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The Dale Debacle

About 40 years ago, the automotive world was struggling with the oil embargo imposed by the oil-producing Arab nations.  People were turning away from the gas-guzzling muscle cars and looking for thriftier models.  This was the economic and social climate that really helped the Mini take off and catch public imagination. But it also made people vulnerable to scams like the Dale debacle.

In 1974, newspapers and magazines were carrying articles (all based on press releases) featuring the “car of the future”: the Dale.  The Dale was promoted very, very aggressively by someone called Liz Carmichael, who the press releases said was a widowed mother of five who planned on taking on the patriarchal automotive industry (this was the era of rampant feminism and burning one’s bra).  The Dale itself looked sleek and space-age and got people drooling – although the single rear wheel behind the two front ones looks downright weird today.  It claimed to be able to do 70 mpg (3.36 litres per 100 km), have a top speed of 85 miles per hour (136.8 km/h) and to cost only US$1995. It was supposed to be built of super-tough materials that would withstand crashes and were nearly bulletproof.


The reality turned out to be somewhat different. At first, the manufacturer of the Dale, Mr Dale Clifft, had actually been trying to create a more fuel-efficient vehicle, which he originally intended to be a sort of motorcycle. Then he met Liz Carmichael, who made Clifft an offer he couldn’t refuse.  She started an impressive marketing campaign, putting out plenty of glossy and hyped-up brochures and sending press release after press release to the papers to drum up interest in the new Dale.  The Dale looked impressive and sounded like the answer to everybody’s motoring problems (well, nearly everybody’s).

Along with all the pre-release hoopla, there was also an invitation to invest in the company and buy shares in it.  The money started rolling in for Carmichael and Clifft in the form of shares and early orders.  Expectations were high on the part of the investors, the motor trade industry and motoring enthusiasts in general.  A mock-up prototype of the exterior design was put on display at the Los Angeles Motor show.

An automotive journalist named Mike Salisbury decided to find out more about this wonder car for Car and Driver magazine. He found a bright yellow vehicle looking like the one in the press releases standing proudly on one corner with guys in geek glasses standing around with clipboards looking as though they were oohing and aahing over it.  However, Salisbury quickly spotted that this impressive shell had no accelerator pedal or steering wheel. A sneak peek under the bonnet revealed a lawnmower engine.  A quick conversation with Liz Carmichael hinted that there was something funny about her as well as the car.  A suggestion that the glossy, attractive exterior didn’t match the interior works…


Naturally, after the revelations that the Dale was an utter fraud, the cops started closing in.  They descended on the home that Carmichael was thought to have shared with her five children. What they found was an empty home, a bunch of wigs, heavily padded bras, depilatories and a fingerprint that proved that Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael was actually Jerry Dean Michael, a convicted criminal who had been on the run in drag for at least ten years.  The glamorous woman turned out to be more than just metaphorically ballsy.

After a scandalous trial where Liz/Jerry tried to represent him/herself in court as being a pioneer like Henry Ford (with the small difference that Henry Ford actually had a car that worked rather than just an impressive shell).  He/she skipped bail and went on the run again before finally being caught in the 1980s.

And what happened to the Dale?  The three mock-ups, which were little more than shells, now live in collections and museums in California.  They are not exactly given feature spots.