HBO’s new documentary series, The Lady and the Dale, is (from what I’ve seen so far) a pretty compelling retelling of one of the strangest scams in automotive history, at least until the Elio people try to make an escape in a flotilla of hot-air balloons or something. We’ve written about the whole strange saga of the Dale hoax back in 2013 (where we also suggested it would make a great movie) but there is something new in the HBO series: pictures of the actual, working car that started it all.
I won’t get into the whole story of the Dale here, but I’ll try to very quickly summarize it by saying that a woman named Liz Carmichael started a company at the height of the 1970s gas crisis to sell a revolutionary three-wheeled car that would be safe, comfortable, get over 70 mpg and cost less than $2,000 (which would be about $10,000 today).
It was the right idea at the right time, but, sadly, it wasn’t real, and Carmichael took a lot of money in without delivering any cars.
That said, the idea for the Dale — a cheap, light, very efficient three-wheeler — and the car’s name did come from something real, specifically a car built by an engineer named Dale Clifft.
Carmichael encountered Clifft and his car by chance, and that’s what got the whole mess rolling. And while Clifft did work in a sort of consultant capacity for the company created to build the Dale, 20th Century Motors, he was not involved in the derivative designs that the company came up with, none of which ended up in a working car.
While much of this story about Clifft providing the inspiration for the Dale and his (really very limited) role in 20th Century Motors has already been known, I have never seen what Clifft’s original car actually looked like.
The internet seems to be strangely free of pictures of the car, which is why I was so excited to see that the people behind the HBO documentary series managed to find multiple pictures of the car!
So, finally, here’s what Dale Clifft’s orginal, non-scam Dale looked like:
As you can see, it’s very much a three-wheeled motorcycle, very light and very minimal. Clifft was an avid motorcyclist, and wanted something he could ride yet still be protected from the elements.
An interview with Richard Smith, a friend of Clifft’s, describes how it was built in more detail:
Little known is the fact that Dale had built a car in his residential garage. It was built with ½ inch electrical conduit that was brazed together to form the frame/body. It was covered with naugahyde and powered by a third rear wheel that was a motorcycle with the front wheel removed. This was the only vehicle Dale was involved with that was a true functioning car that was driven many miles on the street.
So, it’s the back half of a motorcycle providing power and the rear wheel, with a frame made of electrical conduit holding it all together, using motorcycle wheels and suspension for the front end, all covered in Naugahyde.
It’s a clever design, much like similar motorcycle-derived light cars that have been around since the 1930s or so. I’m especially reminded of the Czech Velorex, which used a similar tube-frame construction, motorcycle mechanicals and everything wrapped in fake leather.
Clifft’s three-wheeler took that basic Velorex formula and made it a bit more American — bigger, slicker, probably faster, too. But it was still very much an ultralight, motorcycle-derived vehicle. I have no doubt something like that could get about 75 mpg, but there’s no way anyone would feel like it was a “real” car, and the planned development path for the Dale, had it been actually real, would definitely not have ended up with a car that made 70 mpg.
The designs shown and the nonrunning prototypes of the Dale that were built were all much bigger, made of fiberglass and far, far heavier than Clifft’s sleek little naugahyde torpedo. Aside from also having three wheels and Clifft’s first name, there was almost nothing linking the two.
Clifft, though initially so excited by the prospect of his car becoming mass-produced, soon realized that Carmichael’s claims were impossible. Again, from that interview with his friend:
Dale finally put his foot down when Liz claimed 70 miles to the gallon. From this time forward, with this claim and others, Dale began to put two and two together. This fallout with Liz, who had total control of all the company function, led to Liz telling Dale to take a hike and never come back.
The break between Clifft and Carmichael and her company was, in many ways, the real breaking point, as Clifft’s car was the only part about the whole Dale mess that was actually what it said it was.
Dale Clifft built a highly-efficient three-wheel little car, and he actually drove the hell out of it and used it regularly. It was never going to be a mass-market, mainstream kind of car, but it did exactly what it was trying to do — an honest machine.
It’s a shame it got so tied up in the whole Dale saga, but that’s also likely why we’re still talking about it at all. There were lots of people in the 1970s tinkering around with homebuilt, motorcycle or maybe VW-chassis-based car projects, and most have been forgotten.
Dale Clifft’s car, though, hasn’t. And I’m thrilled that, finally, we can see what it actually looked like, even if it is because it’s so tied to such a nefarious tale.