If you’ve been to any trailhead parking lot in the last few years, you know what it’s like to squeeze your car in between an Outback and 4Runner before shuffling along with 2,000 of your best friends along the trail. While I’m all for more people getting out and enjoying the outdoors (responsibly), the main reason I love getting outside is the solitude it provides.
I spend all day staring at a computer that pings incessantly with emails, my phone has constant notifications, and even just walking around town I’m inundated with noise. Being in nature is a break from all this, from all the people, and all the noise. But it’s hard to really enjoy it when the din of conversation follows you and the beauty of the sun peeking up over the mountain is interrupted by the conga line of people clammering up the side of it.
While this makes me sound like a curmudgeon, all I’m really trying to say is that I have a strong desire to go further. Because the further I go, the more I disconnect with ‘reality’ and the more I can connect with nature.
So what are the options for getting further away? Let’s start with an easy one and use our feet. While hiking is fun, you’ll still be hiking alongside everyone else for awhile. Biking could also work, but once we start talking 12,000 foot mountain passes things get a little…well…tough. I love mountain biking, but for the sake of this thought exercise, let’s think speed. That leaves us with a motor powered vehicle. While a dirt bike is the next obvious choice, my mother would not be pleased if I got a motorcycle (still want one though, sorry Mom). Looking at cars, my daily driver is a Mazda 6 sedan and the other option in the garage is a 1989 3-series convertible. Neither of these vehicles are designed for or are highly capable off-road, which is a requirement for getting farther away from civilization.
The only option then, is a truck. But it can’t just be any truck. Don’t get me wrong, 4Runners and Tacomas and Xterras and all those other top-of-the-list choices are fine options, but they don’t really stir the soul. I don’t want to drive something that I see 23 of when I walk to get my mail. I like vehicles with a little bit of character, even if that means they’re a pain in the ass to own.
If you haven’t ever heard of the Camel Trophy, let me introduce you. The Camel Trophy was held annually from 1980 to 2000 and was a vehicle oriented competition. In its first year Jeeps were used, but none of them managed to finish. This was no fault of the Jeeps necessarily, but the following year Land Rover took over and was the sole vehicle provider for the next 20 years. Throughout that time they used the Range Rover, the Defender, and at the end, the Discovery.
While these Land Rovers were modified, they weren’t nearly as worked up as half the rigs you see stuck in traffic on I-70. They had upgraded suspension, some safety equipment, and various supplies, but for the most part they weren’t really that crazy. The suspension upgrades were heavier duty springs, a bull bar and winch were added for getting out of tough situations, and a roll cage was welded in (they would roll these things on the regular) among other things. But nowhere did you see 4” lift kits and massive tires with roof top tents killing their COG or knitted canvas trash bags hanging off the spare tire – they were running 16” steelies and used tents on the ground every night! Not to mention they loaded these trucks up like a hoarders bathroom and still managed to make it through deep muddy ruts and up rocky terrain.
Watch this video and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Those sandglow yellow Land Rovers are iconic and meant my late night craigslist searches were predominantly started with ‘Land Rover’.
While I like the Range Rovers, they don’t feel as rugged as the other options. The Defender would have been my first choice, but thanks to being quite rare in the states they command a premium and can be upwards of $20k for a well sorted version. That leaves the Discovery. While I’ll admit I was initially unaware of the Disco as a potential option, some initial for sale listings changed my mind completely. They’re rugged on the outside and luxurious on the inside, with alpine windows and a two-tiered roofline. I used to think they were going to be the expensive ones so I never bothered to look them up, instead only looking longingly at pictures of those Trophy rigs. Luckily, thanks to classic English reliability and the depreciation of luxury cars, they are not! Not so lucky for my wallet, they still aren’t free.
Doing Some Research
In the research phase of finding a Discovery, which also consisted of only reading online content that reinforced my decision, I read that you shouldn’t buy the first one you see. Did that mean the first listing you see, or the first one you see in person? I wasn’t so sure, so this advice got relegated to the back pocket.
I also read about all the issues that are know for the Disco. The main one being the head gasket, which if you know anything about cars (or are a Subaru owner), you know a healthy headgasket is an important thing. If they decide to go, coolant leaks everywhere and the engine overheats. On most cars you can just pour in some coolant and keep ‘er rolling. In these older Land Rovers, the engine are made of aluminum and are a GM design from the late 1960s. In high heat situations, aluminum deforms. So, if the headgasket goes and the engine overheats, it’s time for a heart transplant since that engines crooked smile will never be fixed again.
The goal then would be to find a Discovery that hadn’t overheated and was treated with care. They are very capable vehicles, but they’re also Stage 5 Clingers and need a lot of love.
Along with the head gaskets, here are some other fun issues I read about –
- The front drive shaft will probably fail if it’s the original. When it does, there’s a 99% chance it will punch a hole in the transmission.
- The Crank Position Sensor is known to crap out with no warning and even while the truck is running. The thing just goes ka-poot and won’t start until you swap it out.
- It has dual sunroofs (bougie, I know) and they are notorious for leaking. Most long term owners just seal them shut.
- There is a common fault with the ABS modulator shuttle valves that triggers the ABS, TC, and HDC lights on the dashboard. This fault is so common it has lovingly received the nickname ‘the Three Amigos’. When it happens, all three systems are inoperable until fixed.
All this makes buying a Land Rover Discovery a great idea, right?
These faults might seem daunting, but they are all very well documented and quite easy to fix. A Land Rover isn’t for everyone, but if you have a little bit of mechanical know how and a space to work on a vehicle, a Discovery is a solid option.
Finding a Land Rover Discovery of My Own
Now knowing what I wanted to find, the hunt for a Discovery of my own began in July of 2018. And like all thought out purchases, it started with Craigslist.
At any given time there are a number of Land Rover Discoverys on craigslist with a variety of price points. It’s important then to consider what the seller is saying about each one. If the listing is short and to the point, it’s probably a good idea to pass on it as the owner may not necessarily know much about the truck or those issues I’ve mentioned above. Like I said, it’s best owned by someone with a little mechanical know how and a good portion of sellers are just trying to dump a vehicle they have no idea how to fix.
For those that do know and appreciate the Discovery, their listing will have a bit more information. What we’re looking for here is a mention of service, recent and historic, to get an idea of how well maintained it was. Also, photos. Dark and grainy photos are no good here.
With that, the first Discovery I found was a beautiful dark green and seemed to be in great shape. In the listing it mentioned the head gaskets were recently replaced and it had decent mileage (around 150k if I’m remembering right). The price was solid, so I sat on it for a few days to think about it. Those few days passed, and the truck was unfortunately gone. Interestingly, the truck seemed to pop back up on Craigslist a month or so later from a different seller. Must have been a lemon.
The search continued on and a few weeks later another Discovery was listed. The mileage on this one was a little lower (a hair under 120k), but there was no mention of head gaskets. That was slightly concerning, but it did have a recent water pump service along with some new plugs and wires, so that was promising. It was also in Land Rovers’ Oslo Blue, a dark glossy blue that I find to be one of the better colors available.
I decided to reach out to the owners and the process of scoring a Discovery began.
Purchasing My First Land Rover
After talking to the owner, it seemed that this particular Land Rover was a popular one and he was taking appointments to come see it in person. Luckily it was the weekend so it would be easy to make that happen and I tried to set it up so that I was the first person in line. I’m in Denver and as I started asking about the truck and scheduling a time to see it, I learned that it was located in Dillon, which is about an hour and a half away. So, while I was fully expecting to be able to quickly pop over and check it out, this was not the case.
I then enlisted Rick to help out on this adventure. In the case I purchased it, I would need him to drive it back to town. We headed out in the late afternoon, just as dark storm clouds began rolling in.
On the drive out to Dillon on I-70 we experienced torrential downpours. If the weather was any sort of omen, this was going to be a massive failure. Visibility was terrible, the roads had turned into a river, and while this weather was bad enough for even being outside it would be even worse for checking out a potential vehicle purchase.
We eventually made it though and the skies had broken over Dillon. Pulling up to the house we got the first glimpse of the Rover and I must admit it wasn’t necessarily love at first sight. I suppose my expectations for an off-road vehicle were a little higher than they should have been, but it just seemed a little dirty and unkempt. We forged on though and got the full tour.
This Discovery had been purchased new by the family and has been in their care since. During their ownership, they had even moved to France for a few years and had the truck shipped over to join them. Upon returning to the states the Land Rover was handed down to their two children and it’s legacy continued on in their family. So, it has solid provenance, I just needed to make sure it had solid mechanical fortitude.
Looking past the unwashed exterior and unvacuumed interior, the bones of the truck seemed to be in good shape. It fired right up and idled smoothly, though the 3 Amigos were present on the dash. As I said before though, it’s an easy fix.
Talking through some recent service history and what the family used the Rover for the last few years I made an offer under asking price. We had a brief moment of negotiation and in the span of about 15 minutes I had decided to take this one home with me.
I signed some papers, received the title and keys, then Rick and I headed off.
Rick was driving it, so he was stuck with figuring out how it all worked and how to turn the headlights on. A few minutes down the road he called me and let me know the dashboard was lit up like a Christmas tree. I told him not to worry – it’s just being a Land Rover.
Later that night we got back to Denver, I dropped Rick off, and I had my first real moment behind the wheel. The lumpy V8 is not a powerful engine, but it’s a much different feeling than the Mazda I usually drive. The seating position in a Land Rover is phenomenal and I have never sat that high up in a vehicle before. The lights were glowing back at me, too, but I figured I would fix that eventually.
Eventually I finally got home and parked the Discovery in front of my apartment complex. Walking inside I turned back one last time for a final look, seeing its boxy shadow in the dark. It would actually be a few weeks before I decided that this in fact was a good idea, but in that moment it slowly started to dawn on me that this Land Rover was now my responsibility. Well, it and the 3 Amigos that came along with it.