Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael, also known as Elizabeth Carmichael, or simply Liz Carmichael, was the founder of the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation in 1974. To the outside world, she was a widower who proved that the women’s liberation movement opened many doors for women in the country.
At the time, though, America was going through an oil crisis, so gas prices were skyrocketing; and, Elizabeth Carmichael claimed to have a solution with The Dale, a three-wheeled futuristic car that would run 70 miles on a single gallon of gas and would only cost $2,000 to make. Of course, this car’s concept and promises challenged the big automakers, which made a lot of waves.
But if it sounds a little too good to be true, it is because it was. It turned out that The Dale was not viable to drive and the whole concept was just a fabrication of Carmichael’s doing, so the car was never mass manufactured. Additionally, Elizabeth Carmichael was not exactly a widow either, but a transgender man becoming a woman, and she was married to her fourth wife at that time.
Carmichael is a very interesting character because there are many sides to her. Many say she scammed all her life through various schemes, and she scammed a lot of people out of millions of dollars with The Dale, but she is also remembered with love by her children. Her life was a wild ride, so buckle up as we try to make sense of it all!
Who was Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael?
She was born in 1927 as a male with the name Jerry Dean Michael, and she changed her name to Liz Carmichael when she began transitioning to a woman in the late 1960s. There is very little information about her early life, but we know she grew up early-on in neighboring Jasonville, Indiana, and then moved to Detroit, Michigan with her family.
In interviews to promote The Dale, the story she told was that she had a dirt-poor upbringing on a farm, but classmates beg to differ. Either way, it is very difficult to determine what is fiction, even created by Elizabeth herself, and what is not.
Before Jerry began transitioning to a woman, he had four different marriages. His first marriage occurred when he was stationed in Germany, and he was charged with desertion for leaving his wife, Marga, and their two children.
In 1954, he married Juanita and had two more children. They split in 1956 and in 1958, he married Betty and had a child, but the marriage did not last more than a year. Finally, in 1959, Carmichael married Vivian Barrett Michael, and they had five children together.
Carmichael began transitioning in the ‘60s, which may explain why she crafted a different narrative for her early life. When people transitioned back then, it was commonly recommended by many doctors to create false backstories. In other words, trans people made up stories about their lives because they risked losing their jobs, their homes, and even their lives if they were found out.
Her transition was not easy because it was a challenge to get the hormones and surgery required back in the 1960’s. As a result, she self-administered hormone injections she allegedly purchased from veterinarians, and she reportedly traveled to Mexico to get breast implants in 1969. She hoped to later get a vaginoplasty. She was 45 when she transitioned, but she had always been a trans woman, it’s just she hadn’t been able to transition until later in life.
Elizabeth Carmichael and Her Troubles with the Law
Prior to her transition, she was a door-to-door salesman and a failed newspaper publisher. Her troubles with the law began long before The Dale because she was repeatedly arrested for pocketing money through various side schemes. She also made fake IDs and had a habit of passing bad checks, which eventually got her arrested.
When she moved to Los Angeles, California, she was arrested again in 1961 for counterfeiting charges due to the fact that she was printing and distributing fake money through a front. She jumped bail with her wife and children, so she went on the run in 1962. To avoid detection, they moved every few months, changed their identities, and home-schooled the children.
While she was still on the run in 1973, she began working at the United States Marketing Institute (USMI). There, she met Dale Clifft, the inventor of a three-wheeled car that required little gas to function. With him, she would go on to found the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation with the goal to market this futuristic-looking, high mile-per-gallon vehicle.
The Dale Car
The 1973 oil crisis shifted the tastes of many consumers – and quickly. Now, they wanted fuel-efficient cars, which is where The Dale came in on the scene. This was the company’s star product and it became a popular topic in the press because it claimed to run 70 miles on a gallon of gasoline, which means it was the perfect solution to rising petroleum prices.
Elizabeth Carmichael approached Dale Clifft in 1974 with a plan to mass manufacture a version of his design that would be consumer-friendly. She told him he could potentially earn $3 million in royalties, so he was all in with those financial prospects. From her seat as president of the company, she attracted a lot of media attention.
She gave many interviews, where she told people she grew up on a farm repairing tractors and she was a widow with five children. She told people that her husband worked for NASA and she stated she had an MBA, a degree in engineering, and experience building custom cars for the family business, which she called the Carmichael Research and Development Company.
According to Carmichael, The Dale would have two wheels in the front, one in the back, and it would seat two people. It would cost less than $2,000 and it was made of a special aerospace plastic that would be impossible to tip over and could withstand an impact against a brick wall at 30 miles per hour or more. She also described safety features such as impact-resistant windows and a body of rocket structural resin that was resistant to dents and would not shatter either.
She told investors that the company was renting three large aircraft hangers and production would start very soon. As you can imagine, investments started pouring in because Carmichael was quite the spokeswoman. The Dale had a ton of press coverage and it was even mentioned by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Not to mention, Carmichael was interviewed by People Magazine and Newsweek. Some political cartoons were even made about The Dale.
In short, people were all for it and they wanted to invest in it. Investors provided millions in funding, while people paid hundreds of dollars to reserve their car of the future, and even car dealers paid to be appointed dealerships of The Dale. Carmichael had money pouring in from every direction.
The Discovery of the Fraud
But as mentioned before; if it sounds too good to be true, it is because that is exactly what it was. In 1974, the California legislature started to investigate Elizabeth Carmichael and her company. Originally, she was accused of selling dealer franchises and cars that were not available yet, which was illegal.
The California DMV found out that Elizabeth’s company did not have a state permit to manufacture cars and there was no evidence to support the claims she was making about the production of The Dale. The company was actually not manufacturing anything at all, in fact, which was confirmed by investigator Bull Hall, who went to the lab and saw there was no work being done.
He also visited the aircraft hangers and found them to be completely empty. There were no tools, equipment, or machinery of any kind. Additionally, the rent on these aircraft hangers had expired, so the company really had no facilities to manufacture The Dale anyway.
The investigator also discovered that the few Dales that were manufactured were made from shoddy materials and they had a ton of design issues. There was no engine, the accelerator was not attached, the doors were attached with regular house door hinges, the body was framed with wood, and the windows could bend back-and-forth.
There were only three prototypes — and one of those ended up on its side during a test run. Other than that, no other cars were being manufactured. The authorities were closing in, so she moved the business to Dallas. In 1974, a cease-and-desist order was issued so the Twentieth Century Motor Car Company would stop selling stock.
Two weeks after her move, the District Attorney filed criminal charges for grand theft against Carmichael. The Dallas police got a search warrant and they showed up at her home, but the family was already gone. As they went through her home, they found prosthetics and other evidence of her true identity.
Subsequent Arrest and Trial
Turns out, Elizabeth Carmichael managed to flee her home with her family only minutes before the Dallas police raided her property. This is where they found prosthetics, wigs, and padded bras, which led authorities to discover her true identity. It’s important to note that when this was made public, the status of her gender confirmation surgery was discussed in the press, though it had nothing to do with the charges she was facing.
They now knew she was a trans woman who was born Jerry Dean Michael, wanted for counterfeiting charges since 1961. In April, she was finally found by authorities in Miami and she was arrested as she tried to escape out of a window. She was sent to California where she faced charges of grand theft, conspiracy, and corporate securities fraud.
At the trial, she represented herself and she petitioned the court for her right to be addressed as a woman, which they granted. She declared she was an automotive pioneer and she claimed The Dale would have succeeded — eventually. However, the prosecution brought in an automotive engineer as a witness and he begged to differ, declaring that The Dale was held together by coat hangers and baling wire.
After 16 days of deliberation, the jury found Elizabeth Carmichael guilty in 1977 on 26 counts. They found that she had defrauded her investors and customers of an estimated $1 to $3 million. She received a prison sentence, but when her appeals ended and she was out on bail in 1980, she escaped yet again.
Elizabeth Carmichael went into hiding and her case was so notorious that she was featured in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries in 1989. They detailed what she had done and she was a wanted fugitive, so they encouraged the audience to contact the authorities if they had any information that would lead to her capture.
Sure enough, around two weeks after the episode aired, the Texas police got a tip from a viewer of the show, which led to them finding Elizabeth in – wait for it — Dale, Texas. Ironic, isn’t it? She was working at a flower shop and she was going by the alias Katherine Elizabeth Johnson.
She was arrested in April 1989 and she was sent to California, where she was tried once again and sent to prison with another sentence. Elizabeth Carmichael would serve 18 months in a men’s prison for her convictions in Los Angeles, even though the courts recognized she was a woman and she wanted to serve in a women’s prison. In 2004, she died of cancer.
It is important to note that her gender identity was challenged by many reporters at the time. One reporter, in particular, named Dick Carlson, focused greatly on her gender identity and he refused to use female pronouns for her. He speculated that she was only living as a woman to not only escape the law but also gain publicity.
Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael’s story was the subject of a four-part documentary, The Lady and the Dale, which aired in January 2021 on HBO. The documentary explores scam of The Dale automobile and the mystery that surrounds Elizabeth’s personal life. They tell the history of her rise as an entrepreneur and her inevitable fall. There is also another documentary coming up, called Welcome to Dale: The Elizabeth Carmichael Story.
Her story is truly one of a kind when it comes to fraud, identity, and even family, so it is a very interesting one. If today’s article was not enough for you and you want to continue exploring the complexities of this story, we recommend you watch The Lady and the Dale. It will definitely be worth your time and you will get a bit more insight into who she was and what went on during her scam.
Featured graphic by Alden Jewell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons