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HomeCar CultureThe tale of the Dale, and the person promoting it

The tale of the Dale, and the person promoting it

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The tale of the Dale, and the person promoting it
HBO documentary series poster

Remember the Dale? HBO does and starting January 31, the cable TV channel will offer a 4-part documentary series on the car and its promoter.

“The Dale was a 3-wheeled fiberglass coupe which its promoter Elizabeth Carmichael claimed would outsell Detroit’s Big Three,” The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile reports of the short-lived car company founded in the mid-1970s.

“Annual sales of 3 million cars were predicted,” the book continues, “and among the Dale’s slogans were ‘Dollar for Dollar, the Best Car Ever Built,’ ‘The First Space Age Automobile,’ and ‘Designed and built like it’s ready to be driven to the Moon.’ 

“Extolling the 3-wheeled layout, the catalog claimed ‘The tri-wheel Dale is about to revolutionize the automobile industry. It’s the way more automobiles will be designed, from this day forward’.”

Well, not quite.

“In fact,” the encyclopedia’s authors add, “only one prototype was ever built, powered by an 850cc 2-cylinder Onan engine normally used to drive electric generators… Carmichael was later revealed to be a man, Jerry Dean Michael, and after years on the run, he was jailed for fraud in 1989.”

Knowing the above will not diminish your experience while watching the HBO documentary series, The Lady and The Dale, which launches January 31. However, it will give you a perspective for what unfolds during the quartet of 56-minute episodes. 

And what unfolds is a story worthy of a major Hollywood motion picture and/or best-selling book. The story of Jerry Dean Michael turned Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael is that enthralling, if at times it almost seems unbelievable.

Jerry Dean Michael was born in 1927 and grew up troubled and unhappily on a farm about 30 miles south of Terre Haute, Indiana. In his later teenage years, he fled the farm for Detroit, and by 1946, there was an FBI file on him. 

He was married several times and had children he never knew, frequently moved to avoid paying rent, but reportedly could sell anything — including guns to the Cuban revolutionary movement. 

At one point, and married yet again, he operated a small newspaper in Los Angeles, though was arrested and charged by the Secret Service with using the press to print counterfeit money. He failed to appear after being indicted by a grand jury and fled with his latest family. This would not be the last time Michael/Carmichael would be able to hide from authorities. 

The tale of the Dale, and the person promoting it
Movie still: Period newspaper front page| HBO

As his past seemed to be catching up with him, skeptics would say he faked his own death and went into hiding as a woman, though his children contend it was an easy transition to calling him “Mother,” and referring to their real mother as “Aunt Vivian.” 

Now known as Elizabeth Carmichael, the family moved back to LA, where Liz, at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, found it difficult to find work, though finally landing at a marketing agency and meeting Dale Clifft, who had devised a way to enclose his motorcycle so he could ride during Southern California’s winter rainy season. 

This happened in 1973 during the Arab Oil Embargo.  Carmichael launched the 20th Century Motor Car Company on Ventura Boulevard and set out to take on Detroit’s gas-guzzlers by producing a car she promised would be as significant as Henry Ford’s  Model T, the Dale, a 3-wheeled vehicle that would get as much as 70 miles per gallon.

The tale of the Dale, and the person promoting it
Movie still: Carmichael and children | HBO

Rather than share any more of the story — and there is much more to share — I’ll leave this here, other than to report that although the documentary’s sometimes cartoony style of storytelling may surprise you at first, it works well in a narrative that never slows, even during the interviews with Michael/Carmichael’s family members, former employees, and others who encountered her, as well as by those involved in the transgender community.

This story is compelling, and it’s a tale that’s about much more than a car that never progressed beyond a single prototype.

Previewed

The Lady and The Dale

HBO Original documentary

Duplass Brothers Productions

Directors: Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker

Series debuts January 31, 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific

Larry Edsall
A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

8 COMMENTS

    • There is video of that episode of The Price is Right in the documentary. I think it was the prototype version and went back to 20th Century Motors. There is a prototype Dale at the Speedway Motors Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska.

    • I believe the story notes that there was really ever only 1 !
      ““In fact,” the encyclopedia’s authors add, “only one prototype was ever built, powered by an 850cc 2-cylinder Onan engine normally used to drive electric generators…”

      It would seem the adventures of Dale include an abuse of car culture, but never any real interest.

  1. One of the most interesting things I lived through (seemingly national is scope) and have no recall of!
    A multi chapter Bio Pic.

  2. Larry as being impressed by your prowlness again thank you for interesting article as I am a car guy from Canada and I never heard about this guy and his car Going to follow up on this Ron

  3. I only noticed, and remember this car for one obvious reason ( can you guess ? ) I have very mixed feelings about my namesake !

    • Not only the Dale, but there were two Sears car companies, one based in Indianapolis in 1901 (plan was to make steam-powered cars but reportedly none was ever manufactured for sale) and one in Chicago from 1908-1912. There also was Sears-Cross, in New York City, which made speedometers, and Sears-Nattinger, in Des Moines, Iowa, with made engines. The Sears in Chicago ws part of Sears, Roebuck and its motorcar was catalog number 21R333.

  4. Larry. The original car that Dale Clift built and was the inspiration for Carmichals Dale, tuned up in a Southern California garage. It is actually an interesting vehicle. Clift stored the car in a neighbors garage with the promise to pay $100 a month. When he died, the family moved away and payments stopped. The car was in that garage for 22 years. No family members ever showed up to claim it.

    When the homeowner died, the car was moved to San Clemente. Friends had it. We assisted them in loaning it to the Peterson museum. It is currently on display next to their Dale .

    Email me and I will send you pictures of the car coming out of the garage.

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