Motor Con: How Liz Carmichael and Her Dale Car Took Everyone for a Ride
On a 1975 episode of The Price Is Right, host Bob Barker waved a hand to draw the contestants’ attention to one of the most unusual prizes ever featured on the show. It was a Revette, a bright yellow motor vehicle on three wheels that its creator, Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael, had long promised would revolutionize the auto industry.
Carmichael had promoted the compact car—which she said had a light but durable chassis made of “rocket structural resin” and incredible fuel efficiency of 70 miles per gallon—relentlessly. The contestant didn’t come close to guessing the price of the Revette (previously known as the Dale): a remarkably cheap $2000, or about $11,000 today.
Had someone been awarded the vehicle, they would have been in for quite the surprise. The car on display for the show was a prototype, one Carmichael had convinced producers to include. According to the federal government, Carmichael was a con artist, preying on the needs of a country gripped by an oil crisis and looking to make transportation more affordable any way possible. Fairly or not, the Dale would go down as one of history’s greatest hoaxes, and Carmichael one of the great hoaxers—a story that would eventually encompass Unsolved Mysteries, fraud charges, and an even bigger secret that would take most everyone who knew Carmichael by surprise.
Carmichael’s background was murky, likely by design. Born sometime between 1928 and 1937, she would later tell journalists she had grown up on a farm in Indiana and learned the ins and outs of engine mechanics by repairing trucks and tractors. “I was so poor,” she said in 1975, “that I had to beg all week for 50 cents for the movies, where I saw people driving fancy cars, living in fancy buildings and looking like they had never even seen dirt, much less worked it.”
She married a man employed by NASA, she said, and had worked so he could get his Masters degree. When his career was stable, she got degrees in business administration and mechanical engineering. Then, tragedy struck: Her husband passed away of a heart attack in 1966, leaving her a widow with their five children.
Carmichael was gripped by an entrepreneurial spirit, and she eventually struck up a partnership with Dale Clifft, who had designed a three-wheeled vehicle out of motorcycle parts. She told Clifft she could mass-produce the design and would pay him a royalty. When Clifft agreed, Carmichael opened Twentieth Century Motor Car Company, named after a fictitious business in author Ayn Rand’s anti-collectivist novel Atlas Shrugged.
Carmichael got to work in 1974. But rather than figuring out mass production or creating working prototypes (only one was reputed to actually operate under its own power), she instead focused on promoting what she had dubbed the Dale, the vehicle she anticipated would immediately make her a major player against the likes of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler.
According to Carmichael, the compact two-seater could reportedly reach speeds of up to 85 miles per hour and had a printed circuit board system instead of conventional wiring. She also said it was also incredibly safe: She claimed to have driven into a wall at 30 miles per hour, with both car and driver coming out intact. (Sometimes, Carmichael’s story upped the speed. According to one 1975 newspaper article, “At 50 [mph], she said the car ‘tore up’, but was able to climb out, blood running down her face, her body black with bruises from the safety belts.” Later, reports would claim she drove the car into the wall at 60 mph with no ill effects for herself or the car.)
To Carmichael, the Dale was a vehicle to escape the poverty of her youth. “At 21, I would have been satisfied with millions, but now I want billions,” she said. “This car’s going to make me more green than you can see in Vermont on a clear day.”
She refused to be shy about her ambitions. “Everything ever produced in the world came as a result of some individual doing something for himself. Study Henry Ford and H.L. Hunt. I personally don’t give a [s**t] about the public. I don’t give one hoot in hell about the environment. I don’t care whether or not people have a cheaper car. But I do want to become very powerful. I want to rule the world and the way I’m gonna do it is by building a better car. If in the process I happen to do something for mankind, it will be only incidental. The important thing is that I’ll have done a service to myself. I’m strictly out for Liz Carmichael, her family, and her supporters.”
Promotional copy for the car was equally breathless:
“Designed and built like it’s ready to be driven to the moon … rides like a rocket, yet it’s built like a tank. The framework in the Dale is of structural resin … ounce for ounce, the strongest material known. Sledgehammer force won’t dent or shatter the body. It’s super-solid. And minor scratches won’t show because the surface pigment is the same color as the structural material underneath.”
But what struck people most was the tri-wheel design. With two wheels in front and one in the back, the rear seemed to hover in midair. Carmichael claimed that losing the fourth wheel reduced the car’s weight to a slim 1000 pounds and shaved $300 off the retail price. The car was astoundingly cheap at $2000—the average new car price in 1975 was roughly $4750—and equally cheap to operate. Oil embargoes had driven fuel prices up in the early 1970s, making it the perfect car for the time. Maybe too perfect.
Despite a lack of road tests, Carmichael’s grandiose promises attracted a number of investors, pre-orders (at $500 a pop), and people looking to open Dale dealerships. She received payments of $35,000 to $75,000 for franchises and claimed to have gotten more than a million for overseas rights—yet nothing was being manufactured. A planned 150,000 square foot plant in Burbank, California, never seemed operational. A postal inspector who went to take a look found it was vacant. When pressed, Carmichael insisted production would begin to ramp up by June 1975.
That inertia soon drew the attention of the California Department of Corporations, which told Twentieth Century they were selling dealer franchises illegally. The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles also informed Carmichael she had no state permit to actually manufacture the cars. And then a promotions man named William Miller was murdered in his office, which accelerated the investigations.
To escape further scrutiny, Carmichael moved operations from California to Texas and renamed the Dale the Revette. She managed to get the car an appearance on The Price Is Right, but bad press continued to pile up. One engineer who was shown a prototype declared it “a load of junk” that had lawn mower carburetors and an engine typically found in portable generators. There was no way, the engineer said, anyone could have ever driven it 60 miles into a wall, as the vehicle would have been reduced to rubble.
Another state inspector who stumbled upon a prototype observed it was holding up one wheel using two-by-four lumber; the car doors were held on by the kind of hinges used on house doors. It was less a car prototype and more of a prop.
Carmichael’s past was also subject to fact-checking. When reporters told her that there was nothing to support her claims of degrees from Ohio State University or the University of Miami, she pivoted and said they were under a maiden name she refused to disclose. Throughout, Carmichael pushed a narrative that the delays were being exaggerated by a vengeful Detroit car industry that would have been financially impacted by the success of the Dale, and she accused automakers of sabotage.
But it wouldn’t be easy to escape the attention of regulators, and soon Carmichael would find herself embracing another mode of transportation: running.
After a court injunction prevented Twentieth Century from collecting more investor money, Carmichael found herself in criminal trouble: conspiracy to commit theft of over $10,000. (Ten of her employees faced the same charge, though most ended up having their charges dropped.) She knew it, too, and fled her home in Texas before police arrived.
While there, authorities discovered Carmichael left in a hurry, leaving behind wigs and padded bras. This was law enforcement’s first awareness that Liz Carmichael was a trans woman. That led them to discover that Carmichael was a fugitive twice over—not just for the Dale scam, but for failing to answer for counterfeiting charges under her birth name in 1961. Her late husband, the NASA engineer Jim, was a total fabrication.
Nine weeks after going on the run, Carmichael was captured in Miami by FBI agents after a neighbor saw a photograph and called the authorities. She was sent back to California to answer charges relating to the Dale, including grand theft and corporate securities fraud.
Carmichael’s gender identity was perceived by some in the press as an attempt to elude authorities on the counterfeiting charges, but Carmichael herself rejected this notion. She had undergone self-administered hormone treatments and was open about her transition to her wife, Vivian Barrett Michael, with whom she had five children. The entire family had moved to Miami when Carmichael felt compelled to go on the run.
Despite the fact that her gender was unrelated to her criminal activities, Carmichael found the two inexorably intertwined when she began facing the consequences for the Dale. She asked the court to acknowledge her as a woman during her trial and, were she found guilty, to be remanded to a women’s prison.
The court granted the first request but not the second. After being found guilty during a jury trial, in 1977 Carmichael was sentenced to up to 20 years in prison and fined $30,000.
She had other plans.
Fleeing the Scene
Carmichael was allowed to be out on bail while the appeals process made its way through the judicial system. She and her five children (she had separated from Vivian during her trial) set up a roadside flower vending operation in Los Angeles. In 1980, when it became clear prison was inevitable, Carmichael skipped bail and became a fugitive—again.
It would be nine years before she would be returned to custody. Carmichael’s downfall came as a result of a 1989 appearance on Unsolved Mysteries, which tasked viewers with providing tips if they knew anything about any of the unresolved cases featured on the show. Within minutes of the broadcast, someone phoned to say they recognized Carmichael as a flower vendor named Kathryn Elizabeth Johnson. Her location: Dale, Texas.
Carmichael was captured and proceeded to serve time in a California men’s prison before being paroled. She resumed a roadside flower shop business in Austin before succumbing to cancer in 2004. Her Dale car never materialized, but after Carmichael’s 1975 arrest, her wife Vivian maintained her intentions were genuine: “It was never having enough money to really start a business right,” she said. “The car business was good. It was legitimate … The car was real.”
Practically speaking, that was true. The three prototypes have all survived: One is stored at the Petersen Auto Museum in California; one is in private hands; and the other is displayed at the Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed in Lincoln, Nebraska. Painted bright yellow, it’s still as eye-catching as ever. While Carmichael’s methodology wasn’t quite legal, her ambition was palpable. “The two most important things about me,” she once said, “is that I have endless energy, and I am totally one hundred percent honest.”