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What Happened to Liz Carmichael
Geraldine Elizabeth “Liz” Carmichael didn’t want to just create a new car—she wanted to change the world; be the next Henry Ford; the first woman to disrupt the automobile industry. Her audacious plan to market a cheap, futuristic-looking, fuel-efficient, three-wheeled car is the subject of the new HBO documentary The Lady and the Dale. Carmichael claimed her background was in engineering but it was her showmanship and public relations prowess which really set the Dale apart. She sat for interviews with Newsweek and People, telling the latter, “They thought Henry Ford was crazy. I’ll show them. I’m going to rule the auto industry like a queen.”
Carmichael’s story, as told in the four-part HBO documentary which premieres tonight, is fascinating and tragic. In the end, she became as well known for her empty promise of an indestructible three-wheeled car as for being an early public figure to be outed as trans. Here’s what to know about her:
A family on the run
When Carmichael told the story of her background during the Dale media blitz, she said she studied mechanical engineering at Ohio State University, where she met her husband Jim, a structural engineer who died in 1966. She told People magazine that after Jim died, the family moved to California, where she built her first car with the help of her 12-year-old son.
In fact, she grew up in Indiana and then Detroit. Her younger years consisted of three brief marriages and five children. And she tried her hand at various ways to make money, leaving town when a venture fell flat, constantly ending up in trouble with law enforcement.
Finally, she met Vivian, who she married and had five more children with. They first separated when Carmichael told her wife she was a trans woman. But they got back together and remained married for decades.
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Her first scandal involved counterfeiting
In the early 1960s, early in her marriage to Vivian, Carmichael owned a newspaper and used the printing presses to print counterfeit bills. On August 4, 1961, she was taken into custody, charged with conspiracy and possession of counterfeit currency, according to the documentary. Carmichael fled before the arraignment, and the family bounced from state to state for years for fear of being caught.
Carmichael wanted to be a star
While working for a marketing company in California, Carmichael was introduced to a prototype for a three-wheeled vehicle created by a man named Dale Clifft. Clifft called the contraption a “commutercycle” and registered it as a motorcycle, according to court filings. Carmichael bought the rights in exchange for royalties and renamed it the Dale.
She started the Twentieth Century Motor Car Company and, with the help of a team and a publicist, Carmichael went on a press blitz marketing the vehicle as low priced (less than $2,000—which was cheap for a car even then), fuel efficient (especially important during the 1970s gas crisis), and safe. Carmichael was a great interview, making grand proclamations in Newsweek and People, and even landing the Dale a spot on the Price is Right. The Lady and the Dale features engineers who worked on the Dale and swear by its promise—it could have been revolutionary if they only had more time to develop and create it, they say. But marketing got ahead of production and Carmichael oversold what they had.
“I don’t care about the public, I only care about money.” she once said, according to The New York Times. “I’m not here for the good of the people I’m here for the good of Liz Carmichael. I’m going to build the public exactly what they’re looking for and I’m going to knock the hell out of Detroit doing it.”
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The attention led to sales—before the cars were manufactured. When the company ordered stock for public sale without a permit, it was ordered to stop. Carmichael saw it as a roadblock put in place by the powerful automobile industry, telling People at the time: “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.”
After more pressure from California authorities, Carmichael moved the business to Dallas and renamed the Dale the Revette. She claimed she would build a $1 million research lab and that there would be 88,000 cars in 1975.
She was outed by Tucker Carlson’s father, Dick Carlson
Encino broadcast reporter Dick Carlson was investigating the legal issues facing Carmichael and her motor company when he learned about her backstory. Carlson, the father of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, outed Carmichael as trans on air.
The media attention turned from interest in the car to prodding and skepticism about Carmichael’s sex when Carmichael and her colleagues went on trial. When a reporter during the trial told Carmichael that people were interested in her personal life, Carmichael answered, ”Whatever claim to fame I have is that of a producer of automobiles, not as a sex change artist.”
Carmichael was found guilty of grand theft in 1980, but she skipped town before final sentencing.
After Carmichael’s disappearance, her story was the subject of a 1989 episode of Unsolved Mysteries. Within minutes of the episode airing, a viewer called in saying they recognized Carmichael as Kathryn Elizabeth Johnson, a flower vendor living in the tiny community of Dale, Texas. (Yes, Dale.) She spent 18 months in a men’s prison, despite the fact that the courts had recognized her as a woman.
The final episodes of The Lady and the Dale detail Carmichael’s final years, which revolved around her family and her flower business—a chapter of her life previously untold. And it poses the question of what her life might have been had she lived a few decades later, at a time when the public is more understanding about what it means to be trans.
Carmichael died of cancer in 2004.
Kate Storey is a Writer-at-Large for Esquire covering culture, politics, and style.
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