This time around, our packed three-day schedule had us arriving at Plymouth Hoe in darkness on a Wednesday, knocking off this story’s lead picture (of Land Rover’s pristine white three-door Discovery S1, just bought for its collection), then rising early to be at Eastnor Castle, buried in the Malvern Hills 180 miles to the north, in good time.
What charms you instantly about the Discovery 1 is its simplicity: the very elevated driving position with the glass seeming to reach from thigh height to way above your head, the ultra-thin screen pillars, the soft but supportive seats, the dependable, tractor-like idle of the 2.5-litre TDi engine, the short but slightly imprecise throw of the gearbox, the amusing nosedive under brakes (given that the initial bite is strong) and the pleasant, floaty ride that took me straight back to the earliest Range Rover.
It’s no wonder people stick with these old Discoverys. Despite their tendency to rust, you still see them all over the place. The soft ride, the ‘command’ driving position, the arena seating for kids and the easy luggage access through a side-opening rear door are all beguiling, especially as the car isn’t that big on the road and you can own one like this for a price well south of £4000. I really don’t think they’re going lower.
Part of the appeal is that no one would build a car like this these days. Non-independent suspension would look too crude on the spec sheet. The ride would be deemed too floaty. What we sometimes call The Curse of the Nürburgring has changed cars, even SUVs, so that they have huge reserves of swervability, courtesy of rigid anti-roll bars and diamond-hard suspension bushes. That’s great if you encounter an unexpected elk in northern Sweden but useless and positively intrusive (via road noise) on your drive to the shops.
Faults? The idle of the TDi 200 engine you find in nearly every Disco S1 is pretty OTT. The gearchange isn’t great. And when it comes to easing past someone at 70-75mph on the motorway (the relaxed cruising limit unless you’re aided by gradients), you plainly need more torque. True, there’s a quieter V8 version, but that packs no more torque than the diesel and consumes fuel at double the rate.
It can’t have taken Land Rover long to realise that they needed extra urge than the 111bhp TDi 200 could produce, but while the improved TDi 300 that came in 1994 was cleaner and more refined and had a better gearbox (we used to refer to its ‘riflebolt’ action), it had only 2bhp more, so the car was no quicker. Better performance had to await the five-pot TD5, launched with the Discovery S2 in 1998, whereupon it became fashionable among some buyers to complain about the smooth new engine’s dependence on electronics. Although Discoverys filled Tesco car parks, owners saw themselves halfway across the Sahara, unable to mend the engine management module with a handful of spanners.