Rolls-Royce's very first V8 engine was placed in a car whose sole purpose was to keep you from speeding. It was actually the first time a V8 had ever been designed for a passenger car. And, another version of this car was meant to compete with electric cars. Pretty much everything about these ideas seem nuts, but this was way back in 1905 when everything was nuts, anyway.
Rolls-Royce isn't really known for having flops. They're more known for an unceasing drive for perfection, regardless of the cost, and as a result they end up producing cars so refined and exquisite that they become boring. A beautiful, well-crafted Rolls isn't really interesting anymore, but one built on a crazy idea and failed miserably certainly is. And, so, lovely readers, meet the Rolls-Royce Legallimit.
Before Rolls-Royce had their own firmly-entrenched core market of fabulously wealthy landed gentry, titled royalty, and lotto winners with solid-gold toilets, they had to compete just like everyone else for their filthy money. And they noticed that a lot of their potential wealthy clientele were choosing refined, quiet electric town cars.
So, they decided that they needed to compete with these battery-powered blue-blood haulers by making two cars: one that had an "invisible" engine and would be as quiet as an electric car, and one that was designed to never exceed the then speed limit of 20 mph. And, most remarkably, they decided that the best way to get a quiet and slow result was to use a V8 engine, a conclusion which has never been arrived at again in the history of motoring.
The V8 itself was pretty remarkable for the time, as the idea of a V8 at all was only barely known. In fact, listen to this description in a contemporary issue of The Auto: The Motorist's Pictorial:
... the engines are but little longer than an ordinary four-cylinder engine, they require less head room, and they materially exceed the usual dimensions in point of width only, because the cylinders are fixed diagonally — four on each side — to the crank-chamber, all sloping outwards at 45 degrees to the vertical.
That sure sounds like how you'd describe a V8 engine to someone who's never even thought of one before.
In the case of the "invisible" engine car, that strange new V8 was mounted under the floor of the unusual body, hidden in a louvered box lest anyone learn the filthy secret of those eight explosion chambers clandestinely hauling your smooth, privileged ass around town. I'm pretty skeptical it was as quiet as an electric motor or that anyone was fooled, and the sales numbers of exactly zero cars sold seem to suggest I'm not alone.
The Legallimit was literally infinitely more successful, with total sales of one. To account for the dramatic disparity in sales may be the somewhat more conventional phaeton body type, with the engine under a shockingly low but conventionally-placed hood. The car actually has a certain low-slung sporting look about it that is completely contrary to its actual goal: keeping you from speeding.
The Legallimit's transmission was governed for three speeds: 8, 13.5, and 21.5 MPH, which was close enough to the speed limit of 20 MPH that I suppose no one noticed, radar being a good 30 years away. If you (and by you I mean the one guy who bought the car, Sir Alfred Harmsworth) were feeling really daring, you could shift to a higher governor setting and blow your pince-néz off at a blistering 26 MPH.
These Rolls-Royces also have the distinction of being the only Rolls-Royce models for which no examples exist. A total of three Legallimits were built, and at least one "invisible engine" model, so that's four that I bet you'll be able to find in a barn somewhere in England no problem. Just send us some pictures when you do.