'The Lady And The Dale' Is A Good Reminder Huckster Automakers Will Always Be With Us

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Photo: HBO

HBO debuted its Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation documentary last night, which I dutifully watched. It’s called The Lady And The Dale, and I highly recommend it, if for no other reason than a lot of it will sound very, very familiar.

The documentary is four parts, and only the first two parts are out now, with the third episode airing next weekend and the finale airing a week after that. This is to say that I’ve only seen half of it, though this being nonfiction I know how the story ends.

It is the story of Elizabeth Carmichael, who founded Twentieth Century in 1974 to build the three-wheeled, 70 mpg Dale, only to later go on the run and end up in prison, with no Dales produced. Carmichael was a sensation with a complicated story to tell, which The Lady And The Dale does well; for the purposes of this blog let’s focus on the automaker huckster part.


Because Carmichael certainly was in that vein, and it was hard to watch the documentary without constantly thinking about Elon Musk and Tesla. To wit:

  • The Dale featured “unbreakable” plastic that wasn’t really unbreakable, in that tests were done and the plastic survived a sledgehammer but not a bullet. Remember this?
  • One could put down a $1,900 refundable deposit to be among the first to buy the Dale; Tesla, too, knows all about deposits.
  • “I don’t want to sound like an egomaniac but I am a genius,” is an actual quote from Elizabeth Carmichael from the documentary, though if Elon Musk said that you would not blink an eye.
  • Carmichael aspired for Twentieth Century to be the biggest carmaker in the world, marketing the Dale as a car that addressed needs — the 1970s oil crisis, protecting the environment — that legacy automakers ignored, as Tesla does.
  • The Dale established a cult-like following, and so did Carmichael, which, well, I don’t want to lay it on too thick here but.
  • Carmichael and Twentieth Century had a contentious relationship with the media, while Tesla dissolved its PR department last year after many years of having a contentious relationship with the press.
  • [Spoiler alert for later episodes] Carmichael eventually left California and ended up in Texas, which, hmm.

I say all of this mainly in jest since Tesla and Twentieth Century could not be more different in that one was a giant failure and the other just a regular car company now. Elio Motors is probably a better comparison for Twentieth Century, at any rate. It’s almost as if a lot of this stuff is as old as time.