The 1998 Series II Discovery was a far more thorough and extensive facelift of the original than it might have appeared to be at first glance.
The 1970 Range Rover could not have been more different in conception from the SUVs that carry that name today. It was designed to be more comfortable and civilised on road than the original Land Rover, which had changed little since its introduction in 1948, but was not intended to be anything other than a working vehicle.
Early Range Rovers were still resolutely utilitarian, with vinyl seats and rubber floor mats that could be hosed out after a day’s work on the farm. Its classic style is credited to David Bache, Head of Design at Rover. However, recognising its handsome functionalism, Bache actually made only detail changes to the prototype designed by the engineering team. Little further development took place throughout the 1970s and it was not until 1981 that the Range Rover finally received a four-door body.
The new body caused a jump in demand and sales of the four-door quickly overtook the original version. Land Rover realised that there was demand for a Range Rover with a more luxurious interior and responded by offering carpets and leather seats, together with upgraded interior fittings and equipment. It was clear that the Range Rover was heading upmarket. Its future would be as a luxury estate* car with superlative off-road ability.
The repositioning of the Range Rover left a widening gap in the company’s range that other manufacturers were profitably filling. The 1981 Isuzu Trooper and 1982 Mitsubishi Shogun were both highly successful, offering much better on-road comfort than the Series III Land Rover while being usefully cheaper than the Range Rover.
Land-Rover’s first return strike was the 1983 Defender, a modernised Series III with mechanical and cosmetic improvements. This was, however, still a pretty crude vehicle on-road and Land Rover realised that a new mid-range third model line was required. Work on this, under the project codename ‘Jay’ began in late 1986.
There was early agreement that the new model would be based on the Range Rover’s ladder chassis and steel inner body structure, to which new aluminium skin panels would be fixed. Engines and drivetrains would also be shared. This allowed the project to progress at an unusually rapid pace. The design of the new body, however, was the subject of some debate. Early prototypes were crisp and elegant designs, with fully integrated bumpers and lower side cladding in dark grey, flush door handles and bespoke rectangular headlamps set flush with a sloping front grille.
There were, however, concerns at Land Rover that the new design was too elegant and would threaten sales of the Range Rover, now nearing the end of its production life, with a new version on the horizon. There was a deliberate effort to make the new mid-range model plainer and more functional.
The integrated bumper and side cladding were discarded in favour of black painted steel bumper bars with angular black plastic end-caps. The flush headlamps were replaced with existing rectangular units from the Freight Rover 200/300 Series van. These were recessed into a bulky black plastic grille that looked like it came from a commercial vehicle (which was precisely the intention). The exterior door handles were the ubiquitous BL items that started life on the Morris Marina and were already used on the four-door Range Rover.
The Discovery was launched in 1989 in three-door form and quickly gained widespread approval for its combination of comfort and practicality, in particular the light and airy interior, designed by Terence Conran. The five-door model arrived in 1990, further enhancing its appeal.
A new larger second-generation Range Rover arrived in 1994 and put considerably more distance between itself and the Discovery, allowing Land Rover the room to move the latter upmarket. A mildly revised Discovery was duly launched the same year, but Land Rover had a much more extensive update in mind.
The Discovery Series II was launched in the autumn of 1998. At first glance, the Series II model looked like another light facelift, but the changes were extensive, if subtle. Most significantly, the model received a 6½” (160mm) stretch in the bodywork behind the rear wheels. This allowed two proper forward-facing rear seats to be installed, instead of the inward-facing ‘jump’ seats previously fitted to the seven-seat version.
At the front, a new, deeper three-bar grille was fitted, with larger flush headlights and outboard indicators. The front bumper was now integrated with the lower valance, and was body-coloured on high-line versions, apart from two large over-riders. At the rear, the steel bumper bar was replaced by a full width plastic item with ‘Land Rover’ impressed between the integral over-riders. New larger bespoke rear lamps replaced the Maestro van sourced original items.
A thicker and deeper rubbing strip ran along the lower flanks (on some versions). The Marina door handles were replaced with larger proper ‘pull’ ones from the Range Rover. A subtle but significant change was that the groove along the flanks below the door handles was reprofiled to make it deeper and more rounded in cross-section.
The impact of all these changes was quite dramatic. The Discovery Series II looked to be a considerably larger and more prestigious vehicle than the model it replaced. Unlike the very tail-heavy current model, the Series II carried its extra length well and actually looked at least as well balanced as its predecessor. The reprofiled bodyside groove made the bodywork somehow look thicker and more robust. Photos do not do these changes full justice: it is only when you see the Series I and II models side by side that the full impact of the changes becomes apparent.
The only external panel carried over was the tailgate door skin. This raises the question of why Land Rover did not take the opportunity to introduce a completely new style for the Discovery II. It was rumoured that a reskin not dissimilar to the Discovery III had been mooted, but the company instead chose the evolutionary design.
I think Land Rover made the right decision. The Series II was an understated but handsome vehicle, and a fine evolution of the original. I have actually grown to like it a lot, perhaps more now than the blocky, rectilinear and slightly intimidating Series III and IV, and certainly more than the awkward current model. The Series II remained in production for six years with only one significant visual change; new headlamps that previewed the style of those fitted to the 2004 Discovery Series III.
* As in country estate, or at least those who aspire to one.