How Elizabeth Carmichael Went From Small Time Scams To Running An Infamous Car Company

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
The story of Elizabeth Carmichael, the subject of HBO’s The Lady and the Dale, might sound a little familiar if you’ve followed Elizabeth Holmes… or watched old-school Unsolved Mysteries.
Like her fellow Elizabeth, Carmichael is no stranger to a scam (or being a woman in a male-dominated field). In the 1970s, Carmichael, an Ayn Rand-loving trans woman, tried to take the automobile industry by storm with the Dale, an inexpensive three-wheeled car in decade-appropriate yellow that was supposedly the answer to the fuel crisis gripping the U.S. 
As the docuseries from Jay and Mark Duplass shows, however, the Dale wasn’t exactly what it was stacked up to be. The car wasn’t all that real — the few in existence didn’t even work — and Carmichael was a serial grifter who routinely swindled people. 
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Here’s what you need to know about Elizabeth Carmichael as you dive into The Lady and the Dale.

Elizabeth Carmichael's Early Life, Family & Wife

Geraldine Elizabeth “Liz” Carmichael was a trans woman who was born in 1937. Information about the con artist’s early life is scarce, but in 1959 she married Vivian Barrett Michael, with whom she had five children. The family’s early years were a sign of what was to come, however – gatherings were set up via “coded newspaper messages,” per the Daily Beast, and they were prepared to leave for a new town at any given moment, as moving was cheaper than paying rent.
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
There weren’t many options or resources for Carmichael to transition in the U.S., so she would go to Mexico in order to get hormone injections and imitate recordings to adjust her voice, according to amNewYork. She eventually had a surgical procedure in Tijuana, per the Daily Beast, and began living publicly as a woman. “We love her just as much as we loved him,” Barrett Michael told People in 1975. “The children call her Mother Liz and me just plain Mother.”

Carmichael's Job Before The Dale

Before the Dale, Carmichael was already tapping into her con artist ways, creating fake identities and committing petty crimes such as check forgery. She claimed she was both the widow of a NASA engineer and the daughter of an Indiana farmer. She was even wanted by federal authorities in 1961 for being allegedly involved in a counterfeit operation and in 1962 for jumping bail.
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While working at a marketing company in 1973, Carmichael discovered the Dale, a three-wheeled car by Dale Clifft made of Rigidex, or a “rocket structural resin,” which could supposedly withstand impact against a brick wall at up to 50 mph. The Dale promised 70 mpg, plus 80 mph, all at a cool $2,000 — the perfect solution to the ‘70s fuel crisis. And thus, a scam was born.

How The Dale Scam Worked

In 1973, upon her discovery of the Dale, Carmichael created Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation, inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, with the help of several mob figures, to produce the car. She claimed she had a degree in mechanical engineering and told both investors and the press that Twentieth Century had rented three airplane hangars for production. She ended up landing major interviews with Newsweek and People, and a Tonight Show mention — and deposits from both customers and investors.
Carmichael was supposed to hold the deposits in an escrow account (which of course didn’t happen). In 1974, California investigators began looking into both Carmichael and Twentieth Century, and discovered things weren’t what they seemed. The Dale was meant to be created alongside two other three-wheeled vehicles: the full-sized Revelle and the family van Vanagon. A California DMV investigator, Bill Hall, went to the labs and aircraft hangars, only to discover not only were they empty, but the rent had actually expired, so there was nowhere to even produce the cars. The DMV also learned Twentieth Century did not have a permit to manufacture the cars. Carmichael was in turn accused of selling cars that didn’t exist.
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There were three Dales in existence, however. All three were made from shoddy materials, including windows that could bend and doors attached with household hinges. Only one Dale actually worked.
Meanwhile, one-time KABC reporter (and father of far-right Fox News host Tucker Carlson) Dick Carlson exposed Carmichael’s shady operation with more than 20 pieces about her and the Dale. But in the process, he also repeatedly attacked Carmichael for being trans, referring to her incorrectly by male pronouns and even suggesting she was a man pretending to be a woman as part of the scam.

What Happened To Elizabeth Carmichael

As California authorities closed in on Carmichael, she moved Twentieth Century to Dallas. Two weeks after the shift, she was charged with grand theft. Dallas police searched her home, but Carmichael and her five children had already left. They found prosthetics at the house, leading them to think she was hiding her identity. Back in California, Hall had obtained a search warrant for the research lab.
Carmichael and her children fled to Miami, where she was working for a dating service under the name Susan Raines. After nine weeks, her neighbor recognized Carmichael and called authorities. Her dead name had surfaced, and she was arrested on April 12, 1975. She was extradited to Los Angeles, where she went on trial for conspiracy, grand theft, and fraud.
On January 24, 1977, she was convicted and released on a $50,000 bail. She tried unsuccessfully four times to appeal the conviction. In 1980, she didn’t show up in court, and wasn’t seen again for eight years.
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Following an Unsolved Mysteries episode about her scam and disappearance, a reader tipped off the program. Carmichael was living in Dale, Texas, where she was working as a floral vendor under the name Kathryn Elizabeth Johnson. She was arrested at home. Eight months after jumping bail, she returned to California, where she was sentenced to 32 months for the Dale scam, and sent to an all-male facility — unjust treatment that trans women still face now. After serving two years of her sentence, she was released with three years’ parole.
In 2004, she died of cancer.
The Lady & The Dale premieres new episodes on HBO and HBO Max on Sundays.

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