(first posted 11/4/2016) Sherman, set the way-back machine to 1974—to the wonderful days of seat belt-ignition interlocks, presidential resignations, 55 mph speed limits, and soaring fuel prices.
The OPEC oil embargo in 1973 had a long-term impact on the everyday lives of everyday Americans in a way few other events have. With the specter of gasoline selling for–God forbid–$1.00 per gallon, Americans’ interest in small, economical cars surged, and many Honda and Toyota dealers displayed their characteristic altruism by dressing up new Civics, Coronas and Starlets in $1,000 mud flaps and $2,500 pinstripes in response.
The time was ripe for a new means of personal transport that was cheap to buy, cheap to drive, and cheap to maintain. This is the story of a vehicle that was none of these things, because it existed only in the mind of its creator.
Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael was 37 years old in 1974. A self-described “Indiana farm girl with five children and widow of a NASA engineer”, she formed the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation that year, in Encino, CA, and publicly announced its first product, the Dale.
A three-wheeled, resin-bodied car designed to achieve some 70 mpg, the Dale’s genesis began with a truly talented engineer named Dale Leon Clifft. Working in his garage, Clifft had concocted a three-wheeled vehicle with an engine and assorted parts from various motorcycles. How he met Carmichael is unclear, but when she expressed interest in producing his creation, Clifft agreed to sell her the design. Reportedly he was promised $3 million for it, but at the time of his death, in 1981, Clifft had received only $1,000 from Carmichael.
A brochure issued by Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation (herewith TCMCC) claimed that the Dale’s three-wheel configuration made it impossible to roll over, and thus safer than a four-wheeler; that any mechanical part on the car could be replaced in less than 30 minutes; and that this technological marvel would retail for less than $2,000.
Wild claims, you say? Actually, they seem carved in stone next to some of the others made by TCMCC, among them that the Dale would have no wiring whatsoever, thanks to its printed circuit instrument panel; and that the resin used to build the Dale (Rigidex, in company-speak) was, per ounce, the strongest material in the world and able to withstand virtually any impact short of a bullet.
Under its nearly indestructible hood, claimed the company, would be a vertically-mounted (?) 850cc, 40 hp BMW motorcycle engine capable of propelling the little beast up to 85 mph.
Armed with said brochure and phony press releases describing TCMCC as already having an up-and-running factory in Burbank, CA that employed over 100 workers, Carmichael now set about raising money from potential investors. At six feet and 200-plus pounds, Ms. Carmichael cut an imposing if not intimidating figure, and eventually persuaded investors to pony up a stunning amount of money; various sources report the figure between $6,000,000 and $30,000,000, but the actual total remains unknown.
Toward the end of 1974, Car and Driver magazine dispatched photographer Mike Salisbury to the West Coast to meet Ms. Carmichael and inspect the factory. In their book, History’s Greatest Automotive Mysteries, authors Matt Stone and Preston Lerner wrote of Salisbury’s experience at TCMMC’s Encino office:
“A yellow, egg-like car – the Dale – was parked in a corner. There was no gas pedal or steering wheel. Ringed around the car, a couple of guys wearing Clark Kent glasses were scribbling on clipboards. Salisbury was convinced they were performing a pantomime for his benefit. As soon as they left, he opened the engine compartment and found it occupied by a Briggs & Stratton lawnmower motor. ‘It didn’t take much to realize that the whole thing was a scam,’ he says. But the best was yet to come.”
The observant visitor might also have noticed that the roped-off prototype was surrounded by an unusually large amount of space, undoubtedly by design. After all, how better to conceal front wheels that were nailed to a 4×4 wood post in place of a front axle, an “energy-absorbing, high-density urethane” front bumper that was merely plywood covered in black vinyl, and a “space-age resin” framework that was no more than welded 1/2″ metal tubing.
In early January 1975, a non-running prototype was on display at the Los Angeles Auto Show, where TCMCC declared that the Dale would be EPA-certified, crash tested, and in mass production within the next six months; it is not known whether the company planned to use pixie dust or magic wands to meet those goals.
At this point, it is necessary to mention Preston Tucker, and the movie The Producers. Carmichael must have been a fan of both, because at a time when her company should have been developing, refining and testing the Dale—to say nothing of actually ramping up its production facilities— it instead focused its efforts on issuing and selling shares of stock without SEC sanction, and selling non-existent cars to dealerships without a manufacturer’s license or franchise permits. It wasn’t long before the California Securities Commission demanded that TCMCC cease stock sales in that state (an order Carmichael simply ignored); however, the event that triggered serious investigation of the company was yet to come.
Toward the end of January 1975, TCMCC executive William D. Miller was found shot to death in the company’s Encino office. The motive was (and remains) unknown, but the chief suspect was fellow employee Jack Oliver, who had once served with Miller in prison. (If nothing else, you’ve got to give Carmichael props for giving people second chances.) Now every employee at the company was under investigation—as was the Dale itself.
Not surprisingly, the Miller/TCMCC investigation was big news, and as disgruntled investors began telling their stories to television and print reporters, TCMCC shut off their phones, locked up the office, and fled town just as the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office issued an arrest warrant for Carmichael, who had bolted off to a Dallas suburb, where she had reestablished operations—this time hawking another new-as-tomorrow three-wheeler , the Revelle, as well as a station wagon variant, the Vanagen.
In an extraordinary display of chutzpah, Liz actually managed to get the Revelle (presumably a non-running prototype) showcased as the grand prize on The Price Is Right. No contestant won it, which was just as well, but someone winning it would have created a very awkward and very entertaining scenario.
It turned out that Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael had formerly been Jerry Dean Michael, a man who happened to be an alleged counterfeiter who’d been running from Federal authorities since 1961.
In April 1975, Carmichael was traced to a Dallas suburb where she’d been living with one of five children she had fathered by his ex-wife Vivian Barrett. In addition to promoting the Revelle, Carmichael had pressed her five children into selling flowers on street corners in an effort to generate income. When police raided her home, she wasn’t there; however, the officers found a trove of padded bras, wigs, hair removers and other items often used by female impersonators or transgender women.
In an interview for People magazine, Barrett claimed, “We love her just as much as we loved him. The children call her Mother Liz and me just plain Mother,” and said that her former husband considers herself a woman despite not yet having completed the full course of sex-change surgeries.
Carmichael was tracked down to a rented house in Miami and arrested just as she was attempting to climb out a window. A Texas court tried and convicted Carmichael of counterfeiting and bail-jumping, both crimes committed when he presented as a man. The sentence of 10-20 years imprisonment and a $30,000 fine proved purely academic since Carmichael skipped town once again, this time jumping a $50,000 bail.
Carmichael lived, quite successfully, under the radar until 1989, when the television program Unsolved Mysteries featured her story. Almost immediately leads started coming in, several of which involved an Austin, Texas-area flower-selling operation manned by five siblings. Authorities apprehended Liz Carmichael—now living as Katherine Elizabeth Brown—in the town of Dale, Texas (!) and returned her to Los Angeles to face trial on the original fraud charges (incredibly, California had no law against bail jumping then, thus no such charges could be filed). The court sentenced Carmichael to 32 months behind bars.
After serving just over two years in prison, Carmichael was released on probation. She returned to Austin and her career as a flower seller, and died, of cancer, in 2004.
And what became of the two Dale mock-ups and one prototype that were built? One was acquired, in 1994, by the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles; it is seldom displayed. The other two are in the hands of private collectors. And so ends the story of the person who supposedly set out to shake up the automotive industry, but in reality only shook down some gullible investors.