Meet Dale Clifft of Southern California. Poor Dale was really bummed out over the fuel embargo of the 70s and wanted to build a car that would get upwards of 70 MPG so he made a little 3-wheeled creation right at home using a 305cc engine off a Honda Super Hawk, some motorcycle parts like forks & brakes, and Naugahyde. Licensed as a “motorcycle,” the 3-wheeled wonder wasn’t exactly a polished piece… CO2 sometimes leaked into the driving compartment and if you were concerned with safety, you might as well forget it. Overall, Clifft’s invention looked likely to be just one man’s novelty.
Then he met a 6’2”, 225 pound woman named Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael. Liz promised Clifft that she’d put his little 3-wheeler into production and pay him $3 million in royalties. Too bad Clifft would only end up with roughly $1,000 from the whole ordeal.
Liz made plans to produce the car and called it, the “Dale.” She founded Twentieth Century Motor Car Company and set up shop in Encino where the BS machine really got rolling.
The claims she made about the Dale are so outlandish that they’re comical. The body of the Dale could supposedly “absorb over 4 times the impact of a Cadillac without damage,” and its windows were so strong that only a bullet could penetrate the special Rigidex window material.
The internals of the car weren’t left un-embellished either… The Dale supposedly operated 100% electronically and was powered by a 850cc BMW motorcycle engine capable of getting the Dale to 85mph. And all of this for a sticker price below $2,000.
Knowing people would want to see the Dale, Liz placed a mock-up on display at the Twentieth Century office. The Dale was roped off with enough space to hide the fact that the front wheels were actually just nailed to a 4x4 since the piece of crap didn’t even have an axle. They did make a somewhat functioning prototype, but it was such a piece of junk that they actually used poor Clifft’s original car to get some film footage of what was supposed to be the “Dale” roaming around the El Mirage Dry Lake . The Dale, Liz claimed, was just the beginning as they planned on making a sedan called the Revelle and a station wagon called the Vanagen.
If the car’s stats seemed too good to be true, what Liz told the media about the Dale’s manufacturing seemed more like sheer lunacy. According to Carmichael, they already had 100 workers in a gigantic factory in Burbank, California, poised to produce the 88,000 cars she expected to sell in the first year of production.
Thanks to unchecked media hype, several millions of dollars rushed into Twentieth Century in 1974 for what was supposed to be a car that would revolutionize the industry. The California Corporation Commission was less convinced the Dale was a legitimate investment and made the big, deep voiced woman stop issuing new stock.
Toward the end of 1974, Car and Driver sent photographer Mike Salisbury to check out this big manufacturing plant and meet Liz firsthand. Preston Lerner and Matt Stone recall Salisbury’s experience in their book, History’s Greatest Automotive Mysteries:
A yellow, egg-like car- the Dale- was parked in a corner. There was no gas pedal or steering wheel. Ringed around the car, a couple of guys wearing Clark Kent glasses were scribbling on clipboards. Salisbury was convinced they were performing a pantomime for his benefit. As soon as they left, he opened the engine compartment and found it occupied by a Briggs & Stratton lawnmower motor. ‘It didn’t take much to realize that the whole thing was a scam,’ he says. But the best was yet to come.
And back to poor Dale Clifft… He finally realized it was all a scam when Liz told him that she’d recently crashed a Dale into a wall at 30 MPH without being injured. A funny thing to claim when they didn’t have a prototype that would even go 30 MPH.
Things finally fell apart for good when the company’s PR rep was shot to death by another employee in the corporate office. And by 1975, the company’s assets had been seized and charges started coming down. Liz escaped to Dallas and played the role of a hard-working widow until the police raided her house and found wigs, padded bras, and hair remover. She had already escaped again, but this time she’d be caught by the FBI climbing out a window in Miami.
Then the fingerprints revealed a shocker… She was a he. Liz Carmichael was actually Jerry Dean Michael, a criminal on the run since 1961.
She faced multiple charges for conning investors out of roughly 6 million dollars. Prosecutors convicted her on 26 different counts. When it was finally time to go to jail in 1980, she skipped her bail and remained at large for 9 years.
Just 2 weeks after being featured on the wonderfully cheesy “Unsolved Mysteries,” she was picked up hiding under the name Katherine Elizabeth Johnson in a small Texas town. The irony… the town was Dale, TX. She served her sentence and is thought to have died in 2004.
Only 3 Dales survive today, probably the only ones ever made to begin with. The first is in the Smith Collection Museum of American Speed. The 2nd belongs to The Petersen Automotive Museum, but is rarely on display, and the 3rd is privately owned.
And the original car made by Dale Clifft? No one is quite sure what happened to it. If it’s hiding in your garage, we’d love to hear about it.