- Photo: George

Dreading Another Disco Inferno

Come with me on a journey of British car ownership

38w ago

Today, while driving down a lovely dirt road, I had the following thought: "I am a massive idiot for taking an old British car known for being unreliable into the middle of nowhere. I am just asking for trouble..."

Now, this is not an unusual thought and I have thought this in in far more remote places, a lot further from home than the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas. The feeling is always appreciation of my 2001 Land Rover Discovery for being remarkably reliable, but also dread knowing at some point it is going to leave one of these trips on the back of a flatbed, or worse.

I was a somewhat primed for dread as the previous evening I'd had a little scare. While driving up a very, very steep hill in 4-Low my brake light started flashing. Having never seen that before I was, understandably, alarmed. Once finishing the summit I checked and noticed my brake fluid was indeed a little low but, thankfully, not below minimum. I'm guessing the low-ish level paired with heavy use of traction control on a very steep, bouncy ascent was enough to bounce the float and alert me to a less than ideal brake fluid level. Thankfully I didn't have any problems on the rest of the drive and refilled the fluid when we got back to the cabin. At this time I don't suspect a leak as I honestly can't remember the last time I'd added brake fluid so the level drop might be attributed to pad wear, but I will certainly keep an eye on it.

All that is to say: About ten minutes after my most recent bout of existential dread, something not at all surprising happened. As we turned back on to a paved road and the Disco began to gain speed, I started to get a strong smell of coolant in the cabin.

For those unfamiliar, the Land Rover Discovery is known for overheating and blowing head gaskets. In its 120,000 miles, my Discovery has had at least two head gasket replacements, one at 55k, before my ownership, and another at 110k, shortly after I'd bought it. I've made some of the recommended modifications to the cooling system which, hopefully, should prevent the need for another replacement at 165k, or whatever, but who can say.

With the smell of coolant filling the cabin, I immediately checked my vitals. Glancing down at the aftermarket OBDII gauge, which is a must for any vehicle with a software smoothed temperature gauge, it read 201.4F. Normal. I looked out the rear and didn't see any smoke, steam, or other cause for alarm. Not taking any chances I cranked the automatic climate control from 68F to 78F. Though this would help only a little with any overheating, the primary purpose was to confirm there was enough coolant in the cooling system to run the heater. The one time I overheated my Discovery it was due to lack of coolant and my primary indication something was amiss was the heater stopped working.

After turning up the heat, I was devastated to feel cold air coming out of the vents.

This was it! The other shoe was about to drop!

I slowed down and radioed to my road trip colleagues that we needed to pull over. As the vehicle's temperature gauge and the OBDII gauge both still read normal, I signaled it as a non-emergency, but internally I was sweating bullets.

Before we'd managed to find a good place to pull over, the 1st generation Toyota Tacoma that had been driving in front of me since we'd hit pavement turned off the road.

Not immediately, but gradually the smell of coolant receded and I began to breathe easier. As we pulled over and I popped the hood, I was treated to the wonder sight of a dusty but otherwise dry Rover V8 with a coolant reservoir full and circulating normally.

The Tacoma was burning coolant.

My Rover was fine.

Someday the other shoe will drop, but today was not that day.

Photo: Taylor

Photo: Taylor

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Comments (6)

  • I've got a Gen I Disco (well, two, actually) which loves to overheat-- did you shave the heads every time you replaced head gaskets? they have a reputation (perhaps unearned) for warping heads, so was curious if you had them milled-and-cleaned-up when doing gaskets?

      8 months ago
    • The first job was done at a Land Rover dealership years prior to my owning the car, it just appears on the Carfax, so no data on that. When I did the heads I was running short on time and ended up buying remanufactured heads from a reputable...

      Read more
        8 months ago
    • Thanks! It's funny that the Buick 215 remained so "beloved" over all those years-- despite having such inherent design flaws. It's actually hard to figure. Given how bullet-proof that Buick V6 design that came from that era ended up being? ...

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        8 months ago
  • I've had a similar experience while racing smelling fuel. Of course usually the time between "hey I smell fuel" is perilously short to the time you say, "hey why are my tennis shoes melting" so about the point that I am looking to come into the pits I usually realize the guy ahead of me has his fuel call overflow dumping.

    Ain't it great to realize the bell is not tolling for you?!!

      8 months ago