$3 million dollars is raised for a space age car that’s never built.
In 1973, America was faced with an oil crisis that nearly crippled the country. Consumers wanted a solution—cheaper gas or more fuel-efficient cars. One visionary claimed she had the perfect solution … a revolutionary, three-wheeled vehicle called “The Dale.”
This car supposedly cost less than two thousand dollars and would get 60 miles to the gallon. Made of a special aerospace plastic, its creator claimed it could withstand an impact against a brick wall at 50 miles per hour. According to car dealer Frank Gavrich, the Dale seemed like the perfect answer to the gas crunch:
“We all heard of the gas guzzlers coming from Detroit. And here’s somebody who could put out an automobile that could get 60 miles to a gallon of gas and travel all over the city without a problem. It would’ve been the ideal automobile.”
The entrepreneur who unveiled the Dale was a remarkable and forceful woman named Liz Carmichael, who saw herself as a cross between Howard Hughes and Henry Ford.
In 1973, Liz was a housewife living in Los Angeles with her five children. She claimed she had a degree in mechanical engineering, and in 1974, formed 20th Century Motor Car Corporation to produce her three-wheeled car, the Dale. Liz told investors and the press that her company was renting three huge aircraft hangars where they would soon start production. News of Carmichael and her car spread across the country. Soon she was being interviewed by Newsweek and People Magazine. But back at Carmichael’s headquarters in Encino, California, the authorities began to question her claims. The California Department of Corporations accused her of illegally selling both dealer franchises and cars that did not yet exist. Then, the Department of Motor Vehicles discovered the company had no state permit to manufacture cars. Bill Hall, an Investigator for the California Department of Motor Vehicles, questioned whether the lab was even developing a vehicle:
“We went to the research and development lab… people appeared to be busy. But in wandering through the lab I saw no evidence that they were designing a vehicle or in the process of making a vehicle.”
Bill Hall went to check out the three hangars where Carmichael claimed the cars would be manufactured:
“I went to this airport. Upon entering I discovered… the hangars were absolutely empty. No tools. No machinery. Nothing but a little dirt on the floor. They had rented this for only one month. And the rent had now expired. So they actually did not have a factory that they were representing they had.”
With the authorities closing in, Carmichael decided it was time to move her headquarters to Dallas. But two and a half weeks later, the district attorney filed criminal grand theft charges against Liz Carmichael. Back in California, Bill Hall went to the research and development lab with a search warrant:
“On inspection of this vehicle it was not a viable vehicle at all. It had no engine. Two-by-fours were holding up the rear wheel. The accelerator was just sitting on the floor. It wasn’t even attached. The windows were not safety glass. They would bend back and forth. The doors were put on by regular door hinges, like one might find on a house door. The vehicle just absolutely did not exist.”
The Dallas Police also searched Carmichael’s house. Apparently, she and her five children had moved out in a hurry. Liz Carmichael was gone. But nine weeks later, she was discovered living in Miami with her five children. A neighbor recognized her from a news photo and called the authorities. She was working for a dating service and going by the name of Susan Raines. They also learned that Liz Carmichael had another identity. She was really a man named Jerry Dean Michael.
Michael claimed he had begun hormone treatments in preparation for a sex change operation. It was later learned that Michael was wanted by the Federal authorities for counterfeiting in 1961 and for jumping bail in 1962. Jerry Dean Michael, alias Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael, was arrested on April 12, 1975. He was extradited to Los Angeles and put on trial for conspiracy, grand theft, and fraud. Robert Youngblood was the Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney at the time of his trial:
“Liz arrived in court everyday in mini-skirts. Now here’s somebody who’s over 200 pounds and over six feet tall, and has a demeanor of ‘ I am a new Henry Ford’. It was rather bizarre. Liz did not give one quarter in the course of the trial. There was never once when Liz gave up her position that the people who supported her would vindicate her.”
Jerry Dean Michael was convicted of conspiracy, grand theft, and fraud. He was released on $50,000 bail. For the next four years, he appealed his conviction and lost each time. Finally, in 1980, Michael failed to show up in court for sentencing and wasn’t seen again for eight years.
Within just minutes of our broadcast, we received a tip from a viewer who recognized Jerry Dean Michael as a flower vender named Kathryn Elizabeth Johnson. Michael had chosen to live in the small community of Dale, Texas, and was arrested at his home. Eight years after he jumped bail, Michael was returned to California. There, he was sentenced to 32 months on several counts arising from his auto scam. He was sent to an all-male facility. After serving just over two years, Jerry Dean Michael was discharged with three years of parole. A prototype of the Dale is in the permanent collection of the Petersen Automobile Museum in Los Angeles.