#171, Liz Carmichael: car fraud, transgender, anti-hero

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“The Lady and the Dale” tells the little-known story of Liz Carmichael in the 1970s. Carmichael rose to prominence when she released a fuel-efficient, three-wheeled vehicle while being responsible for one of the biggest auto scams in history.

Nick Cammilleri, the creator, writer, director and co-producer of the four-part docu-series now showing on HBO Max, is our guest on this episode of The Weekly Driver Podcast.

Liz Carmichael's life in portrayed in the HBO series "The Lady and the Dale."
Liz Carmichael: Her life is portrayed in the HBO series “The Lady and the Dale.”

Co-hosts Bruce Aldrich and James Raia talk with Cammilleri about his 10-year project making the series, his relationship with Carmichael’s family and the twists and turns of the film’s unique circumstances.

Born Geraldine Elizabeth “Liz” Carmichael in 1927, the American automobile executive and a convicted fraud, was married four times. She was born Jerry Dean Michael but was transgender.

Liz Carmichael: Marketing Felon

Arrested for counterfeiting U.S. currency in 1961, she went on the run in 1962. In the late 1960s, faked a serious car accident and changed her name to Liz Carmichael.

Twelve years after her arrest and while still a fugitive, Carmichael worked at the U.S Marketing Institute in Los Angeles where she met Dale Clifft. The latter had invented a three-wheel car with low gas consumption.

“Dale Clifft was an engineer and he built this thing called a commuter cycle,” explains Cammilleri. “It was a three-wheel contraption, some people called it a Dune Buggy when he drove it around Ventura Blvd. (in Los Angeles).

“When he came into the office where Carmichael was working, he said ‘I’ve built this car and it gets 70 miles per gallon. This might be a thing.’ Liz Carmichael thought ‘we could have something really special here.’ Basically, she signed a deal so she could license it, believing she could market it.”

The complex and convoluted saga of the Dale had begun.

None of the vehicles were produced, and only four prototypes of the Dale were made. Only one prototype was able to move under its own power.

Carmichael, who died of cancer in February 2004, lied about her personal life and her education and lots of other things. She eventually was charged with 31 counts of grand theft, fraud and corporate security violations.

The bizarre tale of the Dale vehicle, Carmichael’s life as a transgender person, her years of hiding from law enforcement and her eventual arrest in 1989 are all detailed in the series.

“Was she criminal or a hero? I view her as an anti-hero,” says Cammilleri. “I think she’s one of the best anti-heroes I’ve ever seen. She did nothing different than people like DuPont, Budweiser, Coca-Cola. All those companies to extra-legal things. She did a lot of stuff those companies did.”

Among the unusual circumstance of Carmichael’s life: She served 18 months in a men’s prison, despite having been recognized as a woman by the courts.

The documentary, which premiered on January 31, has a 100 percent critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The reviewers’ consensus: “An intoxicating blend of historical footage, candid interviews, and animation that deftly captures Liz Carmichael’s incredible life, The Lady and the Dale is a wild ride.”

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