History repeats at Land Rover.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.