By Brad Dison
In October of 1973, OAPEC, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, proclaimed an oil embargo which was targeted at nations who supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The embargo caused an oil crisis which drove gasoline prices up in the United States. Some politicians wanted to instill a national gasoline rationing program, but President Richard Nixon said a gasoline ration would be a last resort. By January of 1974, gasoline prices had quadrupled from what they were before the crisis.
Due to shortages, consumers abandoned the large, fuel-thirsty cars in favor of more compact, fuel-efficient cars. Customers flocked to Chevy Novas, Dodge Darts, and Ford Mavericks and avoided Ford LTDs and Chevrolet Caprices. One of the most fuel-efficient cars from that era was the Chevrolet Chevette hatchback, which the company claimed would get nearly 40 miles per gallon. Many people wondered if the America’s “Big 3”, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, could survive.
Consumers’ desire for more fuel-efficient cars brought Geraldine Elizabeth “Liz” Carmichael, president of the 20th Century Motor Car Company, to the forefront. Liz was a farm girl from rural Indiana who earned a degree in engineering at Ohio State University. She later met and married a NASA scientist but was widowed when he died tragically. Liz broke down barriers and became the first female CEO of an American automobile company. Liz tracked down another talented engineer named Dale Leon Clift who had used motorcycle parts to build a spunky, 3-wheeled roadster in his garage. Liz convinced Dale to sell her his unique car along with the license for the design for $1,000 upfront plus $3 million after it went into production.
Once all of the paperwork was squared away, Liz described the company’s upcoming model to the press. It was a 3-wheeled car for the future built of space-aged plastic which got 70 miles per gallon at a cost of only $2,000 when the lowest priced entry level cars from the Big 3 cost a minimum of $3,300. Liz named the car after its creator, Dale.
The Dale was a showstopper at the 1973 Los Angeles International Auto Show. Crowds gathered around the car and listened in amazement at every detail about the futuristic car. The Dale was untippable although it only had 3 wheels because of its center of gravity. The Dale was 300 pounds less than similar sized 4-wheel cars. It was ingeniously simple. Each mechanical component could be replaced in thirty minutes or less. Rather than messy wiring which could eventually prove problematic, every electrical part was controlled by a printed circuit dashboard. The car was made of an “aerospace plastic” called Rigidex, which could withstand a 50 mile per hour impact with a brick wall. The Dale was nothing short of an automotive revolution.
Investors invested heavily in the revolutionary car. Once the cars were available to the general public, the stock price was expected to skyrocket. The investors were sure to become wealthy. Things began to unravel when, in late January of 1975 20th Century Motor Car Company salesman William D. Miller’s body was found in his office in Encino, California. He had been shot four times in the head. A local news team investigating the murder made an unannounced visit to the large airplane hangars the company listed as its factory. To their surprise, the factory was completely empty. There were no workers, no tools, and no cars. There was no evidence that there had ever been a car factory at that location. Liz was missing too.
Liz fled to Texas to avoid prosecution, but she continued promoting the Dale under a new name, the Revette. Liz was successful enough that the Revette was featured on an episode of the game show, The Price is Right. A California regulator happened to be watching the gameshow and immediately recognized the unique vehicle. Investigators tracked Liz down and arrested her outside of Dallas, Texas.
Investigators learned that Liz was not her real name. Since 1961, federal agents had warrants for her under a different name for fraud, theft and counterfeiting. Liz was convicted in 1975 on the earlier federal charges after a nearly 2-year investigation and trial.
While appealing her case, a television producer under the guise of a perfume merchant bailed Liz out of jail. Liz had promised the producer an exclusive exposé on the Dale story. Before the exposé could be completed, Liz disappeared again. Twelve years later, another television producer, a producer for the NBC series Unsolved Mysteries, found Liz working at a flower stand under the name Katherine Johnson in, as irony would have it, Dale, Texas. Liz spent another 32 months in jail related to the fraud surround the Dale automobile.
Liz’s whole life story was pure fiction. In reality, Liz had been married to four different women and had a total of ten children. Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael was a man by the name of Gerald Dean Michaels.
- The Post-Star (Glens Falls, New York), December 1, 1973, p.1.
- Hemmings.com. “Cars of the Fuel-Short Seventies.” Accessed October 12, 2021. hemmings.com/stories/article/cars-of-the-fuel-short-seventies.
- Makes That Didn’t Make It. “The Makes That Didn’t Make It.” Accessed October 15, 2021. makesthatdidntmakeit.com/dale.