The Dale Was a Car Implosion to Rival DeLorean, With a Founder More Controversial Than Elon Musk
Liz Carmichael and the three-wheeled '70s sci-fi car she built are the subjects of a new docuseries on HBO
It was the early ‘90s in Santa Paula, California. On the auction block sat a rare car, a three-wheeled mythical beast the color of Juicy Fruit. In the audience sat Leslie Kendall, hoping to score a showpiece for the newly opened Petersen Automotive Museum. He convinced the museum’s curator that if they drove out to the sale, they may be able to score it with the little money they had for acquisitions at the time. When they arrived, they were dismayed to find others had the same idea.
“I remember the bidding got to about $6,000 and people started dropping out,” recalls Kendall, who is now chief historian at the Petersen. By the time it got to $7,000, there were only two bidding parties left, them and one other man. They started going back and forth in increments of $100 until they hit $7,500, theoretically the museum’s limit. “I said, ‘Look, can’t we just do a hundred bucks more?’ And probably thinking we weren’t going to get it, he said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ So we did it at $7,600.” The other bidder dropped out. They won.
The car in question was the Dale. One of only a handful known to exist, it was manufactured by the short-lived Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation in the mid-’70s. Almost three decades after the auction, and five since the car’s introduction, Kendall’s prediction that it would eventually be recognized as an important piece of automotive history is coming true. The nameplate is one half of the subject of The Lady and the Dale, a new four-part documentary series on HBO, for which Kendall was tapped for his insight into the car’s mysterious history.
While you may have never heard of the vehicle or its maker, the story is oddly relevant; it involves a maverick leader who makes radical claims à la Elon Musk, a car company hit with allegations of fraud à la Nikola, and even the complex and ongoing discussions around gender identity. Another thread connecting the Dale to today? Conspiracy theories.
For a long time, the story of the Dale, Twentieth Century Motor Car Corp. and the company’s founder Elizabeth “Liz” Carmichael (the “lady” of the title) was one of deception. In short, Carmichael introduced the Dale to the public in 1974, promising the three-wheeled car would be cheap (under $2,000), fuel efficient (70 mpg, in the middle of the oil crisis, no less) and almost indestructible (she claimed it was bulletproof). When she couldn’t follow through on her promises, she cashed out and made a break for it; and when she was eventually caught, she disappeared again after posting bail. It was a “car of the future” collapse to rival DeLorean. Then, a 1989 episode of Unsolved Mysteries premiered detailing the case, leading to her capture (in Dale, Texas, no less) and eventual imprisonment.
That episode is where Nick Cammilleri, co-director of the new docuseries, first heard the story of Liz and the Dale, though it was years later in 2011. Instead of latching onto the lewd details of the story — Scam! Scandal! Outrage! — Cammilleri found a deeper interest, one that propelled him to develop a story that would take up 10 years of his life before finally reaching an audience.
“What I liked about [Carmichael] was that she was scrappy and a fighter,” Cammilleri tells InsideHook. “She was so industrious, an entrepreneur, a mother of five. I kind of saw her as this human Swiss Army Knife.”
However, when the filmmaker went to look up more information online, he came up emptyhanded. “I thought maybe there’d be a book or a movie or a documentary that would tell me everything, but there was nothing,” he says. “And I didn’t learn until years later that it’s because transgender history gets erased.”
That’s where the other co-director, Zackary Drucker, comes in. She’s probably best known for first being a consultant, and eventually a producer, on the show Transparent, which was originally celebrated for bringing a thoughtful transgender story to mainstream audiences. If Cammilleri was knee-deep in court documents and car blueprints, Drucker was brought onto The Lady and the Dale to help tell the personal story of Carmichael, who is now understood to have been a trans woman (she died in 2004). Previously, the general consensus was that she was disguising herself as a woman to run from the law.
“They never understood or even accepted the idea that Liz might have been trans,” explains Cammilleri.
If The Lady and the Dale solely focused on untangling the misconceptions, swatting down the transphobia and illuminating the forgotten personal history of Carmichael, it would be worth a watch. But it’s much more than that. As Cammilleri notes, his research on the car, the company and the crimes led him down mystifying dead ends and eventually goldmine finds.
“I remember one of my first stops was at the courthouse trying to get the court transcripts … and at the end of the day the lady said to me, ‘Oh, somebody took them out and never returned them,’” recalls Cammilleri. “There were no court transcripts for what was essentially a nine-month trial.” In an attempt to find evidence of the Dale when it appeared on The Price Is Right, he also came up empty, only to discover that the episode was removed because it also featured animal furs among the prizes (there was a moratorium on those episodes under host and animal activist Bob Barker). Later, he came across an auction on eBay that had photos, documents and “a scrapbook of the trial,” all of which led to some of the sources in the documentary.
For years Cammilleri was trying to answer one simple question: Was the Dale a real car or was it all a scam? In the end, both he and Kendall agree that it most certainly was real, and its downfall was largely due to Carmichael’s inability to secure the investment needed to fund her car’s meteoric trajectory and realize her wild claims.
But how wild were they, really? Carmichael claimed the Dale was bulletproof, that it would make Americans less reliant on oil, that her automaker would take on giants like Ford and General Motors, and that she was so confident it was the car of the future that they’d take pre-orders in the form of cash deposits. Yes, that does sound an awful lot like Elon Musk. But while the Tesla CEO has told stories of his electric car maker barely escaping bankruptcy, Carmichael and the Dale actually did go out in a blaze — maybe not a glorious one, but a blaze nonetheless.
You’ll have to watch the series for yourself to see how Carmichael’s story ends. As for the Dale, the model Kendall acquired still sits in the Vault at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California.Their version isn’t actually drivable (as he discusses in a new video from the museum), but the historian thinks there are plenty of aspects that could inspire a new “car of the future” if anyone dares to try.
“I think virtually everything about that car was a good idea,” says Kendall. When asked if that applies to the bright yellow paint job, he took a second to mull it over.
“You know what? If I drove a Dale, I wouldn’t want it to be any other color.”
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