Who Was Elizabeth Carmichael?
Elizabeth Carmichael, born c. 1928 (some sources say 1937), was a transgender woman who in 1974 launched a California-based car company promoting the Dale, a three-wheeled vehicle that claimed to deliver incredible gas mileage. Customers and investors, still reeling from OPEC's recent oil embargo, were entranced by the Dale, and by Carmichael herself. However, the car never went into production, and those who'd paid to reserve vehicles or start dealerships found they'd been defrauded.
As Carmichael went on the run to escape criminal charges, her transgender identity became public knowledge. Carmichael was found and convicted of conspiracy, grand theft and stock fraud, but while out on bail in 1980 she ran off before reporting to prison. It was only after she was featured on a 1989 episode of Unsolved Mysteries that she served her sentence. Her story is told in the 2021 documentary The Lady and the Dale.
The Dale Car
In 1974, Carmichael approached Dale Clifft with a plan to mass manufacture a consumer-friendly version of a three-wheeled vehicle he'd designed and built himself using motorcycle components. Clifft told he could potentially earn $3 million in royalties, signed on. In August 1974, Carmichael's Twentieth Century Motor Car Company (the name had been inspired by Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged) was incorporated.
From her perch as president of the company in Encino, California, the six-foot Carmichael became a magnet for media attention. She said she had grown up repairing tractors as a tomboy farm girl and that she was now a widow with five children whose husband had worked for NASA. She also described herself as having an MBA, an engineering degree and experience in a Florida-based family business, the Carmichael Research and Development Company, that built custom cars.
The Dale, which had two wheels in the front, one in the back, and could seat two people, claimed it offered a fuel-efficient 70 miles per gallon. This was attractive to a country that had recently suffered gas shortages during the OPEC oil embargo. The car also promised safety features like impact-resistant windows and "a body of rocket structural resin that won't dent or shatter." The price was just $1,969, and a deposit of $500 could reserve one for the future. The brochure, which displayed a bright yellow Dale, exclaimed, "Dollar for dollar, the best car ever built!"
Carmichael touted her determination to "revolutionize personal transportation" and declared, "We're going to shock General Motors, Ford and the rest of them right out of their big, overstuffed seats." A Dale prototype appeared at the Los Angeles Auto Show, and a Dale showed up on The Price Is Right as a potential prize.
Would-be Dale drivers purchased or reserved cars, investors provided funds and aspiring dealers paid to be appointed dealerships. However, this money turned out to have been fraudulently obtained. Carmichael made three Dale prototypes (one of which ended up on its side during a test run), but no other vehicles. The model on display at the company's Encino showroom didn't work at all.
Arrest and Trial
In the fall of 1974, a cease and desist order from the California Corporation Commission demanded the Twentieth Century Motor Car Company stop selling stock. Carmichael moved her firm from California to Dallas in January 1975, but this relocation didn't stop ongoing investigations. Some company officials were arrested in February 1975, while Carmichael went on the run.
Carmichael fled her home just a few minutes before a raid, leaving behind items such as wigs and padded bras. This led to authorities discovering that Carmichael was a transgender woman who'd originally been known as Jerry Dean Michael. Michael was wanted on counterfeiting charges from 1961.
In April, Carmichael was found and arrested in Miami as she attempted to escape by climbing out a window. She was sent to California to face charges of grand theft, corporate securities fraud and conspiracy. At her trial she opted to represent herself, declaring she was a pioneer who'd struck out at overbearing car companies (she'd once said her legal difficulties stemmed from "the fact that we had the audacity to challenge Detroit"). Per Carmichael, the Dale would have eventually succeeded.
However, an automotive engineer and prosecution witness said of the Dale, "It was literally held together with baling wire and coat hangers." Though the jury deliberated for a lengthy 16 days, in 1977 Carmichael was found guilty on 26 counts. Her customers and investors had been defrauded of an estimated $1 to $3 million.
Carmichael was sentenced to 2 to 20 years in prison. After her appeals ended in 1980, she escaped while out on bail.
Carmichael successfully eluded authorities until April 1989, when an episode of the television show Unsolved Mysteries featured her case. Tips helped authorities locate Carmichael, who'd been living under the name Katherine Elizabeth Johnson in Dale, Texas. She'd been selling flowers for income.
Carmichael was subsequently remanded to California. In June 1989, she was sent to state prison (despite her gender identity, she was sent to a men's prison). She was paroled by 1993 and returned to Texas.
Though it had nothing to do with the charges Carmichael faced, news coverage discussed the status of her gender confirmation surgery (then referred to as a sex-change operation). She had to petition the court for the right to be addressed as a woman at her trial, which she was granted. Carmichael wanted to serve her sentence in a women's prison, noting, "I am a woman," but was instead sent to a men's facility.
Dick Carlson, a KABC reporter, had helped investigate and expose Carmichael's fraud. Yet in follow-up stories he focused on her gender identity, speculating that she'd been living as a woman as a means to both escape the law and get publicity. He also consistently used male pronouns for Carmichael.
In addition to the name Elizabeth Carmichael, she was called Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael, G. Elizabeth Carmichael, and Liz Carmichael. While on the lam and living in Texas, Carmichael went by the name Katherine Elizabeth Johnson. Before her transition, she was known as Jerry Dean Michael.
As a man, Carmichael had married and then left two women, along with the children from these relationships, before becoming involved with Vivian Barrett Michael. With Vivian, Carmichael became the biological father of five children. As Carmichael transitioned, these children called her "Mother Liz."
Carmichael reportedly died in 2004.
A four-part documentary about Carmichael called The Lady and the Dale aired in January 2021. Another documentary, Welcome to Dale: The Elizabeth Carmichael Story, is also slated to come out in 2021.
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