With the ever-increasing prevalence of electric and hybrid cars today, drivers have become accustomed to either extremely high gas mileage rates or simply not having to worry about filling up at all. But in the gas-strapped 1970s, such a luxury was only a pipe dream. One woman named Elizabeth Carmichael claimed she had the answer to the decade's energy crisis in the form of a sleek three-wheeled car called the Dale. But who was Elizabeth Carmichael, and why aren't we all zipping around in little Dales today?
HBO has set out to answer that question in its new docuseries The Lady and the Dale. The series, which is executive produced by the Duplass Brothers, dictates the rise and fall of Geraldine "Liz" Carmichael, one of the twentieth century's most fascinating con-artists. Carmichael's criminal career began more than a decade before she achieved national notoriety with the Dale. According to the doc, Carmichael was transgender, and before coming out as a woman, had already run afoul of the law. She became wanted by the FBI in 1961 on counterfeiting charges, according to DriveTribe. It would be another 13 years before she would be caught — during which time Carmichael transitioned — and it was the Dale that proved to be her undoing.
In 1974, Carmichael founded a company in California called Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation after coming across inventor Dale Clifft's design for a three-wheeled fuel-efficient car, as shown in the doc. She created a unique and inspiring backstory for herself, claiming that she was a mechanical engineer, the widow of a NASA engineer, and the single mother of five children. That last bit was somewhat true, as Carmichael had fathered the kids with her wife, Vivian Barrett Michael, whom Carmichael publicly introduced as her secretary following her transition, according to a 1975 article in People. A ruthless promotor, Carmichael appeared all over national media with claims about how the Dale would revolutionize the auto industry. The three-wheeled car supposedly earned 70 miles per gallon and would cost just $2,000 — a tantalizing prospect for a nation that was reeling from a recession and gas shortage.
But unfortunately for those prospective buyers, the Dale never materialized. Despite the company taking in untold amounts of cash from investors, the car itself remained a non-viable prototype. Becoming suspicious of Twentieth Century Motor Car Corp. due to the business's lack of licensing to sell either shares or automobiles, the state of California ordered the company to stop doing both, according to Hemmings. Shortly afterward, one of the company's employees shot and killed a coworker, bringing more negative publicity, and Carmichael and several other employees were indicted on charges of fraud. Carmichael attempted to flee to Dallas, where she was apprehended in 1975 and stood trial in 1977. There, she was convicted of her prior charges from 1961 as well as a slew of fraud charges related to the Dale. She was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison and ordered to pay $30,000 in restitution, according to Jalopnik. But prior to reporting to prison, Carmichael went on the lam again.
It wasn't until 1989 when Carmichael was finally apprehended for the last time, thanks to her appearance as a missing person in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. She had been using the name Katherine Elizabeth Johnson and was operating a flower shop in Dale, TX (no relation). After that, Carmichael's story becomes a bit hazy. Jalopnik claims she served ten years in prison and, as of 2013, was running a roadside flower stand in Austin. However, several other sources, including Hemmings, claim she died of cancer in 2004.
Whatever ultimately happened to Carmichael isn't all that important when looking at the big picture. Here was a woman who was at the center of one of the most fascinating stories in automotive history, and a lot more people are going to hear that story now thanks to The Lady and the Dale.