Cars, Lies, and Sex Changes: The Story of one of the Most Bizarre Automotive Scams of All Time.
If you’re one of those people that read books, you might have heard of the name Ayn Rand. And if you’ve heard of Ayn Rand, you’ve probably heard of Atlas Shrugged. It was Rand’s longest, latest, and some say even her finest work. Among the many groundbreaking theories of capitalism, philosophy and sociological ideology lies the Twentieth Century Motor Company, which was intended to be a parable of Fordism and socialism drawn to their extreme ends in the context of a car factory.
In a somewhat macabre irony, the Twentieth Century Motor Car Company came to pass in real life. The Randian reference was hardly subtle; and just as Ayn Rand had intended to make a dystopian allegory of the American automotive industry, the real-life TCMCC was created to take a dagger to the mainstream automobile.
In theory, the Twentieth Century Motor Car Company had all the right ingredients to polemicize the Big Three in their home territory. Chief upon these ingredients was their signature prototype, the Dale. It was slated to hit the marketplace in 1974, the same year as the infamous Ford Mustang II. Both cars came into the fruition for the same reason: the 1970s oil crisis. However, the Dale appeared to be a much more revolutionary solution to the exorbitant fuel prices. In fact, the Dale appeared to be like no other car on the road.
The Dale was an odd-looking thing by any metric. Named after the man who designed it, Dale Clifft, it had three wheels: two in the front, one in the back. Yet because of its long wheelbase and very low centre of gravity, it was incredibly stable. Powered by a 850cc boxer engine from a BMW motorcycle, the TCMCC claimed that the Dale was capable of 70 miles per gallon and 85 miles per hour. Its 1,000 pound curb weight was achieved partly through a body made of Rigidex, a lightweight, composite material supposedly 70 times stronger than steel. Despite the groundbreaking technology, the Dale was supposed to cost less than $2,000, a serious bargain even in 1974.
Of course, it’s difficult to pitch such a revolutionary idea without a charismatic leader. The TCMCC had exactly that in the form of Elizabeth “Liz” Carmichael. Liz was not your typical California girl. Standing at over 6 feet tall and weighing around 200 pounds, Liz Carmichael was as domineering in personality as her imposing figure would suggest. She had a lifelong passion for cars, held degrees in mechanical engineering and marketing, and was a single mother of five children. She was an Elon Musk long before his time, except with much more personality.
Without a doubt, Liz was very intelligent, but it was her way with people that ultimately secured the notoriety and potential of the Dale. She was reported to have collected $3 million in advanced sales before anyone had turned a wrench. However, there was nothing to worry about, according to Liz: once the TCMCC production network (in the form of three rented aircraft hangars in California) was in full production, the TCMCC would be producing upwards of a quarter of a million Dales per year. Her Iacocca-esque manner was assuaging, and that certainly allowed the hype of the Dale to spread across the country.
If the Dale was good at two things, they were generating publicity and generating suspicion. The suspicion was completely natural: even in this day and age, the promises made by the Dale seemed just a little too good to be true. Naturally, this got the California Department of Motor Vehicles to investigate the TCMCC. What they would discover was perhaps not all that surprising: there was no evidence that the company was planning on going into full scale production. Despite having made $3 million in advanced sales, the production facilities were better suited to producing dust bunnies than Dales. The California DMV ultimately forced Liz Carmichael to shut down operations for selling cars and dealership franchises (neither of which actually existed) without a licence to do so.
By this time, the authorities had a pretty good idea that the Twentieth Century Motor Car Company was a sham. As soon as the California authorities turned up the heat on the company, Liz Carmichael packed up shop and moved herself and the company head office to Dallas, Texas. Liz didn’t stay there for long, though. Only a few weeks after moving to Dallas, authorities prepared to indict Liz on charges of grand theft, forcing her to get out of dodge once again.
Back in California, investigators were starting to unravel the web of lies that was the Twentieth Century Motor Company. The company had accrued millions of dollars in seed capital, yet the factory didn’t even have anything inside it. Bill Hall, one of the DMV investigators, eventually got into the TCMCC research and development lab. He discovered the prototype of the Dale, and found out that it was far from being considered roadworthy.
“On inspection of this vehicle it was not a viable vehicle at all. It had no engine. Two-by-fours were holding up the rear wheel. The accelerator was just sitting on the floor. It wasn’t even attached. The windows were not safety glass. They would bend back and forth. The doors were put on by regular door hinges, like one might find on a house door. The vehicle just absolutely did not exist”, recalled Hall.
The Dallas police missed catching Liz Carmichael, but they made a strange discovery about their suspect. Apparently, “Liz” wasn’t the woman that she claimed to be. In fact, she was actually born a male. Of course, I believe there is nothing wrong with being a transgendered individual, and I’m not out to suggest that Liz Carmichael assumed a female identity for nefarious purposes, but her transgendered status did play a key role in the investigation.
Liz was formerly known as Jerry Dean Michael, a man who had been wanted by the FBI since 1961 on charges of counterfeiting and bail jumping. Her outstanding resume was complete bunk, which was further proof of her being a serial con artist. By the time Liz was found in Miami in 1975, she had been undergoing hormone treatments to prepare herself for gender reassignment surgery. Once captured, she was convicted under her birth name for grand theft, conspiracy, and fraud. Released on bond, a number of appeals kept Liz out of prison until 1980, when she was to be sentenced to a substantial term in prison.
Of course, Liz Carmichael wasn’t about to go down without a fight. Tenacious as ever, she failed to appear for her sentencing hearing, and became a wanted fugitive once again. For eight years, she managed to evade capture. However, after her story appeared on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, an anonymous tip revealed that Liz Carmichael was working as a flower vendor named Kathryn Elizabeth Johnson. She was extradited to California, where she served just over 2 years in prison before being released on parole. She died in 2004 of cancer. In one final irony, Liz Carmichael had been living, and was captured, in the small town of Dale, Texas.
In the end, the Twentieth Century Motor Car Company was nothing more than a lie, albeit one that cost investors millions of dollars. The TCMCC will go down in history as one of the greatest automotive scams of all time, and serves as an investor’s caveat emptor. In other words, let the buyer beware; and make sure where you know what you are putting your money down on.
Although, to be fair to all those who invested in the TCMCC, I’m pretty sure that not even Ayn Rand could have come up with a story as elaborate as this scam.