Praise the Jay

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Jon's collection of original Discos includes press launch vehicles : credit: © Alisdair Cusick
The Discovery heralded a new era for Land Rover. Alisdair Cusick meets one enthusiast with both a passion for them, and an enviable collection

Picture the scene. It’s late autumn of 1989, and you’re in Devon. On Land Rover’s invitation, you’re here to drive its first all-new model for 20 years – the Discovery.

Striding across Plymouth Hoe, you spy the immaculate V8-engined test car you’ve been assigned amongst the launch fleet, and you’re already taking in your first impressions. Stand-outs against the new Disco’s competitors include a stepped roof and daringly stylish cabin. A 4x4, not utility nor luxury, but riding a line somewhere in-between. This is more than just a new car; this one really is different. It is about to create, then define, its market sector for the next quarter century. But no one knows this back in late autumn 1989.

Jon’s fleet looking just like a still from the launch

That was then, and this is now. Today, a full 35 years later, I’m driving a car from that heralded Plymouth event. G490 WAC is a V8 launch fleet car, and the driving impressions now are just as revelatory as they were back in Plymouth. Only today isn’t a manufacturer’s new car ride-and-drive. Instead, I’m here with Discovery enthusiast and collector, Jon Masters. My view from G490 WAC is of him, in a Camel Trophy Discovery, and both these cars are now coveted slices of Land Rover history.

Jon’s Lode Lane interest began growing up having them as family cars. “Basically, my dad always had a Discovery, so I grew up with them,” recalls Jon. Around the year 2000, Masters Senior bought an H-reg silver 200Tdi. “That’s what really got me in to it,” confesses Jon.

Though coveted, Jon’s happy to use his fleet as intended

His own Discovery was purchased when he was just 18. A 1991 J-reg 200Tdi that, by his own admission, was rough on the outside, but solid inner shell-wise. “Being a typical teenager, I went through an engine and gearbox – but you soon learn not to knacker them,” admits a regretful Jon. Always keen on early Discoverys, he avidly read Roy Preston’s G-WAC Notes, the regular insight into the world of enthusiasm for the first cars. Combining his fascination around the G-WACs from reading Roy’s notes and recalling seeing white three-door cars at dealers whilst looking for his father’s first Discovery, Jon knew that one day he’d own one.

Pressed Camel Trophy plates are functional, but so iconic

The famous ‘Camel cut’ to the trailing edge of the rear wheelarch

Plywood loadspace storage, fabricated in-house by Special Vehicles

The car is littered with evocative period details

All this background led to his first early car, a Caracal Black example, found around the back of a farm in 2019 for just £600. Incredibly, a set of tyres and a brake light switch was all it needed to get an MoT pass, 30,000 miles ago now. “That was my first early G-reg Disco, so I thought I’d join the then-newly formed Project Jay club,” enthuses Jon. Apart from simply learning about them, the secondary benefit was that when someone had a G-WAC car for sale, he suddenly had access to those revered and sought-after cars.

Sun visor signed by many Camel ‘names’ is an enthusiast’s delight

“I got my first G-WAC through Mark Harrow, of early Discovery specialist Blackheale 4x4, known restorer of early models. I actually tried to purchase G611 WAC first, but unfortunately nothing came of that; afterwards, I sent an email about the car we’re standing next to as we chat, G563WAC,” explains Jon. “It was advertised as a red G-WAC, but Roy Preston believed it was one of the Camel training hacks, most likely one of the cars they simply oversprayed in the distinctive Sandglow yellow. But the reg didn’t match up with the launch cars, and it turned out it was a genuine production line-built Camel. Putting all the details together, I went up and did the deal. That was my first Camel G-WAC.” After Camel training duties, Land Rover sold it in 1992, and it was apparently used on the road until 2002. Jon took it on as a total project, viewing the car sat on a ramp, stripped, covered in boxes of the removed parts. “I’ve been gathering more parts since, and began the restoration last year,” reveals Jon.

Map light and winch socket would have been used in anger

Electronic aids, 1990s-style. Rally Terratrip tripmeter

​​​​​​​​​​​​“I want the Camel period correct, so I’ve found new-old-stock Michelin XCL 700x16 tyres to go on it, rear helper springs and a fuel tank guard,” he says. Faithful reproductions of the winch tray, bull bar and rear light guards have been commissioned in a bid for perfection. The rear light guards were particularly elusive – a 1990-only part – Jon had to copy them from a set on the same-year Camel that’s displayed in the British Motor Museum. G563 was built in the same batch as the 1990 event cars, but that – and its twin, G562WAC – were taken out of the run and built without a roll cage or roof rack, then used for training at Eastnor on Roger Crathorne’s fleet from 1990 to 1992. Jon aims to get it on the road for this summer, a goal that he looks likely to achieve.

Jon’s Camel restoration is well underway, and looking great

That wasn’t all. “The seller mentioned that as well as G563, he had another Camel, which is how I ended up with K461 BAC. It was covered in an inch of pigeon poop, but I came back from Leeds with a G-WAC Camel project, a working Camel, and another donor car that came with the deal,” explains Jon. The immaculate K-reg five-door saw action on the ’93 Sabah-Malaysia event as a management support car, then went to the training fleet, replacing the three-door Camel training cars as those got sold off.

The interior is refreshing, stylish and practical – even now

​​​​​​The dream, though, was always to obtain a launch car and in summer 2021, a Project Jay club lead brought G490 WAC. Wearing engine number 14, and Specially Designated Vehicle (SDV) number five, it is the earliest launch car with the lowest surviving VIN number from the launch, no less.

G490 WAC shows the typical outer skin bubbling. A tricky issue to repair properly

Having been off the road for 12 years it was very rough, admits Jon. With the Masters fleet already at three Discos, a full restoration wasn’t going to be feasible just yet. Instead, Jon went for the ‘don’t get it right, just get it running’ approach, replacing front to back brake lines, hoses, calipers, discs and pads. “The rear quarter panels had been cut out to repair the sills, so I had to graft new panels on,” says Jon. The interior was totally stripped out, with half the wiring loom gone. “Luckily, all those parts and more came with it, including interior trim with the pre-production seats,” reveals Jon, who is obviously not afraid to get on the spanners.

How many enthusiasts grew up here? Airy cabin is still a gem of design

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​​​​​​Whilst freely admitting he’s no expert, he’s happy taking most things apart. “Most of the mechanical stuff like axles and engines I’m okay with, but welding and things like that I’ve had help to learn,” Jon points out. He reports the early Discoverys as relatively easy to work on. “Once you strip them back, they are a basic vehicle,” he says.

 

Early car problems

A dab hand at picking up and getting these cars on the road, Jon advises of the common restoration headaches.

Roof corrosion is a typical issue on early cars

Peeling interior trim can be hard to sort

As yet, there’s no cure for this problem

The early-type dashboard is very hard to get hold of. The interior panels have the issue of the alpine window trim sagging, and it’s very hard to find good replacements. The textured covering shrinks and curls off the panels with, as Jon reports, no successful way of curing that as yet. Body-wise, the steel inner shell corrodes and needs repair, but due to the age, that corrosion also spreads to areas like around the alpine lights and windscreen. Such rot spots can be repaired, but expect these jobs to be fairly involved.


Discovery: a new era

The Discovery heralded a new, marketing-led era for Land Rover, opening up the idea of a 4x4 to so many who wouldn’t have considered one previously. Supremely practical, they became the go-to family car, reflected in the sales figures. Their downfall was that because they were so useable, partly due to the economical Tdi diesel engine, that cars were used and abused and literally run into the ground. Drivetrains lived on, transplanted into Ninetys, One Tens or Series Land Rovers as conversions, but not the original cars that encased them. Today, despite huge sales, early Discoverys are rare beasts.

GA chassis number backs up this Disco’s early production

“I think the early three-door cars and the G-plate cars are already on the rise as a true classic. Seriously special cars, like the Camels or launch cars, with a bit of history, even more so,” says Jon. People like Roy Preston have had a huge influence in educating people as to the history and importance of early cars and what makes them so special.

Jon enjoying the fruits of his labours

Driving one today brings back everything that made them stand out in those early days. Land Rover’s insightful market research, garnered from a 20-fold increase in spending in that area, led it to identify and then create the lifestyle 4x4. The purity and honest execution of Solihull’s original Project Jay brought many people into Land Rovers who would have never considered one before. As Land Rover Commercial Director Chris Woodwark said at the launch, “Discovery is a vehicle that was designed for the market once we establish what that market is.” The company simply made the Land Rover people wanted, and made it simply. That’s precisely why enthusiasts like Jon (and myself) grew up with them as family cars and have remained fans, and there’s a growing number rediscovering just how great they are as enthusiast cars. The Discovery’s following is flourishing and for good reason; you’ll struggle to find a more useable classic. If you want a slice of the pie, now is the time to act, because these fantastic cars are only going one way – up.

 

High flyer

LRM sub-editor, Brett Fraser, recounts his hair-raising experience behind the wheel of a press-fleet Discovery

Airborne. That was my task on Car magazine’s first group test of the Discovery. Send the Land Rover skywards with clear air beneath the tyres – no Photoshop to create the effect back then.

Our photographer knew just the right location to get the job done: an army exercise area in Wales. He had permission, right? His mumbled response was carried away by the wind. Still, the tough-looking Gurkhas on the road in didn’t bar our path and we found what we wanted – a long, straight stretch of tarmac on top of a ridge with a biggish bump at one end to launch the car off.

The first run was at 50mph; the Disco barely shrugged as it went over the bump. Same for 55mph. At 60mph the body jerked a bit but the tyres remained planted; 65mph and it felt like the wheel travel was at full stretch, yet still we weren’t flying. A longer run-up got us to 70mph and at last a little jump, but not enough of one.

Big commitment time – 75mph. It felt like more. And a teency bit scary. But finally, and without the assistance of Red Bull, the Discovery had wings.

As I raced along the ridge for another attempt, below in the valley I was startled to see a big army helicopter. Rather more alarming was to spot it through the sunroof overhead, right before it thumped down into the bracken beside me.

It disgorged a troop of heavily armed squaddies who within seconds vanished into the undergrowth, seemingly oblivious to the presence of what was to become a British automotive icon. Even so, we reckoned it was a sign we were pushing our luck.

Oh, and by the way, the Discovery won the group test, beating a Toyota Land Cruiser, Mitsubishi Shogun and, most tellingly, a Range Rover.

 

Thanks to...

Sharing enthusiasm is what makes owning the cars worthwhile, so Jon would like to thank fellow early Discovery fans Mark Harrow of Blackheale 4x4, Tim Lavercome, Dion Johns and G-WAC devotee Roy Preston for their help and encouragement, and Jake Nelson for fabricating the obsolete parts

 

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