Technical

Building an ISG Rig 3: Land Rover Discovery II Roverhaul

The Land Rover Discovery II was a vampire of the car world, notoriously sucking owners dry with repair bills. They also had some superhuman capability off road.

April 23, 2020
By:
Aaron

Introduction

Perhaps no 4x4 is as hated (irrationally) or loved (unconditionally) as the Land Rover Discovery II.

When it came time to find a hell-for-stout, durable, rugged and capable 4x4 project for ISG to rebuild as a project ...we built a Land Cruiser.

However, over the last year, several of our Land Rover afficianados have clued us in to just how capable the Discovery II series is off road, which got us thinking.

The Landy is an unfortunate vehicle in some respects. The Discovery II in particular was the victim of sloppy machining due to the Land Rover corporation being sold, some poor quality control with the 4.6 liter V8 power plant, and an intensive maintenance and service schedule that, if neglected, led to some colossal failures. More on that in a moment, but given all this, it's reasonable to ask "why would you want to spend time and money on that?"

Well, let's start from the beginning.

It doesn't take long to find that any search for "Land Cruiser" in Facebook marketplace or Craigslist yields a plethora of Rovers as well. That means if you're looking at a Cruiser for $7500 that's going to need to be totally rebuilt, you're also probably seeing lots of Discovery II's in the same condition... for $750. That makes them a reasonably low risk option if you're just looking to tool around.

Expedition Journal wrote "make no mistake, Land Rover ownership is first and foremost an emotional decision" because "Anyone with a penchant for practicality should not bother reading on, and return to the Land Cruiser pages".

After a few months of driving and laboring, we are here to tell you... Land Rover ownership most certainly is an emotional decision... but not always in a bad way.

You can't hurry Love

Really, a very comfortable, enjoyable, and utilitarian cockpit. It still feels luxurious, even though it's certainly well used.

When we first came across the Black Discovery II, it was listed on Seattle Craigslist for $1500. After some negotiating, we took it home for $1340, out the door, with taxes and all. After having it looked at, and asking for the opinion of one of our mechanically savvy Washingtonians, the opinion that came back was:

"Dude, snatch it up before someone else does. This thing is NICE."

A sentiment which obviously kicked the anticipation into high gear. While it'd be a month before we got it to the shop in Montana, we took that time to start assembling some of the common failure parts on the Discovery II. The Disco was notoriously unreliable; owners complained about the high cost of repair and maintenance, and the common problems with cooling systems, non-serviceable driveshafts (which put the sealed shaft right next to the heat-generating catalytic converter) and the prevalence of electrical gremlins, like the notorious "3 Amigos".

After a thousand mile journey over the mountain passes of the Pacific and inland Northwest, the the Rover was at last home, and the second opinion was the same as the first... this thing is nice.


What is it exactly?

Pawing around the cockpit of the Discovery II, there is just *something* about it. The seats sit high, and you have a commanding view of your surroundings. The layout is refined, civilized, and betrays the subtle capability of the stock Discovery II. On its stock tires, it looks small for its size, or like a big Subaru or something... it looks like a granny's grocery getter. Unassuming and unimpressive, easily dismissed. But behind the wheel, you instantly feel welcome, comfortable, and in control. Driving the Land Rover is a treat. The engine isn't powerful compared to more modern vehicles, but it's sufficient; made to provide low end torque for bypassing obstacles, it won't set any speed records. It cruises nicely at freeway speed, with easy, true steering and responsive controls.

You can't help but feel at ease. Coming from Land Cruisers almost 10 years the Rover's senior, the contrast is obvious. Where the interior of the Cruiser is Spartan, dull gray, and uninspiring, the Rover has an aesthetic and contrast that draws the driver in. The combination of leather seats and upholstery, and the contrasting colors make the Rover easy on the eyes as well as a pleasure to drive. The controls take some getting used to, with the window controls situated in the middle console, but the more you explore, the more the Rover seems set up for more than just driving. The center console folds rearward, supplying the middle seat with a cup holder and small table. There are ample cupholders up front, and if you drive an 80 series, you'll appreciate how big this small deal really is.

The gauges are easy to see, and the controls quickly become intuitive.

It's hard to say one thing defines the experience of driving the Land Rover, but its clever refinement and emphasis on comfort turn driving from a chore to a really enjoyable experience... until things start going wrong.

99 Problems and a Glitch ain't 1... Oh, wait...

The "Option B" Bypass. Fixes the weak link without compromising the system.

The 1st Generation Land Rover Discovery series consisted of the Discovery I (1989-1998, 4.0L petrol in the US), and the Discovery II (1998-2004, 4.0L and 4.6L petrol in the US). The Discovery I was geared more towards off-roading, where the Discovery II was renovated to give a slightly bigger, more comfortable SUV, while still retaining much of the off-road capability. Similar to the FJ80 and FZJ80, the later Discovery's featured a larger, more powerful engine. The Discovery I and II had separate problems, as well. Often conflated, the Discovery I had Lucas electrical systems, which were, for lack of a better term, biodegradable.

The Discovery II, tooled by BMW using Bosch components, had a more stable electrical system, but quality control began to suffer late in production, as BMW sold the Land Rover brand to Ford Motors. A series of fumbles on behalf of Land Rover tarnished the Discovery II as a off-roader; they removed the Center Differential Lock linkage (but left the Center Diff lock!) in the late 98-2003 models, bringing it back for the final year in 2004. The 2003 suffered catastrophic oil pump failures, often very early on (before 60,000 miles in most cases), and the eccentric systems put in place by Land Rover meant that owners had two options:

  1. Take their Rover to an insanely over-priced dealership for repairs and maintenance, or;
  2. Take their Rovers to shops unfamiliar and unequipped to deal with them and risk poor or incomplete maintenance.

Because of this, Land Rover quickly became known for their poor quality and reliability.

In reality, they're about on par with Jeep or Dodge - which is to say the reputation is well-deserved - but like Jeep and Dodge, they tended to be used and abused more than say, a Kia. The price point, reputation, and rapidly sinking value made Land Rover a whipping post, but now, it's exactly that reputation that's made them interesting.

Not only have the "trouble spots" been identified over the last 20 years, but there are plenty of products and tutorials available to help a novice mechanic fix them - and fix them right.

Some of the Common (easy to solve) Problems

Anyone who's had a Discovery II series Land Rover is familiar with "The Three Amigos", which occurs when the ABS, Traction Control, and Downhill assist lights come on. This can be caused by anything from a faulty, or even dirty, ABS sensor, which is a cheap, easy fix, to a faulty ABS Module, which isn't cheap and could cost over a grand.

This is one of the first things people will notice when checking out a Discovery, and it's often one of the first problems encountered. Though it's generally pretty easy to fix, when the 3 Amigos are on, the staggering number of things that could cause it means it's wise to get it looked at. You could be up against brake dust or dirt built up around the sensor (which we certainly had with this one), or you could have a failing wheel bearing or ABS module gone to the dogs (not yet, knock wood). The 3 Amigos in our case came on from perhaps the most common cause; the shuttle valve fault in the ABS. A few days of research and stocking the necessary equipment, an hour of work, and the fault is gone, leaving behind the functioning traction control, downhill assist, and ABS.

Since this Rover came to us lookin' mighty in terms of the mechanical ends, we started looking at the common points of failure on these vehicles.
Here's some of the things to look for:

  1. Front Drive Shaft (or "propshaft') - These are prone to failure because they're situated near the catalytic converters, which put immense heat on them. That's fine for a while, but because they're not serviceable, the grease dries out and they tend to bust turning the driveshaft into a whirling chunk of steel pinwheeling underneath the vehicle. This can destroy anything it comes in contact with. Sadly, the Transmission is the most common victim, which means costly and extensive repairs if the propshaft goes. We went with a serviceable front propshaft from Atlantic British, which installed easily in a couple hours.
  2. Thermostat - The single most crucial thing with the Landy Discovery II is heating and cooling. This is on account of a few things; The Discovery II was produced right as the Land Rover brand was changing ownership. Ford bought them out in 2000, factories were closing, machines were getting old and neglected, and staff at the Land Rover plants were - allegedly - plagued by poor morale and low standards. During this time, the 4.0L engine was being exchanged for the Bosch 4.6L, which featured an aluminum block and heads. Aluminum is a more malleable metal at lower temperatures than steel, and when overheated, the Discovery II's tended to warp, which caused endemic head gasket failures, and worse... slipped piston sleeves. As the block heated and cooled, the liners that housed the pistons (that were made of steel) would slip from their aluminum cylinders, creating a terminal knock as the pistons moved through the cylinders without being secured by the piston sleeves.

    As they say "Prevention is the best medicine", and if your Landy has ever overheated, there's a near certainty that there is warpage in the block and/or head that will ultimately ruin the engine. Rebuilding and having the heads machined can revitalize the engine. If it hasn't overheated, a 180 degree thermostat is cheap insurance to keep it from overheating. It's a simple installation, too.
  3. Fluid Baseline - Land Rovers have historically been a status vehicle more than a show of interest in off-roading. and the historically high price of repair has made the desire to take them out and bang them up low, to say the least. Owners then, broke down into three categories: Off-road enthusiasts who were smitten with the Land Rover from the beginning, monied individuals looking for a vanity rig who simple don't do maintenance, thoughtful vehicle owners who take care of their vehicles.

    Given that the service life of the Land Rover (+/- 120,000 miles, in most cases) was so low, many people never bothered considering servicing the differentials, transmission, or doing much more than oil and coolant. Checking all those boxes is a good preventative measure to ensure that when you do get your Discovery II on the road, necessary items have been taken care of. Check those brakes, bushings, gaskets, and wiring, too. A little prevention can go a long way.
  4. Inspect the daylights out of it. A big part of the Rover's vulnerability is the cooling system, so it became a high priority to check the lines that help keep the engine cool, but there are also gaskets and hoses that are going to be coming due in the near future. Block and coolant system tests are your friend.

Now, we always believe in providing credit where it's due, and we learned a lot from 8LIFGR8 4x4 channel on YouTube. In particular, we found his "Discovery II buyer's Guide" to be one of the best, most consolidated presentations out there. Also worth watching is his "6 Years and 40,000 miles" review. While we're not quite there yet, expect that we'll detail the trials and tribulations of owning the Discovery II, and rest assured that we'll compared it with the other, similar vintage and category vehicles we've built - most specifically, the Land Cruiser FZJ80.


The End of the Head Gasket as we know it, and I feel Fine

Engine before and after. Took nicely to some spit and polish.
Head gaskets: Not typically see-through.

One of the best things about the Roverhaul project as it came to be known was that it wasn't a project under pressure. It wasn't a daily driver. It wasn't a customers. It was just a leisurely project of interest. So, when a coolant leak led to a bad water pump, and that exploratory journey led to discovering how thoroughly caked with oil the engine was, we began to suspect that the head gaskets were leaking and that it would be due for some major service. Totally fine! That's what projects are for.

So we got to pulling it apart, taking note of the things that needed to replaced until finally, we reached the head gasket.

...and sure enough, when we pulled it out it looked like Swiss cheese.

The process though, especially as compared to the FZJ80, was really not bad. Everything came apart pretty easily, with a bolt snapping off being the only minor complication.

There were a few other minor headaches, such as bolts varying between standard and metric, the utterly absurd placement of the coil packs (though, done for good reason; to keep them away from water during water crossings, if the RUMINT is true), and the careful fitment of returning the heads and seating the valley gasket, but everything was well explained by the RAVE (technical workshop manual, free for download), and the excellent videos provided by Atlantic British (I'd seriously buy Doug a beer if I met him).

Another pleasant surprise is that Rover parts aren't absurdly expensive, and they're readily available here in the U.S.

I found myself waiting often for parts during the Cruiser rebuild -though admittedly that was as much about me being green as anything - and the bills were often uncomfortable. The headgasket kit for the Rover was something in the neighborhood of $250 with the new head studs, and another $150 for the timing chain assembly. The old Buick designed Bosch V8 heads were simple to machine and much cheaper than the Cruiser, and all in the cost of repairs AND the Rover itself came in at just under $3000.

Disassembly and reassembly went well, and the project took about a month, with probably a solid 25 hours of work - again, less than half of what went in to the FZJ's renovation.

With that said, I trust the FZJ to last another 25 years without needing engine work...

The Rover?

Time will tell...

But I'm cautiously optimistic that it's going to be a comfortable, capable, and... gulp... dependable(?) ride, for years to come.

Conclusion

While the Discovery II is still a few years away from a clean bill of health, the project was fun, the vehicle itself is a pleasure to drive, and with some bigger tires, sturdy looking and capable. Off-road, all I can say is that I've been tremendously impressed with the Discovery II's I've wheeled with, and in. What they lack in a reputation for reliability, they make up for with capability and ease of repair.

If you're inclined towards mechanics, I'd say don't be afraid of the Disco II. You might even find you like working on it - though, be fairly warned: 'chasing the code' will be a big part of your life. Also, be ready to do head gaskets, which means you're going to want gallons of brake cleaner or a parts washer, and a torque wrench capable of handling both the crankshaft pulley bolt (IIRC, 205 foot pounds) and the head bolts, which are torqued 90 degrees twice, putting them up around 150 foot pounds each.

People often say the happiest two days in a Land Rover enthusiast's life are the day they get their Landy, and the day they sell it.

I think you can shorten that statement with some proper maintenance and TLC. I've found that there are few healthier outlets for me to use to stay busy than working on cars, so for me personally, it's both productive and cathartic... and it segues nicely into adventuring.

As costs soar on the 80-series Land Cruisers, there are hundreds, if not thousands of Land Rovers out there that are a head gasket job away from serviceability once again. Swap out the thermostat, the front propshaft, and change out the water pump and hose kits, baseline the fluids, and for under $5000, and I think you could have a very competitive Disco II on the trail, or even driving around town. Throw a small lift, some decent tires, and a winch on it, and you've got a hell of an off-road vehicle completely built for the entry price of a Land Cruiser that's going to need ALL the same work done to it.

The Land Rovers weren't made with the American mentality of "use it until it breaks" in mind. They aren't made to constantly be pushed to the red on the RPMs, you need to religiously swap fluids, change gaskets, and service the machine, and you will encounter failures - just like any machine.

But it can be a pretty rewarding, fun, capable, and comfortable wheeler with excellent road manners.

Cheers,

Aaron

Work Done (and costs):
Mileage: 200,353

Purchase price: $1340

Front Propshaft $160

180 degree Thermostat $80

Upper/lower radiator hose assembly $258

Fluids (oil and coolant) $75

Right rear bumper trim $40

Blower motor resistor $115

Water pump $75

Head Gasket kit $245 (Elring brand HGs) (with valley gasket, intake gaskets, throttle body, etc)

Tensioner Pulley $88

Front main seal $15

Head machining @ internal combustion machine $150

Timing chain kit w oil pan gasket $138

Engine oil, spark plugs and fuel system cleaner $110

Transmission Service: $75

Refurbished Oil Pump

Cleaned All parts in Parts washer (oil pan, water pump, timing chain cover, intake plenum)

Gasket scraping, polishing heads and block (by hand, no grinders or dremels)

Total (3/28/2020) $2964 +/-

The work took almost a month to the day, with probably 25-30 hours invested.

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