April Fool’s Day internet browsing is not like every other day. Every story is a probably lie, and for once the normally foolproof policy of believing everything you read on the internet is not recommended. This story is different, though. This is an entirely true story about a whole massive load of lies. It involves a car, a trans woman, a murder, and Bob Barker. It has everything. It’s the strange story about a strange car called the Dale.
(Editor’s note: this story is from about seven years ago, and some terminology around trans people may have evolved from what’s used here. I don’t think there’s anything actually offensive, but it’s worth mentioning.)
The Dale story starts in the Deep Malaise Era of the mid 1970s. Gas was starting to get really expensive, and all over America people were looking at their massive, thirsty V8s and starting to wonder if lumbering around town in a Delta 88 was really worth being forced to put a kidney on the market to pay for the gas. People were getting desperate for a new, cheaper, more radical automotive option, and the Dale seemed to fit that need perfectly.
The Dale does look pretty much exactly like what you’d think a mid-70s “revolutionary” car would look like: a Corbin Sparrow, basically. It was a three-wheeler, because of course it was, but at least the wheels were in the preferred “tail dragger” configuration with two up front. The car was made of something that seemed like fiberglass but was referred to as Rigidex, an entirely impregnable “rocket structural resin.” Because rockets, of course.
The makers of the Dale, the Twentieth Century Motors Corporation, claimed in their brochure that the dale would get upwards of 70 MPG, reach 85 MPH, and cost less than $2,000. Even in 1974 dollars, that was cheap. As in less than a standard, stripped-down VW Beetle cheap.
And those are just the claims that almost sound rational. The car was also touted as having no wires thanks to its printed-circuit dashboard. Which, unless the dashboard flows through the entire car, doesn’t really make sense. The material the “framework” of the car was made from was claimed to be
“ounce, for ounce, the strongest material known. Sledge-hammer force won’t dent or shatter the body.”
… which is great if your biggest driving concern are packs of drunk Luddites wielding sledgehammers.
The Dale used a BMW flat-twin, air-cooled motorcycle engine. At least that’s what the brochure says and the diagrams show, even if the diagrams show the engine installed improbably and uselessly vertically in the car. Also, I think those are Firebird taillights on there.
So, technically, there’s some weirdness about the car, but, really, it’s nothing compared to the people behind the company. The company founder was 37 year old Geraldine Elizabeth (Liz) Carmichael, mother of five, and a widow of a former NASA structural engineer. Liz was a charismatic woman with a lot of presence, being significantly larger and more, um, robust, than an average woman, at 6 feet tall and 200 lbs. A huge Ayn Rand fan, Liz named the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation after another more or less equally fictitious company in Atlas Shrugged.
Liz was also different than many women in that she had been born a man, Jerry Dean Michael, and that particular man was wanted on counterfeiting charges.
People are free to live as whatever gender identity they choose, but in the context of the era, this was a bit unusual. Liz also claimed to hold degrees in mechanical engineering and marketing, and came to LA after her loyal and fictitious husband Jim died in 1966.
Liz talked a very convincing game, and had amassed $30 million for the company and produced a few prototypes, one of which at least seemed capable of self-propulsion and at least one other non-running one, which was shown at the 1975 Los Angeles Auto Show. At the show they claimed they would be able to ramp up to high-volume production by June of 1975, which, like getting the car crash-tested and EPA approved, seemed an insanely lofty goal.
During the time when one would imagine they’d be developing prototypes and testing the cars extensively, the company had been busy doing other things. Like selling stock shares without a permit, and selling dealerships and as-yet hypothetical cars to dealers, again without a manufacturer’s license.
Things got even more exciting in the company when, according to research done by Petersen museum curator Leslie Kendall,
In late January 1975, TCMCC salesman and former public relations representative William D. Miller was found murdered in his Encino office, the victim of four gunshot wounds to the head. The prime suspect was fellow employee Jack Oliver who, it was soon discovered, had previously served with Miller in San Quentin prison.
... since there’s nothing like a suspicious murder to put California state investigators at ease. Local SoCal TV news channels started investigating the woman, the company, and the car, and found all to be vastly different than how they were portrayed. With the shit on a clear collision course to fan impact, Liz bolted from LA and went to the Dallas suburb of Farmer’s Branch, where she re-established the company, cleverly re-naming the Dale the Revette to throw anyone off the trail.
Puzzlingly, Liz was never afraid of publicity, and promoted the Revette with as much enthusiasm as she did the Dale, even managing to have it be a Showcase Showdown prize on the Price is Right in early 1975. Luckily, the contestant was unable to guess the car’s price, saving everyone the embarrassment of winning a car that didn’t actually move under its own power. Though, to be fair, they did give away plenty of Chevettes that year.
Very soon after that, things began to crumble, as an injunction from the California Superior Court stated that the company was unable to actually produce a car (based on testimony from an engineer the company hired to help develop a 3-wheel station wagon called the Vanagen). Liz, always a half-step ahead, escaped just before police came to her house, leaving dinner on the table and, according to Kindall’s research, “a device used by female impersonators to disguise their sex.” That must have looked good in an evidence baggie.
Liz was eventually arrested in April of 1975, and convicted on both the counterfeiting and bail-jumping charges from her days as a man, and then for the fraudulent fiasco of the Dale/Revette. She was sentenced to 10-20 years, and ordered to pay $30,000 in restitution, which seems pretty small by today’s standards. But, none of that mattered, as slippery Liz disappeared after posting $50,000 bail.
It wasn’t until 1989 that Liz was finally re-captured, thanks to viewers of NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries program, presumably taking a break from their UFO and Sasquatch-hunting duties. She, now calling herself Katherine Elizabeth Johnson, was found in Dale (!), Texas running a roadside flower-selling operation largely staffed by kids. She did ten years in prison, and now seems to be running another surprisingly profitable roadside flower-selling venture in Austin, Texas.
Petersen curator Leslie Kindall, whose research provided much of the information here, sent me the pictures of the non-working Dale in the Petersen collection, which was acquired when the museum started in 1994.
Apparently, ABC-TV did buy the rights to the whole story in the late ‘80s, which they’ve yet to do anything with. That’s a good thing, because this story demands more than a TV movie. This is some good big-screen material here.
Part of me respects this Liz character. I suspect she had to, at least for a while, believe in the car itself on some level, and there’s something about the incredible, irrational tenacity that’s impressive. Too bad everything else is so absolutely insane.