Twenty-four years ago, the Discovery was launched in North America as the great family adventure vehicle. Besides being one of the few SUVs at the time to seat seven, the Disco was marketed as a vehicle that could take your entire family anywhere and do anything. Since then, Land Rover vehicles have advanced to new technological and luxurious heights, and the Discovery I has fallen off the road and become a bit of a rarity, as older vehicles tend to do over time.
As I still believe in these vehicles as some of the best all-around Land Rovers ever made, I took it upon myself to prove that the original Disco still had the chops for exploring almost a quarter of a century later. The method? That greatest of American concepts, the cross-country road trip.
Three years ago, I bought a 1994 Discovery I, Coniston Green and wholly identical to the truck my mother bought that year that got me into Land Rovers. It was a bit of a basket case, and I’ve spent hundreds of hours rebuilding it, from the suspension to engine work to upgrades. Having achieved the main part of this milestone (the project will never actually be done), I decided I needed a proper shakedown trip to celebrate the achievement.
I’m a member of the mendo_recce email list, a group of Land Rover owners based mostly in Northern California who have been hosting an extremely informal event in the Mendocino National Forest annually since 1995. Last year, I flew out to the event for the first time and decided that it was solidly on my annual dance card of Land Rover events. This year I decided to up the ante, and make the drive clear across the country to take my own truck to the event.
The major preparation was about four months to complete the final major looming tasks of the rebuild project. I replaced my whining transfer case, replaced my rusted-out exhaust (thanks, Jersey!) with a new stainless Magnaflow unit, replaced my transmission cooler lines, and upgraded to heavy-duty Terrafirma steering rods with a Defender-style steering stabilizer relocation kit. It was a very intense few months, but it paid off as I had relatively few issues on the road – nothing unreasonable for a 24-year-old former project truck that hit 160,000 miles when I got home. What I did need along the way was available from Atlantic British, shipped to friends’ houses along the road.
I left on Saturday morning, and the first goal was Denver to see my godfather. I decided that I would just drive until I was tired and see where things stood then. I left my house in New Jersey at 6:00 AM, and the miles quickly racked up without me really noticing. Finally, close to midnight, I found myself suddenly at the Mississippi River in Moline, Illinois, 925 miles from home. I decided that that was a respectable and symbolic milestone for the day and grabbed a hotel. The next day, I made it to Denver, with a few hours on the way visiting a Rover friend in Omaha. The following morning, I spent a few hours at breakfast with my godfather, and then made tracks for Moab across I-70.
I’d secured a permit to drive and camp on the famous White Rim Road in Canyonlands National Park, considered one of the longest and most scenic off-road trails in the United States. I spent two days on the trail, which is almost a hundred miles end to end. It is a truly spectacular experience, winding through all of the nooks and crannies of the park’s Island in the Sky district. While pavement-bound tourists can only view these places from above, those driving in the backcountry can experience them up close and personal; you are part of the landscape, rather than simply viewing it. It is an experience that, more than any other, taught me the value of a four-wheel-drive vehicle for exploring. I really fell in love with the scenery in Moab, and I hope to go back in the next few years to explore more.
From there, I checked an item off of my bucket list by driving US-50 across Nevada, the “Loneliest Road in America” as declared by Life magazine in 1986. I spent most of a day traversing the state, and just as promised, there were long stretches where I didn’t see another car for a long time. The tourism boom from the Life article means the road isn’t quite as lonely as it used to be, but there was still an edge to the experience, a feeling of a sort of impending, creeping isolation at times. You have to cross several mountain ranges on the route, and as you come off one you can see the next one ahead. Often I would try to keep track of how many miles away the ranges were, checking the odometer as I came off one and seeing how far away the end of the visible road was once I got there fifteen minutes or so later. Often the vanishing point was so far away that I forgot that I was doing this by the next ascent.
I visited Lake Tahoe for a day, seeing a friend and doing some hiking around the shoreline, and then it was off to the Mendo event. This group has become a bit of an extended family to me, and some of my friends out there are as close as my Land Rover friends back east. Since the entire trip was built around this weekend, I have to say that arriving at the campground and seeing everyone greet me was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had with these vehicles, and brought the scope of the adventure to a tee. About 75 of us spent the weekend catching up, enjoying one of the most epic potlucks you will ever see at a Land Rover event, and exploring the forest, one of the more beautiful and remote corners of California.
From there, I spent a few days driving up the California coast with a few friends in our Land Rovers, taking in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, the redwoods, and the “Lost Coast” area. I’d only ever seen the California coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco, so this new terrain was interesting to compare. It was a few fun days of winging it and pointing at an atlas and saying “let’s go there and see what it looks like!”
I visited friends in Medford, Oregon for the night, and then headed across eastern Oregon and the Owyhee Desert to the Alvord Desert. This is more a dried-up lake bed that has characteristics that qualify it as a small desert. The playa is completely flat and smooth, and you can drive on the entire thing. It was a pretty cool experience to drive at highway speed over an empty, vast expanse, taking pictures and videos with my phone because there was absolutely nobody and nothing to hit for miles. I spent the night at the Alvord Hot Springs, and took in a sky full of stars from the soaking pools.
Next, I drove across Idaho, visited Craters of the Moon National Monument, and spent a night in Jackson Hole before driving through Grand Teton National Park. From there, it was time to head home. It took me from Thursday afternoon to Monday afternoon to get home, with some stops along the way.
Over the course of the entire trip, the Discovery handled pretty flawlessly. I did just over 7,000 miles in 17 days, and I’d still been reassembling the vehicle a few days before I left. Even all these years after its introduction, it is still a supremely comfortable all-around vehicle, as comfortable going 80 m.p.h. on the highway as it is driving off-road for 100 miles in low range. It transitions immediately between these modes, and it’s loaded with storage cubbies and pockets that make it easy to set it up for a long roadtrip. It’s quiet, refined, and comfortable, and I could spend the trip listening to the stereo at a moderate volume (or a louder one, when called for) while the coil sprung suspension soaked up the road.
An adventure like this in a Discovery I isn’t as easy as it was in the 1990s, and it’s indisputable that these trucks could be considered “old” now; the oldest ones qualify or almost qualify for historic registrations in many states. However, they were well-built, comfortable vehicles. They have features that are still ahead of many 4x4s of their era or later. The LT230 transfer case is never in a two-wheel-drive mode, unlike most systems. The chassis is fully boxed from end to end, something usually only seen on heavy-duty trucks. The suspension is immensely flexible, and the often-derided Rover V8 engine is an auditory delight on acceleration. The windows and dual sunroofs (if fitted) let you take in the most stunning vistas from every angle.
They do require repair support, but Atlantic British has most parts available that you could need to keep them on the road for years to come. They are showing very early signs of rising in value like the Range Rover Classic did a few years ago, and now is the time to get a good example of this fantastic adventure machine while they’re cheap. I wouldn’t hesitate to drive mine back to California right now.
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