Sir Ranulph Fiennes mounted eight expeditions over 26 years looking for the Lost City of Ubar, what T.E. Lawrence – a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia – called, “the Atlantis of the Sands.”
It was a needle in a desert, the biggest sand desert in the world, in fact. The Lost City was somewhere in the Empty Quarter, the Rub’ al Khali, which takes up 650,000 square kilometres of the Arabian Peninsula. NASA took photos of it from the space shuttle, but found only dead ends.
Then, in 1991, Fiennes suddenly uncovered the Lost City. “We found it through luck,” he wrote. Getting the team across the desert and over the dunes were a fleet of then-new Land Rover Discoverys, “which were excellent in the sand.”
A few years ago, on the occasion of its 25 anniversary, Land Rover collected this and other first-hand accounts of the Discovery’s many exploits.
One took anthropologist Diane Chase to La Ruta Maya in Belize, to install fiberglass replicas of Mayan monuments.
Pontus Hellgren, a Swedish competitor in the 1996 Camel Trophy rally, describes using Land Rovers roped together to pull 40 vehicles through a 200-metre-long mud hole in Borneo.
Peter and Eileen Crichton have spent 20 years and more than 320,000 kilometres travelling the world in a Discovery they named Rabia. Eileen’s favourite part of the trip was the drive from Dubai to China.
Meanwhile, Mr. and Ms. Jones have happily been using their Discovery to get groceries, take their kids to soccer and hit the Starbucks drive-thru.
It is Gerry McGovern’s job to cater to both types of customers, the Joneses and the adventurers. Perhaps they see a bit of themselves in each other, but their day-to-day automotive needs are different. Certainly, the Discovery’s reputation as the go-to chariot for explorers and daredevils has helped sell it to wannabes everywhere.
It isn’t known for being cheap to own, but the Disco could take you anywhere.
“Discoverys of old have been quite polarizing,” said McGovern, design director at Land Rover and a member of the company’s executive committee. “I think quite often it was because of the design, the boxiness.”
The all-new Discovery, unveiled this year in London and hitting the street in 2017, is the fifth iteration of the model first produced in 1989. At first glance, the new one looks distinctly less rugged.
McGovern describes designing the all-new Discovery as a balancing act, trying to marry some apparently contradictory desires.
“It’s built a good customer base, very loyal,” he said. “Having said that, we’ve heard from our customers for a long time how they’d like it to evolve, particularly in terms of its modernity, its premium-ness, its appointments.” And yet they don’t want to lose any utility or off-road capability.
As with all of Land Rover’s new models recently, the Discovery looks softer, rounder. It’s certainly not boxy any more. It has seven seats, most of which can be folded up or down with a smartphone app. It has an on-board WiFi hot spot and a key that can worn as a wristband.
“I don’t think you have to be visually, overtly, tough-looking to actually be tough,” McGovern said. “And if I’m honest, I think we actually want to create a family of Discoverys that are sexy. Everybody wants to be sexy.”
Hot or not, the new Discovery can still haul a lot of cargo over nasty terrain, but its softer edges and the new focus on techy features marks a significant change in the model’s 27-year history. Why now?
“One of the fundamental things that has changed since Tata [Motors] bought the company is that they’ve afforded us the stability to look at this business, and the products, in a holistic way,” McGovern said. “In the past, we tended to look at one vehicle at a time. And what you end up with then is a disparate group of vehicles that don’t necessarily relate to each other, as good as they are.
“For example, when we’re designing the next-generation Range Rover – which we’re doing at the moment – we’re going to be designing the next-generation Range Rover Sport, while also looking at opportunities to stretch that family even wider. They’re being far more targeted to each individual customer group.”
In other words, Land Rover is making more models than ever – six different SUVs at present – and can afford to target niche customers specifically.
“The more you push Discovery – and we have deliberately pushed it towards Range Rover – while still keeping a level of differentiation – it allows more room for this family called Defender,” said McGovern.
Land Rover hasn’t confirmed it yet, but we’d take this to mean the next-generation, ultrarugged Defender – a model not offered here in decades, and going for collector-car money in the classifieds – will return to the North American market soon.
That’ll be seven different SUVs in the lineup, but not enough for McGovern. He has other ideas. “If Bentley can do luxury SUVs, why can’t we do luxury limousines? There’s all sorts of things we could be doing.”
In a world gone mad for SUVs, Land Rover is in an enviable position.
In the future, however, it seems there will be one Land Rover model for the Joneses and a separate one for adventurers. But doesn’t that undo what made the Discovery so appealing in the first place? That you, too, could feel like an adventurer, an intrepid explorer, on your way to the mall?
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.
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