is a man who clearly elicits strong opinions, partly because he comes across as a slightly abrasive character, and I suspect equally because he hits a nerve with a rather dated and very British sense of ‘getting above oneself’. Yet speak to industry insiders and you will find that his is a body of work that is broadly respected as being consistently good.

      It’s incontrovertibly true to say the Disco 5 is not a successful design and it would be most interesting to understand the process which saw the final proposal win through into production. (Or indeed what it was up against) Gerry probably wins more battles than he loses, but you don’t win them all and I suspect this was a battle the trenchant Mc Govern lost to the JLR board, who let’s be honest, have a great deal to answer for on the product execution front – (XE/ XF/ E-Pace, to name but three).

      To pin the blame for Disco 5 entirely upon Mr. Mc Govern’s broad shoulders is to display a fundamental misapprehension of the design process and the level of influence a Director of Design (or chief creative officer, if you wish) has. Why on earth should Gerry go? He answered the brief. It was the brief that was wrong.

  12. Around my rural neck of the woods, you can’t move for Mk3 and Mk4 Discoveries, they’re everywhere! I see one Mk5 regularly in our town, and that’s it. It will be interesting to see what eventually replaces Mk3 and Mk4 models. Many of them are on personal plates, so it’ll be easy to tell.

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