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.
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.
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.
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