The last “car of the century” didn’t quite work out. The head of a phony car company called Twentieth Century Motors ran off with millions in venture capital without building anything. Her name was Liz Carmichael as a woman, Jerry Dean Michael as a man. Same person. Her rogue “women’s libber” persona perhaps helped gain credibility with us Americans who, in the grip of the mid-1970s fuel crisis, were wondering how to beat the high cost of living. We even made a movie by that name soon afterward.
The answer to our mid-70s motoring problem was the Dale, the debut car from Twentieth Century Motors.
Desperation does funny things to human judgement. We believed en masse that this mother of five was the widow of a NASA engineer. This lent credence to her alleged epiphany about a three-wheeled, super-thrifty, super-safe car. We believed she had secured the necessary funds to build it, and a 150,000 square-foot factory, and a couple hundred employees, and 250 franchisees in the bag, with several hundred more awaiting her stringent quality control check.
Why is TeslaMondo writing about this embarrassing episode in American auto history? The parallels between the Dale and Model ☰ are absolutely uncanny. The same story that has drawn a quarter-million Model ☰ depositors in 48 hours also sold the Dale.
Carmichael had allegedly set up manufacturing in California with R/D in Nevada. She was taking on GM with this fixed-price 70-mpg car made from rocket structural resin. The association with rockets ran deep. Her chief engineer had worked on the Saturn program for seven years. The Dale sported a super-low center of gravity so it was un-tippable. It was also super-simple to build and had almost no moving parts to fix. It centralized all kinds of functions because the radio, heater, HVAC all plugged into its printed circuit dashboard. The entire drivetrain could be dropped and repaired by backing off four bolts. Efficiency in production, you see? Keeps cost down. Crash safety? The best of the best. In fact, it boasted four inches of foam in the cockpit, so it protected occupants like a crash helmet. Advertising budget? Zero. Word of mouth carried the day.
“Dollar for dollar, the Dale is the best car ever built.” That’s a direct quote from Carmichael, who described herself as natural tinkerer with a long history of designing and building experimental cars, always with an eye for milking better efficiency. A straight-up JB Straubel of the 70s. The established auto world hadn’t delivered any meaningful advancements in a very long time. It was time for the Dale to inject some innovation, she said. Sure, the Dale didn’t look like other cars, but “only because people normally tend to be wedded to the conventional.” You see? She reasoned by first principles instead of analogy, a core Muskian trait.
Carmichael ran help wanted ads, rejected the applicants but managed to sell them shares of the company as a consolation. Eventually, concerned investors started to drop dimes to various authorities. It was time for Carmichael to make a decision:
2: Get off the pot.
She chose option 3: Escape down the toilet. With about $6 million.
Just as Jerry Dean Michael was absolutely sure he was a woman, it’s very possible that he was absolutely sure he was building a real car. How else could he have radiated enough self-confidence to sway investors his way? Sure, he still had a growly voice and male genitals, and his car was held together with two-by-fours and coat hangers, but human conviction outweighs all empirical feedback, and it’s contagious. Even his escape might have simply been a necessary move underground, where his work could continue more discreetly — in his mind.
Fast-forward 43 years. Tesla has no fuel crisis to help nudge customers its way. Just the opposite. Plus, heavyweights like the Koch brothers are trying to sway people against electric cars. A goodly geographical chunk of Tesla’s home country BANS the brand. Some rival companies, most notably GM, lobby against Tesla. And most importantly, there is simply no need for a miracle car because we have some proven, affordable, safe, efficient and clean-burning cars.
And yet we lay our money down for a chance to be eligible to one day enter a sweepstakes to get on a waiting list years long for a chance to eventually order a car that will ultimately, pending the completion of the largest building in the world, exist. That’s how we feel about Tesla. Why? It must have something to do with one-upping GM and the other big boyz, and the association with rocketry, and the low COG, and the crashworthiness, and the mechanical simplicity, and the centralization of functions, and our overall eagerness to see new blood in the auto world. In short, we still want a Dale — just not from the Twentieth Century.