The Discovery offered better accommodation for seven adults than any Japanese equivalent - and still does. If we believe the factory gossip the concept began with a Range Rover chassis, topped with seven seats and the body dimensions were then drawn in.
Although the Discovery retained the Range Rover's external aluminium panel theme, the design structure and build of the Discovery was quite different from the virtually hand-built Range Rover of the time. The Discovery's body frame, floor pan and roof were welded-steel sub-assemblies, with aluminium body and door panels bolted in place. The different metals were separated by insulating materials during assembly.
The first model was a three-door, with normally-aspirated 3.5-litre V8 power. For 4X4 buyers used to Japanese machinery the Discovery was different. The ventilation controls defied logic; the colour and shape of the seats and interior trim were radical and the pimply steering-wheel rim didn't half burn your hands if you let it spin back to centre! The five-speed manual transmission lever worked in a wide, notchy gate.
Being built on the coil-sprung Range Rover chassis, the Discovery inherited a plush ride - a bit too plush for some owners, who opted for after-market springs and shock absorbers in an effort to control body sway. In early 1992 a five-door version was released, but there was no change to the wheelbase or body dimensions. The two large front doors were simply replaced by four smaller ones. The highly-priced HL equipment option was also announced, but discontinued one year later.
At the same time the Tdi, turbocharged and intercooled 2.5-litre diesel engine was released; in the five-door model only. The Rover turbo-intercooled, direct-injection diesel quickly proved to be the most economical 4X4 powerplant on the market. In November 1992, the ZF four-speed automatic from the Range Rover was introduced as a variant of the three- and five-door V8 models, and the three-door Tdi model was also announced.
The 1994 model Dicoverys were announced in December 1993, the most significant change being the introduction of a 3.9-litre, fuel-injected V8 from Range Rover. Anti-sway bars were introduced on V8 models, along with asbestos-free brake pads, a larger fuel tank and noise reduction materials on all models. The Discovery model range stood at manual and automatic V8 three- and five-door versions, and three- and five-door manual Tdi models.
The greatest change to the original-shape Discovery was announced in April 1994. While body dimensions remained as before, the interior was completely redesigned to accommodate a twin air bag option, which was standard on the leather-trimmed ES model. Side-intrusion beams were added to the doors. The new interior boasted a centre storage bin and a glove box, along with ventilation controls that actually worked for this model, a new instrument binnacle with electronic gauges and a new steering wheel with tilt adjustment.
Exterior changes included new headlights with 20 per cent more output, a bonded-in windscreen, larger rear-vision mirrors and indicators in the rear bumper. Mechanical changes included an upgraded 300Tdi engine, a serpentine drive-belt for the V8 and a new transmission: the R380 five-speed. Suspension upgrades meant anti-sway bars were fitted to all models.
The model range was expanded to include the up-market ES version and an automatic option on the Tdi five-door. The ES was released with twin air bags, ABS brakes, leather trim, a CD player, twin sunroofs, roof rails, remote locking and alarm, and aluminium wheels mounted with fatter, 235-section tyres.
The next Disco upgrade was in April 1996, when twin airbags and ABS brakes were included as standard equipment across the range. The ES model picked up powered front seats, an auto-dipping rear vision mirror, front fog lamps and an improved sound system.
The last upgrade of the first-shape Discovery came in February 1997, when air conditioning and central locking were made standard, along with aluminium wheels shod with 235-section tyres, roof rails and metallic paint. The original-shape Discovery continued until 1999 and we'll cover these newer models in another article.
The Discovery never suffered from the 'British disease' to the same degree as early Range Rovers did. Body integrity was good right from the start and most of the owner complaints we've heard related to interior trim problems, such as the roof lining around the rear skylights warping from the Aussie sun's heat.
Another problem is cracking seat frames on very early Discoverys, but it can usually be fixed by welding. Spare wheel mounting studs are also a little on the fragile side, so it's not unusual to see broken ones.
Some early models had gearbox problems, which can be expensive to repair, so beware of vehicles with dodgy shift actions or noise.
Air conditioner hoses were too close to the exhaust manifolds on some early models, which caused the hoses to weaken. Exhaust manifold fastenings and idler pulley bearings can wear out around 80,000km.
Shock absorber durability has been an ongoing problem with all Discoverys: Quality after-market shocks seem to be a better proposition than the factory units. Tired shocker symptoms include wheel bounce and vibration at speed, or excessive steering wheel kick.
Early models sometimes have aftermarket add-ons, such as electric window kits and central locking, for which parts aren't readily available.
The diesels respond well to professional servicing, including valve clearance adjustments every 20,000 km and camshaft timing belt replacement every 80,000 km. If in doubt about the belt's age, allow around $500 for a replacement. Avoid buying a diesel without a service history, because poorly-maintained Tdis will have reliability problems.
Late model V8s with fuel injection require specialist tuning to overcome stalling. A bad batch of rocker gaskets caused a leaking problem, but it's easily fixed.
The R380 transmission, released in 1994, was stronger than its predecessor, but early ones suffered from premature wear in one of the shaft splines, which was a warranty fix at Rover dealerships. The problem shows up initially as excessive backlash in the driveline.
Later model Discos seem to be very reliable and while there are instances of oil leaks, failed wheel-bearings and electrical dramas, there's no consistent problem pattern. The automatic transmission gives no trouble, if serviced properly.
Servicing costs should be no higher for a Discovery than for any other 4x4 - less in the case of the Rover diesel, which doesn't need the common 5000km engine oil drop - but you need to be absolutely sure that the work you're paying for is actually being done.
The greatest workshop rip-off is 'inspection' time. Maintenance and repair parts for Discoverys are among the lowest-priced on the 4x4 market, but there are some odd bits, such as the petrol engine's bottom hose which is a moulded, forked shape that will set you back around $150.