I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In October 1973, the OPEC nations shut off the oil spigot to the West and the price of gasoline skyrocketed. A masterful con artist saw an amazing opportunity to cash in.
The 1973 Oil Crisis
Gas stations had signs up “Sorry no fuel” all over the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. The Arab-dominated Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries was angry at nations that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War. So, the group shut down shipments to the West.
The price of oil shot up by 300 percent and suddenly the eight-cylinder family sedan became a liability. A vehicle getting 10 miles to the gallon could only be used sparingly when there was no gas at the corner station.
People started buying sub-compact, four-cylinder Japanese cars that promised 25 mpg. But, Dale Clifft had a better idea; he designed a car that would get 70 mpg.
The Dale Car’s Specifications
The Dale was a strange-looking critter, like no other vehicle on the road. The frame was made of aluminum tubing, which was covered by a fibreglass material called Rigidex.
Power came from a two-cylinder, BMW motorcycle engine that was said to enable the Dale to whip along at a top speed of 85 mph. The Dale was designed to carry two people and was priced at below $2,000.
Perhaps, its most interesting feature was that it came with three wheels, two in the front and one in the rear.
The manufacturer, the Twentieth Century Motor Car Company (TCMCC), stressed the vehicle was stable. The Dale’s low centre of gravity made it almost impossible to topple over, unlike its notoriously tippy three-wheeled cousin, the British Reliant Robin.
Promoting the Dale
If people were going to be persuaded to ditch their Buick Electra’s and Dodge Monaco’s in favour of the little three-wheeler there was going to have to be some serious sales effort put in.
This is where we meet Geraldine Elizabeth “Liz” Carmichael. She was the guiding force behind the TCMCC and she possessed a black belt in marketing and promotion.
She introduced the Dale with a publicity flair that took the U.S. media by storm. Automotive writer Kyle Ashdown describes her “Standing at over six feet tall and weighing around 200 pounds, Liz Carmichael was as domineering in personality as her imposing figure would suggest.”
She claimed degrees in marketing and mechanical engineering. A single mom with five children she was the embodiment of good old American free enterprise. Ashdown commented that “She was an Elon Musk long before his time, except with much more personality.”
In interviews, Liz Carmichael announced she was going “to shock General Motors, Ford and the rest of them right out of their big, overstuffed seats.” She predicted sales of 88,000 Dales in year one and 250,000 in year two. The order books already had $3 million worth of advanced sales, and there were many top financiers salivating at the thought of investing.
A prototype of the Dale appeared at the Los Angeles Auto Show of 1975; it wasn’t capable of moving by its own power, the engine being still under development it was said. The same year, the Dale appeared as a Showcase item on The Price Is Right television game show.
However, the extravagant claims for the car were beginning to cause suspicions to rise.
Who Was Liz Carmichael?
Investigations revealed that Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael came into this world as Jerry Dean Michael, and that police wanted to have a chat with him. There were counterfeiting allegations going back to the early 1960s. There were other swindles and frauds that needed to be answered to.
Jerry had several failed marriages and had fathered a number of children before he decided to become Geraldine. Gender reassignment hormone treatments followed, making it a great deal harder for authorities to track down their suspect.
Liz Carmichael’s back story became known only after the Dale car merry-go-round was exposed as a complex scam.
The Dale Car Fiasco
Nosy people from the California Securities Commission started asking questions. What was the state of tooling up for production at the supposed Encino, California factory? How many people had bought Dale car dealerships? Where were the company’s business licences?
Wiser but poorer investors would soon learn there was no factory and that only three Dale vehicles existed, two of which didn't even have engines in them. An inspector for the Department of Motor vehicles, Bill Hall, examined one of the cars. Among other deficiencies, he found the rear axle was supported by two-by-fours, the windows were not made of safety glass, and the doors were held on by regular, household hinges.
The important question was where was Liz Carmichael? On the lam was the answer. Caught in Dallas, Carmichael was returned to face grand theft and fraud charges in California. Found guilty, she was released on bail pending sentencing. Of course, Carmichael didn’t show up to find out what her penalty was to be.
Eight years later, and after being featured on the TV show Unsolved Mysteries, Carmichael was tracked down running a flower-vending business under the name Kathryn Elizabeth Johnson. She/he served two years in prison and died of cancer in 2004.
Dale Clifft, who built the three-wheeler, seems to have been a dupe more than a co-conspirator. He was not prosecuted and went on to run his own business and held several patents.
- The Texas town where Liz Carmichael was eventually found selling flowers was called, coincidentally, Dale.
- There have been several other micro-cars and few have been successful. The Corbin Sparrow was a really ugly one-seater, three-wheeled, all-electric car. CBS News reported “it was said to go more than 150 miles on one charge. But when you get a look at its snout nose, jelly bean body, and pizza butt shape, you may want to keep it in the garage to charge your iPhone.”
- “Cars, Lies, and Sex Changes: The Story of one of the Most Bizarre Automotive Scams of All Time.” Kyle Ashdown, carthrottle.com, undated.
- “Elizabeth Carmichael.” Biography.com, January 29, 2021.
- “The Dale Car.” Museum of American Speed, undated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Ann Carr from SW England on February 01, 2021:
What a great story! It's amazing how some people get away with such things. Sheer nerve and charisma I suppose.
What a weird thing that Sparrow is! I now have an electric car, a Skoda citigo; small but perfectly formed. It does 150/60. Perfect for going to see the children and soooo cheap!
Thanks for the entertainment, Rupert!