HBO docuseries explores the Dale, the upstart car steeped in scandal

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Brandan Gillogly

A four-part HBO docuseries titled The Lady and the Dale, set to debut on January 31, digs into quite a strange and largely unknown story of automotive industry chicanery. The series trailer involves boastful brags, guns, and secrets, and yet none of that scratches the surface of the full story.

The series focuses on Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation that was founded by Elizabeth “Liz” Carmichael. The supposed goal of the company was to market and sell the Dale, a three-wheeled car that would be inexpensive and fuel-efficient, right at a time when the United States was in the grips of an oil crisis that had left fuel prices sky-high. The Dale was supposed to be built in southern California using a BMW motorcycle engine, advanced electronics, and lightweight, composite construction. Its two-cylinder engine would supply 40 horsepower and allow a maximum speed of 85 mph while returning an advertised 70 mpg. That wasn’t much thrust, but an air-cooled VW of the mid-‘70s packed just 48 horses after emissions improvements dropped down its 1600cc four-cylinder output from a 1972 high of 60 hp. The compact, aerodynamic Dale would be able to do more with less.

As Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation leased production space at three hangars in Burbank and planned for not only production of the Dale, but two other models, a larger sedan and a wagon, the company received a tremendous amount of media buzz as the tiny company taking on the Big Three. Carmichael had buyers lining up to leave a deposit, investors scrambling to get a piece of the business by buying stock, and potential retailers throwing money at the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation in order to secure franchise rights. That’s where Carmichael ran afoul of the Federal Trade Commission and the IRS, among other missteps. Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation had no license to manufacture cars, which was really only a minor issue … seeing as they weren’t manufacturing anything. Of the three Dale prototypes built, only one was capable of moving under its own power and even the most completed version was shoddily built and not at all what was advertised.

As investigators began to scrutinize Carmichael’s business they discovered that she had jumped bail on a 1961 counterfeiting charge. Carmichael loudly proclaimed her business was legitimate but was eventually convicted in 1977 of fraud, grand theft, conspiracy, and counterfeiting. The assets of her company were sold, with buyers grabbing the molds for the Dale’s body at an IRS auction. Perhaps the most well-known version of the Dale, the yellow copy seen in the photo up top from the Petersen Museum’s Vault, was built by Dean Moon of Moon Equipment after he tracked down the winners of the liquidation auction held by the IRS.

After appealing her sentence for four years, Carmichael and her family went on the lam in 1980 and she wasn’t apprehended until 1989 after her story appeared on Unsolved Mysteries. Carmichael passed away in 2004.

While there were contemporary articles written about Carmichael and Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation, we’re looking forward to seeing The Lady and the Dale and getting the story from Charmichael’s family. There are sure to be some wild revelations, so we’ll definitely be watching.

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