Building a car company requires bravado, and Geraldine Elizabeth (Liz) Carmichael was bursting at the seams with that. During the oil crisis of the early 1970s, she came out of nowhere with a bright-yellow 70-mpg three-wheeled vehicle called the Dale. It was as bold and brash as Carmichael. Customers lined up to put down deposits, investors flew from overseas to determine if it was worth bankrolling, and The Price is Right offered one up during its Showcase Showdown. Except that there wasn’t actually a car to give away, and Carmichael had a past that would confound both her detractors and fans.
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A new documentary premiering on HBO on Sunday, January 31, The Lady and the Dale, explores Carmichael’s roller-coaster life and her doomed car company. Carmichael was a trans woman who formerly went by the name Jerry Dean Michael. She had multiple failed marriages and a rap sheet, and she was constantly on the run from the law. Even after getting married to longtime partner Vivian Michael and having five children, she and her family were constantly on the run from the authorities. Yet the founder seemed dead set on building a car that would take down Detroit.
“We’re going to shock General Motors, Ford, and the rest of them right out of their big, overstuffed seats,” she said.
Carmichael’s automotive startup, Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation, began the same as other startups in the tech and automotive world—with someone else’s creation and impossible promises. Originally designed by its namesake, Dale Clifft, the version that caught Carmichael’s eye looked less like a car and more like an elaborate three-wheel motorcycle. Carmichael quickly assembled a team of designers to create a new body, add car wheels, and coat it in an impossible-to-ignore yellow paint job.
The Dale was advertised as running on a BMW two-cylinder motorcycle engine they said made 40 horsepower and could push the Dale to 85 mph. The car allegedly weighed less than 1000 pounds and cost a touch under $2000. With Carmichael’s ability to charm and inspire others to join her in her quest to build an industry-changing vehicle, the Dale seemed like a legitimate business plan.
Carmichael’s bravado helped propel the vehicle into the national consciousness and generated international coverage. An inexpensive car that claimed 70 mpg during a crisis that led to long lines at the pump likely helped bolster the message that she and her company were going to take down the Big Three. From the outside, everything seemed to be going great. Internally, not so much.
Carmichael’s story became an obsession of Nick Cammilleri, the writer and director of The Lady and the Dale. His interest began with the episode of a TV show meant to bring Carmichael to justice after she had, once again, gone on the lam. “I watched the 1989 Unsolved Mysteries episode and I got done and I was unblinking. I think I stopped breathing for 10 seconds because I was like, ‘What am I looking at here?,’ ” Cammilleri told Car and Driver.
After nine years of exhausting research, the product of his curiosity, a four-part docu-series, will premiere on HBO. While it’s easy to dismiss Carmichael as a career criminal who used a car company to fleece investors and customers, the documentary presents a far more nuanced story.
By all accounts, Carmichael really wanted to build the Dale. Her story predates the dozens of automotive and tech startups that have popped up in the past two decades, led by passionate individuals with a dream to build a disruptive product. They want to be rich. They want to be famous. But mostly, they want to succeed at any cost.
“You know all the legal, quasi-legal, or extra-legal things that she did to will that car into creation are all things that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs [have done],” Cammilleri said. The director said he could see some similarities between Carmichael and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. (One obvious difference is Tesla made it to production, onto the road, and on to profitability.)
In addition to show cars that were displayed at the Los Angeles auto show and in their showroom in Burbank, California, Carmichael’s team had blueprints of the vehicle and built prototypes.
The Dale might eventually have been built, at least in a limited run, had a demonstration for Japanese investors not gone horribly wrong—an incident that Cammilleri considers sabotage. He believes success in that moment would have at least changed the dynamic of the trial of Carmichael and other company executives, one that put Carmichael on trial as a trans person as much as for being a failed entrepreneur with questionable fundraising practices. She was convicted of assorted fraud charges in 1977 and sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. She fled, leading to her star turn on Unsolved Mysteries and Cammilleri’s obsession with her story. Carmichael was found in 1989—living in Dale, Texas, of all places—extradited to California and sentenced to 10 years in prison. She died of cancer in 2004.
The rise and fall of Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation mirrors that of the modern startup with a mesmerizing founder rallying the employees and wooing the press. Inexperience, illegal accounting, and mismanagement doomed the Dale. Still, the dream lives on for some former employees.
On a trip to shoot documentary footage of one of the surviving Dale prototypes, two former engineers, John Griffiths and Hans Hasson, began taking notes on how to fix issues they saw with the vehicle. “They took the back hood off that thing and they were working on it like it was 45 years ago,” said Cammilleri.
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