HBO this Sunday premieres a four-part documentary called “The Lady and The Dale” that traces the story of one of the biggest cons in auto industry history. It tells the tale of the Dale, a three-wheeler promoted as a cheap, light, and fuel-efficient commuter in the 1970s — and the story of the car’s biggest promoter, the company founder who wound up in jail.
American entrepreneur Elizabeth Carmichael created the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation shortly after the first oil embargo rocked the economy and forced the Big Three to make profound changes to their range. While firms like Chevrolet, Ford, and American Motors Corporation (AMC) struggled with downsizing, the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation promised to put motorists in a car that was ideally suited to the era.
Known as the Dale, it made its debut with two front wheels, a single rear wheel, and a total weight of less than 1,000 pounds. It was said to be powered by an air-cooled, 850-cc engine borrowed from BMW’s motorcycle parts bin and tuned to about 40 horsepower. Significantly, it was advertised as being capable of returning 70 mpg and cruising at up to 85 mph. Better yet, pricing started at only $2,000 in 1974, which represents $10,600 in 2021.
Adding to the sensational nature of the scam was Liz Carmichael’s backstory: She was a transgender woman who had had a series of wives, along with five children who described a life on the run as Carmichael stayed one step ahead of the law from a long history of shady business dealings, including counterfeiting. In 1973, she discovered the Dale and its inventor, Dale Clifft. Carmichael had the car painted yellow to match the bold claims she was making about the car, and even managed to get it onto the floor of the Los Angeles Auto Show and on the stage of “The Price Is Right.”
Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation raised over $30 million, according to Road & Track, but it reportedly built just three Dale prototypes, and just one could move under its own power — it was equipped with a lawn mower engine. Government and private investigators later realized the tricycle was little more than a neatly-wrapped scam, and that the company had neither the intention nor the capability to mass-produce cars.
The company closed in 1978. After fleeing California and working at a flower shop in Texas, Carmichael was arrested in 1989 and sentenced to 10 years in jail. Surprisingly, one of the three aforementioned prototypes still exists in 2021. It’s a fiberglass-bodied mock-up kept in the Petersen Museum.
Produced by Mark and Jay Duplass, who created the Rajneeshee documentary “Wild Wild Country,” and co-directed by Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker, “The Lady and The Dale” will premiere on Sunday, January 31, with two back-to-back hourlong episodes scheduled to air at 9 p.m. on both coasts. Viewers who can’t tune in to watch the debut will be able to stream the episodes on HBO Max.
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