(Bloomberg) — Elizabeth Carmichael is a difficult character to love. She conned thousands of people out of their hard-earned money. She divorced three wives and abandoned five children. She oversaw the creation of a prototype for a three-wheeled car called the Dale and then absconded with investors’ money, leaving loyal employees in a lurch.
From John Delorean in the 1980s to the famously fraudulent Florida Porsche dealer in 2019, the history of cars is dotted with hucksters. But Carmichael’s tale, now a four-episode documentary series on HBO, is more than just another charismatic con artist taking advantage of consumers. It’s a story about one woman chasing redemption—while the feds chase her.
Liz Carmichael was born a man, Jerry Dean Michael, in Indiana in 1927. After transitioning to a woman in the late 1960s, she lived the rest of her days as G. Elizabeth Carmichael. That’s the lynchpin to the story that found screenwriter and director Nick Cammilleri chasing Carmichael’s story for more than a decade (he first learned about Carmichael in a rerun of an Unsolved Mysteries episode from 1989). Her undisputed brilliance and charisma attracted a tight circle of supporters who vouched for her until her death in 2004—including a long-suffering fourth wife, Vivian; the five children they raised together, largely on the run; and the handful of designers and engineers interviewed in The Lady and the Dale.
This is an allure that stretches beyond the grave. Cammilleri remains convinced that had FBI investigators not interfered, the doomed Dale would have been a big redemptive act absolving Carmichael’s former crimes. She had big plans to sell tens of thousands of Dale cars annually, Cammilleri says—maybe not on the level of Elon Musk, but enough to prove her point. Musk, of course, is the most famous and successful startup car guy in history who made good on his word about his company, much to the chagrin of his many detractors.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s talk about your background. Were you a “car guy” before making this film?
I’d say my interest in Liz Carmichael opened up my interest in other areas. Liz had a career as a criminal prior to the Dale. So for me, the Dale was the litmus test: If the car isn’t real, I don’t care.
Crooks, cons, fly-by-night salesmen are all very common in the car business. Maybe that’s why there are so many used-car salesman jokes. How was Liz different from the myriad other car-con artists?
Liz had a native intelligence. She knew how to run a business and scale it up, so a lot of it rang true. I read the jury foreman’s original notebook. When you see the over 600 exhibits entered as evidence by the court, you realize the extent of this company. There’s too many things, there’s so much here. You can’t bluff your way through this.
But even if she believed it, she was clearly delusional about the reality of what it takes.
It was clear this was somebody in over their head. There was a scene that got cut out from final edits, but Liz was taking in $30,000 cash a day, and she asked [an adviser]: “What do I do with this?” And when you hear that, you realize this is a person who built this whole thing up and then suddenly [laughs] …. I view her much like any other entrepreneur who’s like, “Oh my God, now I have to do the very thing that I said I could do.” There’s something very similar to the way I did this project—nobody thought I could do it, and later it got picked up, and it’s like, “Oh my God, now I have to do this.” That’s a feeling that every entrepreneur can understand.
Did Liz have any background in cars before founding the 20th Century Motor Car Corp. with the Dale’s inventor, Dale Clifft?
The stuff with cars is sprinkled throughout her life. I remember reading something where she sold cars in Indiana in the ’60s. She worked as a mechanic in one place. Between fixing cars and working on cars, that affinity is sprinkled throughout. And I was told that Liz had been following the John Delorean case all the way through. [In 1982, Delorean was charged with cocaine trafficking; by 1984 the company was bankrupt.] She was riveted by it.
Did you physically see a Dale? Did you drive one?
The private collector [who owns one] doesn’t bring it out. He’s got it stored. We actually turned the car on for the first time in 46 years on Saturday.
What was the occasion?
We had [some of Carmichael’s children] out to Los Angeles because we found a blue Dale shell in a junkyard in Palmdale a year and a half earlier. It was so random: Someone was looking for Ford parts and saw the robin’s egg-blue Dale shell and took a photo and put it on Instagram, and our archival researcher found it. We ended up buying it from the guy and giving it to [Liz’s son] Nathan as a gift. He’s going to build it into a real car.
What did the engine sound like?
Well, we didn’t get it all the way on. It was the lights and gauges [on the dashboard].
The car business, especially in the 1970s, was such a boys club. What did you learn from your study of it—through a woman’s perspective as she tried to navigate it?
I tried to interview a couple carmakers. I talked to Malcolm Bricklin. [Bricklin, often referred to as the P.T. Barnum of the car world, oversaw many failed business schemes, including the eponymous Bricklin SV-1 gullwing coupe.] Malcolm said he met with some of the same investors who met with Liz, and he knew what she was doing. They both ran in those circles. He said they treated Liz no different than they treated Malcolm.
It’s been brought up that they wondered if Liz’s sense of male entitlement carried over after her transition, and if that became a driving force for her later in life—that she still maintained that attitude. Did that make it easier to assimilate? I can’t speculate. Maybe that has something to do with it.
They must have suspected she was trans.
People accepted it quite quickly. And if they didn’t, Liz would say: “I’m trans. You know it. I know it. Let’s move on.” And that was it.
How was she able to so greatly motivate the accomplished engineers and young designers she hired to make the Dale for her? Those you included in the series were incredibly loyal, even after she had swindled thousands of dollars from them.
She was direct. She was a great leader. She was somebody who knew what they wanted, knew who they were, and knew how to impress upon people the importance of something. She also paid them more than they would have been paid at that time; a lot of those paychecks were doubled.
After all of her earlier scams, did making the Dale become Liz’s attempt at one big redemptive act?
I very much felt that way when I saw the notebooks and the blueprints and the handwritten notes of what they were trying to do, I realized this is real because all I was told for years is that it’s not real. All you see are the five articles that are [saying it’s] fake, fake, fake, fake, fake.
There was a very clear trajectory, which was “I found my sense of purpose.” She saw it as an opportunity. I think she overestimated her abilities or what she thought she could accomplish in a short amount of time, but I very much thought: For her, this was a second chance. It was the chance to rise above all of that.
Someone like Liz would be a difficult protagonist to work with. She stole money, broke the law, deserted multiple women and children. What were your internal discussions like about using this person as a representative or even a trailblazer for the trans community?
Everyone is flawed. To me, I saw her immediately as an antihero. Yeah, you can be a career criminal, but you can also have some really great redeeming qualities about you. She was a mother of five and to show native intelligence about so many things and to still be a career criminal … to me, your crimes don’t define you.
Susan Stryker and Mia Yamamoto [prominent trans activists and thought leaders] also really helped present sides of her life and contextualize it through the lens of Liz when you see those decisions and you see the choices people have to make. I always thought, “She’s flawed, but that doesn’t take away from all the good stuff.” It’s part of the complexity of her character.