Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Disco, Detroit, and The Price is Right

*This isn't about architecture, just an incredible story...

In 1973, at the height of the gas crisis, the long lines at the pump had Americans cursing at Detroit and the land yachts they were producing. As Japan had already introduced quirky fuel efficient cars to America, the Subaru was admittedly "cheap and ugly." 

By that, I mean Subaru was pitching the GT-R as "cheap and ugly."

Meanwhile the Big Three were doing little to compete.

Enter Elizabeth "Liz" Geraldine Carmichael. This mother of five was raised on a farm in Indiana and had a knack for working on cars and tractors. The widow of NASA structural engineer, Jim Carmichael, her interest in automotive engineering grew after his death in 1966.

Carmichael developed the dent-proof, scratch-proof, burglar-proof, and bullet-proof Dale, a three wheeled fuel efficient car designed by Dale Clifft, so strong and fuel efficient in fact that it got 70MPG and could slam headfirst into a brick wall at 30MPH and suffer minimal damage, a feat Carmichael tested herself.

She was a stern and motivated woman determined to "knock the hell out of Detroit." With $30M in advanced sales of dealerships, cars, and shares, Carmichael had acquired the funds to build a prototype.

The Dale would have cost $2000 (only $9500 today) and was being lauded by the global press as "the car of the century" and "a space age automobile." Dealers and customers were showing up at Carmichael's corporate headquarters in Los Angeles to catch a glimpse of the Dale, eagerly throwing money at a piece of the action.

Sitting back in her leather chair and puffing on a cigarette, Carmichael said, "they thought Henry Ford was crazy. I'll show them. I'm going to rule the auto industry like a queen."

Raised a poor tomboy in Indiana, Carmichael's rags-to-riches story was as inspirational as the car itself.

As a young girl, Carmichael's mother insisted she "marry the farmer the next field over." Despite her mother's wishes, the ambitious young Carmichael earned a degree in structural engineering at Ohio State, where she met her husband, Jim, and went on to earn a master's degree in business administration from the University of Miami.

Jim and Liz formed the Carmichael Research and Development Corporation.

After Jim's death, Carmichael and her children moved to California. With the help of her twelve year old son, Carmichael built her first car. On the first test drive it rolled over, down a sand dune, and into the Pacific Ocean. "It cost me $30,000 to build," a total loss. 

Carmichael's second car however, was a success. One she tested by driving into a wall at 50MPH

After the successful crash test of her car, she purchased plans for a small three wheeler from Dale Clifft and named the car after its designer. 

She formally incorporated The Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation, a nod to Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, in Nevada in August of 1974.

With the funds from investors she returned to California, but within two weeks she began "having constant little disruptions." Acid was thrown in a vat of the Rigidex, the "rocket structural resin" she invented to mold the lightweight car body. Locks at the plant were broken. Plans were stolen.

The California Corporations Department ordered her to stop the sale of shares because she had no permit. 

Carmichael declared, "I am at war with the dirtiest industry in the world and I want everything out in the open. If I get hit I want people to hear me scream."

Her charisma and public image paid off. People wanted to see this woman destroy the Big Three. The Dale was a highlight of the Los Angeles International Auto Show in 1975.

But things were always a little fishy. When Carmichael released the schematics brochure, it claimed to use a BMW motorcycle engine, but it appeared to be installed the wrong way. She claimed that the car had no wires because of a printed circuit dashboard, but that didn't account for the rest of the car.

With worldwide interest in the car that was to turn Detroit upside down, the press wanted to take a look. When Car & Driver sent several photographers to Carmichael's factory, they opened the hood and found a lawnmower engine and parts of a vacuum cleaner. There was no accelerator, no steering wheel, and household door hinges were holding it together.

When California blocked her from accepting payments from dealers and customers, Liz moved her operation to Dallas where "the business climate was friendlier." There she planned to build a $1M research facility in a defunct Ford factory and was set to roll out 88,000 cars in 1975.

Things got wilder for Carmichael and the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation when, in January of 1975, a salesman and former public relations representative William D. Miller was found in Carmichael's Encino office dead from four gunshot wounds to the head. The prime suspect was a fellow employee who had served time with Miller in San Quentin, Jack Oliver.

With investors fleeing, employees abandoning her, and a public image plummeting in the face of murder, she renamed the car the Revette, claiming Dale Clifft was "no more important to the company than an 'office girl.'" 

Carmichael managed to get the Revette featured in the Showcase Showdown during the Price is Right. It's probably a good thing it didn't win, at least for Carmichael.

Carmichael had her prototype flown from Los Angeles to Dallas, but it broke down on the twenty mile drive from the airport to the city.

That same day the Dallas Times Herald revealed that Carmichael never attended Ohio State or the University of Miami. 

John Power, an engineer who had worked briefly for Carmichael in Dallas later revealed that the Dale was largely comprised from parts of other cars, including the carburetor from a lawnmower.

After this revelation, Liz and nine other members of the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation were indicted in Texas for conspiracy to commit grand theft. Additionally, the Los Angeles District Attorney was investigating Carmichael for grand theft as she had never actually produced a functioning car.

With the charges levied against Carmichael, she vanished with her five children in early March of 1975.

However, when she fled the $100,000 home she was leasing in North Dallas, authorities found more than dinner left on the table. They also found wigs, hair remover, well-padded bras, and what police referred to as "a device used by female impersonators to disguise their sex."

The media began wildly speculating, including one headline that read, "The Dale's Liz Could Be Tom, Dick or Harry...!"

One friend was quoted as saying, "she certainly looked like a man, but I guess we'll never know, unless someone catches her in the shower." 

After being on the lam for a month, Carmichael was caught by FBI agents climbing through the window of a rented Miami home wearing a pink checkered pants suit.

Finger prints revealed that Elizabeth Geraldine Carmichael was a forty seven year old fugitive felon wanted since 1961 for real estate scams, counterfeiting, and gun running, who'd been hiding in plain sight and the public eye...and also Jerome "Jerry" Dean Michaels.

Nothing was true. Her widow "Jim," Rigidex, The Carmichael Research and Development Corporation, the public shares, any of the wild claims about the Dale or the Revette. All as fake as her tits.

One of the few truths to Carmichael's story was that she did have five children. Michaels married Vivian Barrett in 1959 who worked as his secretary, watching Michaels hide as Carmichael (get it? Car-Michaels) in front of the entire globe.

Vivian Michaels stated, "we love her just as much as we loved him. The children call her Mother Liz and me just plain Mother." 

After Carmichael's capture, she still claimed faith in the Dale and the Revette, declaring, "I believe one hundred percent in this car," a quote in People from whom it called "the fifty percent man."

Of course whenever truth proves to be stranger than fiction the story couldn't just end with the revelation of a penis and four counts of felony.

Carmichael skipped out on $50,000 bail and wouldn't be caught again until 1989 when the story aired on Unsolved Mysteries. She was found to be living as Katherine Elizabeth Johnson in Dale (go figure), Texas selling flowers on the side of the road.

The biggest question that remains might be, why hasn't this been made into a movie starring Kathleen Turner?

Of course, if you follow automotive news, this all might sound a little familiar. 

1 comment:

  1. There is a documentary about her called 'The Rose Lady' that is supposed to be released later this year. Elizabeth died back in 2004. I wonder what became of the wife? I don't think they were living together anymore when she was caught in Dale, Texas. According to 'Unsolved Mysteries' she was living with one of her daughters and she still never had the sex-change operation.