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In late 1973, the United States auto industry struggled to absorb the Arab Oil Embargo's shock. No one was feeling the pinch more than the American public. Members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries refused to provide the United States with oil as a penalty for assisting the Israeli military.
Until the embargo, the United States relied almost entirely on oil purchased from other countries, and in those days, automakers weren't concerned with conservation. In 1974, the average American- made automobile got a mere 15 miles to the gallon. 4 out of 5 American gas stations were empty because of gas shortages. At 55 cents per gallon, something had to change.
Import brands took only 13 percent of the U.S. market share in 1972, and by 1975 that number shot to a record-breaking 15.8 percent. Compact body styles and fuel-efficient engines produced by Japanese and German carmakers abruptly captured car buyers' attention. Expensive, gas-guzzling American-made sedans and muscle cars became utterly impractical.
Lawmakers reduced speed limits to 55 miles per hour while forcing costly new structural and emissions standards. Officials imposed hefty fines on any manufacturers failing to meet the criteria. Many car makers answered the call for more eco-friendly and cost-effective automobiles by producing clunky, poorly designed attempts at a compact car, a move that proved devastating to some manufacturers' reputations.
The Malaise Era is a term used to describe the sluggish, ugly vehicles offered to Americans between 1973 and 1983. Some car companies created partnerships with foreign carmakers to develop a product U.S. consumers could trust. Ford paired with Mazda, Chrysler joined hands with Mitsubishi, and Fiat partnered with Daewoo, to name just a few.
The push to reduce a vehicle's weight while increasing fuel economy caused a surge of new technologies, such as the use of lightweight alloys and composites, front-wheel drive, and direct fuel injection. Alternative powertrains, such as fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles, became an attractive concept to many consumers. Salespeople and designers were all too eager to pitch their ideas for the next big transportation craze.
But the most charismatic pitchman of the times wasn't a man at all. She was Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael, president and founder of the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation. Liz, as she was known, seemed to be an astute, no-nonsense businesswoman. She confidently rebuffed skeptics, proclaiming she would "Rule the auto industry like a queen."
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Females had only recently made their way in the corporate workforce, and Liz's forward-thinking attitude toward gender equality in the business was a motivation for multitudes. A farmer's daughter and the widow of a NASA engineer, Liz boasted that she held several degrees and was on course to be the next titan of the auto industry.
According to Carmicheal, the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation would produce a space-age, three-wheeled wonder car called the Dale. Named after Dale Clifft, the vehicle's original designer, the car boasted a top speed of 80 miles per hour at an unbelievable 70 miles per gallon. "By eliminating a wheel in the rear," Carmicheal stated, "we saved 300 pounds and knocked more than $300 from the car's price. The Dale is 190 inches long, 51 inches high, and weighs less than 1,000 pounds."
She maintained that the automobile's light body and frame did not affect its durability or safety. Thanks to a special aerospace plastic, the CEO bragged she had survived a 30 miles per hour crash into a brick wall while in the Dale car. Sporting a novel, tear-shaped body, Carmicheal claimed the wonder car could comfortably fit two passengers and was impossible to tip over.
Elizabeth Carmicheal explained that vehicle production would occur in three large aircraft hangers, rented by the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation. The 100 employees would produce the vehicles on hand to build the Dale at unprecedented speed, she said. However, auto production experts weren't convinced. Powered by a two-cylinder motorcycle engine, Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation expected the 40 horsepower Dale car to sell 88,000 vehicles in the inaugural year and 250,000 the following year.
Investors, journalists, and television shows lined up to get a piece of the excitement surrounding the Dale. Johnny Carson, Newsweek, People Magazine, even The Price is Right gave nods to the would-be car. Promoted as costing less than two-thousand dollars, the Dale would be the solution to America's oil problems, Liz claimed with confidence.
With all the publicity and no progress on an actual vehicle, inventor Dale Clifft, a group of investors, and many high-ranking people within the auto industry vocalized their suspicions that most of Liz's claims to the car's construction capabilities and production expectations were impossible. California law enforcement officials then became skeptical, and investigators began to ask questions.
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They soon discovered the company did not possess any permits to manufacture or sell automobiles. When investigator Bill Hall went to the design lab, he found no evidence the company was designing anything at all. Upon examining the aircraft hangers, Hall discovered they were empty, and the rent past due.
Hall then inspected the Dale prototype displayed in the design lab. To his surprise, it had no engine and only two-by-four planks of wood securing the rear wheel. The accelerator was unattached, the windows bent back and forth with ease, and the doors hinges were shoddy, at best. Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation also claimed to have three Dale models, yet only one had power.
Following the inspection, Liz Carmichael quickly moved her enterprise to Dallas, and when police arrived at her home with a search warrant just a few weeks later, she and her five children had vanished. It would seem those who were suspicious of Liz were validated. As it would turn out, the car, the corporation, and the woman in charge were not as they appeared. The FBI had previously charged Carmichael for alleged involvement in a counterfeiting operation under the male identity, Jerry Dean Michael.
Neither Liz nor Jerry held any degrees, nor were they the widow of a structural engineer for NASA. None of Carmicheal's claims or stories were real, and Vivian Barrett Michael, the woman Liz often introduced as her secretary, was the birth mother to their five children together.
Eventually, Liz resurfaced in Miami, where a neighbor recognized her from a news photo and phoned the police. Working for a dating service, Carmicheal was going by the name Susan Raines. Arrested on April 12, 1975, she was extradited to Los Angeles while maintaining her story that the Dale car was not a fraud.
In the trial, Dale Clifft stated Elizabeth Carmicheal promised him $3 million in royalties after the Dale car began production. Yet, he only received $1,001 and a bad check for $2,000. Under the name Jerry Dean Michael, Liz was found guilty of counterfeiting, conspiracy, grand theft, and fraud on January 24, 1977.
Her $50,000 bond was paid by a news station hoping to secure her story's rights, and after appealing her conviction for four years, she failed to show up for a sentencing hearing in 1980. Liz, her partner, and their five children were again missing, and this time for nearly a decade.
Featured on numerous television shows, the case of the Dale car and its mysterious marketer came to an end on April 19, 1989. When police arrested her, Carmicheal lived with one of her grown children in a town near Austin, Texas, ironically named Dale. Working as a flower vendor, she lived under the assumed name Kathryn Elizabeth Johnson. Extradited and sentenced to two years in a California male prison, Geraldine 'Liz' Carmicheal died of cancer in 2004.
The details of Liz's private life and her motives will remain a mystery. But scam artist or otherwise, Elizabeth Carmicheal served as a model to countless women poised to enter the corporate world. To that end, Liz will always be an inspiration.
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