Liz Carmichael and the econo-car con of the 1970s

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HBO

Liz Carmichael is having a moment. Again.

Glib, charismatic and larger than life, Carmichael enjoyed her first 15 minutes of fame during the fuel crisis of 1974. At the time, she was billing herself as a maverick who planned to “rule the auto industry like a queen” by selling a low-cost, high-efficiency three-wheeled vehicle—the Dale—described in promotional literature as “the most exciting new car of this century” and “dollar for dollar, the best car ever!”

You didn’t have to be a professional fact-checker to realize that this was too good to be true. Sure enough, within a year, Carmichael was indicted after authorities discovered that the Dale was a multi-million-dollar scam and that Liz was a transgender con woman, born Jerry Dean Michael, who’d been a fugitive from federal counterfeiting charges for more than a decade. Wearing high heels and skin-tights pants, Carmichael represented herself in court, impressing jurors, reporters and even the prosecutor with her courtroom presence and legal acumen.

After a seven-month trial that drew national media coverage, Carmichael was convicted of 26 counts of conspiracy, stock fraud and grand theft. When her appeals were exhausted and she was ordered to report to prison, Carmichael pulled another disappearing act. This time, she eluded authorities for nine years, and she was located not by diligent investigators or tattooed bounty hunters but by a nosy neighbor who’d spotted her after Carmichael was featured on an episode of NBC’s hokey true-crime drama, Unsolved Mysteries.

1975 Dale Three Wheel Car Brochure
Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation

“I was 15 when the Dale came out, and I saw it at the L.A. Auto Show,” recalls Leslie Kendall, chief historian of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, which owns a mock-up of the car. “I remember thinking, Man, that is something! I also remember seeing a picture of Liz and thinking, Holy moly … It was the perfect scam for L.A. First, you had someone bilking people out of money. And that somebody was doing it with an imaginary car. And that someone was transgender. It was a movie of the week waiting to happen.”

Kendall was on the money, as it turned out. On Sunday, HBO will air the first of four hour-long segments of a lovingly produced Liz Carmichael documentary titled The Lady and the Dale. A rival documentary has been created for the Seduced by Speed series, which is available on several Motor Trend platforms, and there are a couple of based-on-a-true story feature films in various stages of development. So after 30 years of obscurity, Carmichael is once again on the cusp of stardom—but a very different brand of stardom.

Elizabeth Carmichael Actress HBO Series Art
Gillian Cameron stars as Elizabeth Carmichael in HBO’s upcoming series. HBO

The Dale saga is a Rorschach test for the society beholding it. In the beginning, before everything fell apart, it was framed in the press as an uplifting tale of shade-tree American ingenuity and an enterprising woman challenging a hidebound patriarchy. Later, the media narrative of the day pivoted to a titillating crime yarn about a sophisticated scam orchestrated by a bad guy dressed in drag. Now that we’re living in an age of queer studies programs and gender fluidity, the Dale stands for something far more profound than a poorly designed, shoddily executed three-wheeled monstrosity that never stood a chance of being put into mass production.

As an HBO Documentary Films press release puts it, “The Lady and the Dale is a riveting, human portrait of an imperfect trans trailblazer, an industrious businesswoman and a beloved mother whose ambition and unwavering optimism ran headlong into widespread transphobia and media bias. Her life leaves a complicated legacy. Ahead of her time, forced to operate in an unaccommodating world, Liz Carmichael stands as a heroic reminder of the prejudices facing the trans community and a symbol of untrammeled enterprise and survival.”

Yeah, well, that and what happens when you go into business selling vaporware.

Elizabeth Carmichael and family
HBO

I first came across Carmichael’s story about 10 years ago, while I was doing preliminary research for a book titled History’s Greatest Automotive Mysteries, Myths and Rumors Revealed. (I know, I know. Worst. Title. Ever. But not my call.) I was too young to have heard about the Dale back in the day, but I knew as soon as I read the first bare-bones accounts of the long, involved tale that the car deserved a chapter of its own.

The Dale was the brainchild of an innocent bystander-turned-hapless-victim named Dale Clifft. A clever Southern California inventor who worked for the electronics giant/military contractor Litton Industries, Clifft also tinkered mechanically on various personal projects, earning patents for items ranging from a bicycle motor to a device designed to blow insulation into an existing wall. In 1973, after the OPEC fuel embargo was announced, Clifft decided the timing was right to create a more efficient form of personal transportation.

Working out of his garage, he fashioned a spindly, fully enclosed two-seater with one rear wheel and two in the front, mounted outside the bodywork. According to Clifft’s close friend Richard Smith, the frame consisted of half-inch electrical conduit with the joints brazed together. Most of the mechanical components came from motorcycles, most notably a robust 305cc twin from a Honda CB77 Super Hawk. The whole thing was covered in a metal flake maroon shade of Naugahyde.

Street Hawk 305 CC Honda Engine
Mecum

Although the three-wheeler was registered for street use as a motorcycle, it was strictly a one-off vehicle with all the flaws and compromises inherent in homebuilt creations. Nevertheless, Clifft regularly whizzed around the San Fernando Valley in his little three-wheeler, and Smith occasionally rode shotgun with him. “The ride was a little rough,” he says. “But it got down the road pretty good.”

In 1974, while eating dinner in a restaurant on Ventura Boulevard, Clifft was approached by a stranger who told him he knew somebody who might be willing to put the three-wheeler into production. The mystery promoter turned out to be Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael. History doesn’t record Clifft’s reaction, but it’s safe to assume that Carmichael made a big impression.

Carmichael was a large, stout woman, anywhere from 6 feet tall and 175 pounds to 6 foot 2 and 225 pounds, depending on the account. At various times, she claimed to be an Indiana farm girl who’d wrenched on tractors, a one-time stock car racer, an entrepreneur with an MBA from the University of Miami, a mechanical engineer with a degree from Ohio State University, the mother of five children, the widow of a NASA structural engineer, the former owner of a company that modified cars, the builder of custom and experimental vehicles and the patent holder on a “self-skinning foam.”

In August 1974, Carmichael incorporated Twentieth Century Motor Car Company and set up shop in a posh office suite on Ventura Boulevard in Encino. She quickly amassed a sales team and began aggressively marketing the Dale. “We’ll either be fabulously wealthy,” she told company associates, “or we’ll go to jail.” Prescient words, as it turned out.

1975 Dale Three Wheel Car Brochure
Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation

Twentieth Century produced a slick, six-page, full-color brochure showcasing a futuristic-looking car in banana-yellow livery. The text was the Paradise Lost of over-the-top ad copy. “The most exciting new car of this century.” “The first Space Age automobile.” “Designed and built like it’s ready to be driven to the moon.” “The most exciting idea that ever happened to personal transportation.” “A masterpiece in automotive design and engineering.” “A whole new standard of performance, economy and safety available in no other car in the world today.”

Deposits rolled in from customers and would-be dealers. Carmichael claimed she would sell 88,000 cars during the first year of production and ramp up to 250,000 during the second. She was featured in countless upbeat stories printed in newspapers and magazines and broadcast on television and radio. A Dale even appeared as a prize on The Price Is Right. “I don’t want to sound like an egomaniac, but I am a genius,” Carmichael told the Associated Press. “I believe 100 percent that this car would revolutionize the industry.”

Dale Car Price is Right
HBO

But there were plenty of red flags for anybody who cared to look for them. The lone Dale prototype ran so badly that the company used Clifft’s original three-wheeler for a film shoot, and the “car” on display in the company office was nothing more than a mock-up with wheels nailed to two-by-fours. Clifft, wonky and naïve, finally accepted Smith’s warning that the project was a fraud when Carmichael claimed that she’d crashed a Dale into a wall at 30 miles per hour without being injured. “They didn’t even have a car that could go 30 miles per hour,” Smith says.

Car and Driver dispatched photographer Mike Salisbury to see Carmichael and her assembly plant in person. When he arrived, a yellow, egg-like vehicle was parked in a corner. There was no gas pedal or steering wheel. Ringed around the car, men wearing white lab coats and Clark Kent glasses were scribbling nonsense on clipboards. As soon as they left, Salisbury opened the engine compartment and found it occupied by a Briggs & Stratton lawn mower motor. “It didn’t take much to realize that the whole thing was a scam,” he says.

Then a gargantuan Lincoln rolled up, accompanied by the honking of an air horn. It was a twin to Elvis Presley’s personal car except that the monograms were gold. The door opened and a large woman stepped out. She was wearing a pale yellow pantsuit, open-toe pumps and a long Shirley Temple wig. With a cigarette in one hand, she walked around the Lincoln to greet Salisbury. “Hello, I’m Elizabeth,” she said in a voice that he likened to Broderick Crawford’s. Yes, he thought, and I’m ’en-ery the Eighth, I am, I am.

By the fall of 1974, Twentieth Century was unraveling. In September, the California Corporation Commission issued a cease-and-desist order prohibiting the company from accepting deposits on new cars. The following January, even as a Dale was being displayed at the L.A. Auto Show, a company employee was shot to death by one of Carmichael’s bodyguards in the corporate office. In March 1975, Twentieth Century’s assets were seized, and indictments were handed down after officials realized that there were no cars, no factory, and no prospects for future production. Carmichael got out while the getting was good. But in April, she was spotted and arrested in Miami.

Revelle prototype concept brochure art
The Revelle was another advertised three-wheeled prototype. Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation

And then came the biggest revelation of all:

“When dream-car hypester Liz Carmichael went on the lam, charged with defrauding her investors, police were puzzled to discover wigs, hair remover and well-padded bras in the abandoned $100,000 home the self-styled ‘widow’ had shared with five children in Dallas,” People magazine reported breathlessly. “Now the mystery has been dramatically cleared up. Liz was nabbed by the FBI climbing through the window of a rented Miami house clad in a pink checked pantsuit. The fingerprints clinched it: She was a he. Liz was disclosed to be one Jerry Dean Michael, 47, a fugitive from justice since 1961.”

Los Angeles County deputy district attorney Robert Youngdahl estimated that more than 5000 customers had been bilked out as much as $6 million. Clifft, who had nothing to do with Carmichael’s scheme besides providing the initial inspiration for the car, received $1001 of his promised $3 million in royalties, plus a $2000 check that bounced. He died in 1981, and Smith lost track of Clifft’s three-wheeler after that.

Meanwhile, I lost track of Smith once my book came out, and Liz Carmichael didn’t cross my mind again until 2014, when I heard from a producer at a British film company interested in making a documentary about the Dale. We exchanged a few emails, and then I never heard from her again. Two years later, I received another email from another producer who was working on another Dale documentary. A few months later, a wildly ambitious young filmmaker named Nick Cammilleri showed up at my house with a three-person crew and spent an evening interviewing me on camera.

Three years of radio silence followed, and I forgot about the project. (In Hollywood, unmade movies are a dime a thousand.) Then, last year, out of the blue, I heard from not one but two more would-be filmmakers eager to tackle the Dale saga—one as a documentary, the other as a feature-length movie. Many discussions followed, but I didn’t see much in the way of appreciable progress, and I figured that the Dale would be one of those sad stories fated to be eternally trapped in the movie industry purgatory known as development hell.

So I was surprised when, earlier this year, I noticed an announcement about The Lady and the Dale. And I was pleasantly shocked when I read that Cammilleri was the co-director. Dude! I thought, Way to go! When I reached Cammilleri by phone, he told me, “I’ve cried more in the past two weeks that I had in my entire adult life. It was incredibly cathartic to realize that I no longer had to devote every hour, every dime and every ounce of my energy to this project. I feel like I’m unclenching a muscle that’s been clenched for 10 years.”

Elizabeth Carmichael and Dale Car
HBO

Cammilleri had become obsessed by the Dale story after seeing a rebroadcast of the Unsolved Mysteries episode about Carmichael in 2011. He scoured the internet for information, then devoured all the archival material at the Petersen Automotive Museum and, in 2014, began traveling around the country, camera in hand, interviewing anybody who could unlock a piece of the puzzle—attorneys, policemen, jurors, reporters, former Twentieth Century employees and, eventually, Carmichael’s children and extended family.

In 2018, Cammilleri sold the project to the Duplass brothers, major players in Hollywood. Shortly thereafter, transgender artist and activist Zackary Drucker came on board as co-director, and the focus of the documentary widened to embrace a broader, more nuanced portrait of Carmichael. “I don’t think Liz was defined entirely by her trans-ness,” Cammilleri says. “But Zackary understood the transgender world better than I did, and she was able to help me see Liz as a three-dimensional trans woman.”

Liz Carmichael and the Dale
HBO

One of the most powerful and disturbing segments of the documentary features Dick Carlson, the father of ultra-conservative Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson. The elder Carlson was the on-air reporter for a series of Dale exposés that aired in L.A. on KABC-TV in 1974 and 1975. The stories were a master class in investigative reporting, and they justifiably won a prestigious Peabody Award. But they also betrayed the casual and rampant transphobia of the day, and Carlson’s comments during a sit-down interview Cammilleri conducted for the documentary suggest that he still believes transgender people are refugees from a freak show.

Was Liz Carmichael a victim of a particularly cruel and vicious form of discrimination? No question. Did transphobia kill the Dale? That’s a much harder case to make. Cammilleri clearly sees Carmichael as a flawed hero, and he describes her with expressions such as “indefatigable,” “enterprising,” “a survivor,” “a loving mother,” “a trans woman who triumphed over obstacles”—all true. But when I ask him if he thinks that the Dale was a con from the start, he hedges. “That’s like asking David Lynch what he thinks Eraserhead is about,” he says. “It’s all about what you think.”

Dale Car Petersen Museum Vault
Dale in the Petersen Automotive Museum vault. Brandan Gillogly

If you try really, really hard, I suppose it’s possible to convince yourself that the Dale started off as a good-faith effort and that Carmichael simply got in over her head—way over her head. And, in fact, Cammilleri and Drucker found several former Twentieth Century employees who insist that they were trying to build a legitimate car. But it’s obvious that the executives at the top of the pyramid knew that they were selling something that didn’t exist at the time and wasn’t going to be produced in the foreseeable future, if ever. Considering Carmichael’s long and elaborate criminal history, dutifully covered in the documentary, I think it was a scam from the get-go. In the end, Carmichael and four co-defendants were convicted at trial, and two other company executives pleaded guilty to felony charges.

Despite all the hype and millions of dollars in investments, only three slapdash Dales were built. The crudest, a design study with no interior or drivetrain, was lifted off a rotating pole in front of a radiator shop and shipped to the Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed in Lincoln, Nebraska. The non-running mock-up that used to greet visitors to the Twentieth Century offices in Encino now languishes in the basement of the Petersen. The lone runner was held as evidence by the L.A. County district attorney’s office until 1987, when it was sold at auction. It was subsequently bought by Los Angeles classic car collector Barry Maiten, who’s also amassed an extensive collection of Dale paraphernalia and literature. The car hasn’t moved for years, and while Maiten insists that he intends to restore it, it sits in his private museum as a forlorn monument to greed and gullibility.

Liz Carmichael died in 2004. But her legacy, complicated and controversial, lives on.

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