I came to the story of Elizabeth Carmichael the way I come to the majority of bizarre and fascinating stories these days – my intrepid editor Ashley Alese Edwards had been binging episodes of Unsolved Mysteries again.
"Have you ever heard of Liz Carmichael?" Ashley slacked me. "I think she's the original Elizabeth Holmes!" She included a link to this episode.
"!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" I slacked back.
We soon discovered this excellent 2013 article from Jalopnik detailing the life, times, and scams of one Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael, nee Jerry Dean Michael: an Ayn Rand-loving former counterfeiter, trans woman, parent of five, and erstwhile auto entrepreneur who offered a low-cost, low-mileage, three-wheeled car called the Dale that she said would be the answer to the gas shortage of the 1970s. By 1974, Carmichael managed to scam potential customers out of more than $3 million without producing a single road-worthy model of the Dale. Listen up Elizabeth Holmes: Liz Carmichael walked so you could run!
Carmichael started the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation (named for a company in the novel Atlas Shrugged) with The Dale as its flagship vehicle. (Holmes' Edison machine was named after inventor Thomas Edison.)
Jalopnik outlines the outrageous claims made about the vehicle: the three-wheeled car was made of a material called "Rigidex" purported to be a "rocket structural resin" that could resist the blows of a sledgehammer. It supposedly had a printed-circuit dashboard that made it wire-free. And most importantly for a consumer in the 1970s, the Dale would "get upwards of 70 MPG, reach 85 MPH, and cost less than $2,000."
Carmichael was a charismatic CEO who claimed to hold degrees in mechanical engineering. She said she was the recent widow of a (fictitious) former NASA structural engineer. She was interviewed by Newsweek and People before authorities began to question her claims. She was accused of illegally selling dealer franchises for cars that didn't exist and committing securities fraud. Bill Hall, an investigator for the California Department of Vehicles eventually went to the hangars where The Twentieth Century Motor Corporation said the Dales were being produced. He found empty buildings, "No tools. No machinery. Nothing but a little dirt on the floor," he told Unsolved Mysteries.
For those who have followed the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her now-defunct health technology company Theranos (once valued at $9 billion) the comparisons are obvious. Holmes tricked investors into believing in her finger-stick technology by manufacturing dummy mock-ups of the Edison – essentially microwave-sized metal boxes that looked kind of futuristic but performed no actual function.
The comparisons don't end there. Both women made outstanding claims that hit on a particular pain point: for Holmes it was the fear of blood draws; for Carmichael it was the cost and expense of owning a car. Both women knew the importance of marketing, even at the expense of actual production: Holmes styled herself as a "disruptor" and enlisted Errol Morris to make commercials for her company; Carmichael got the Dale placement on The Price is Right – the 1970s equivalent to a viral video.
And, in retrospect, both of their successes seem improbable. They were both women operating in traditionally male spaces of technology and finance who managed to, even for a short amount of time, achieve remarkable success. Those who were grifted by Holmes claim they were taken in by her "charisma" as a blonde, blue-eyed woman. But footage of the college dropout shows a questionably groomed woman speaking in an affected deep voice. At 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, Carmichael was a trans woman operating in a highly biased time who, even before adopting the persona of Liz Carmichael, had been on the run from counterfeiting charges for nearly a decade. They both managed to elide typical perceptions of femininity.
And what of their fates? Holmes is awaiting trial for charges of fraud that could result in 20 years of prison time. In the meantime, she's been partying at Burning Man with her fiancee and her dog-"wolf."
Carmichael went on the run after the Dale fallout and was on the lam until 1989, when she was featured in an episode of, yes, you guessed it, Unsolved Mysteries. An astute viewer recognized Carmichael as a woman calling herself Katherine Elizabeth Johnson who operated a successful roadside flower-selling operation in Texas. Michael/Carmichael/Johnson served 32 months in prison before being paroled. She died of cancer in 2004 but will live on in our minds as a transgressive, grifting tech queen - years ahead of her time.
ABC apparently owns the rights to Carmichael's story, so here's hoping for the prestige, prime-time docu-series that Ashley and I deserve.