Cal Worthington, a legendary car salesman who rose from poverty to own more than two dozen auto dealerships in the western United States with a folksy grin, a catchy jingle and ubiquitous TV ads featuring his “dog” Spot, died Sunday. He was 92.
The cause of death was unknown. Worthington, who was in excellent health and worked out regularly, died unexpectedly at his Orland home while watching football on TV with his family, said his lawyer Larry Miles.
An Oklahoma native raised in the Dust Bowl, Worthington was a self-made multimillionaire who built his fortune as a pioneer and leader in two industries that excited the American imagination after World War II – automobiles and advertising. His homespun manner and flamboyant TV commercials elevated him from businessman to pop culture icon.
A World War II hero, he started selling used cars on a patch of dirt outside a post office in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1946. He made his way to Los Angeles and bought a Hudson dealership in 1950 as television was gaining popularity in American homes. He started advertising on a live, three-hour country music show that he hosted, and he ran ads during movies that he bought and aired on weekends, when whole afternoons of TV time could be purchased for a few hundred dollars.
He competed on the airwaves against other colorful Southern California auto dealers, including Earl “Madman” Muntz, Fletcher Jones and Ralph Williams, who featured winsome dogs and puppies in their ads. Advised to add an animal to his own TV pitches, Worthington created his trademark TV commercial –with a twist – in 1971.
“When I was doing one of the country music shows, there was an old boy who had a gorilla, and he was after me to put him on TV,” he told The Bee in 1997. “Anyway, I asked him if we could use the gorilla in a Worthington Dodge (commercial). And I asked him if the gorilla was gentle, you know. He said, ‘Aw hell, Cal, he’s a good gorilla.’
“That gorilla was the meanest S.O.B. I’ve ever seen,” Worthington recalled. “He wasn’t sedated, and we had to chain him to a bumper. So I’m coming on live doing this commercial, and that gorilla is back there raising hell. I’m saying this gorilla is just full of love and he doesn’t eat much. People were laughing and that gorilla was roaring. That was the first time I ever did the ‘dog Spot’ thing.”
The lead-in – “Here’s Cal Worthington and his dog Spot” – became a byword in TV marketing. The over-the-top ads, featuring Worthington with a tiger, a camel, a frog, a hippo, a chicken, a cougar and creatures of almost every species – anything but a dog – made him a folk star.
The clincher was a bouncy, corny jingle – “If you need a better car, go see Cal / For the best deal by far, go see Cal …” – that burrowed deeply into the psyche of car shoppers and made his brand well known to Sacramento residents before he opened his first dealership in the capital in 1981. He created his own advertising agency, Spot Advertising, that produced and aired his TV pitches tens of thousands of times a year in local markets.
“He changed the landscape of auto advertising,” said Doug Brauner, who hosts an automotive TV show and owns the Car Czar service centers in Sacramento. “Nobody today doesn’t think about Cal Worthington and the success he had when doing their marketing plan.”
Worthington went on to own a total of more than 23 auto dealerships in five western states from California to Alaska. He told The Bee in 1997 that he had 13 dealerships earning about $325 million in annual sales at the peak of his company in the late 1980s.
He began downsizing in the 1990s and sold his last dealership in the Sacramento region, Folsom Imports-Mazda, in 2006. At his death, he owned a Ford dealership in Long Beach and Ford and Mercedes stores in Anchorage, Alaska, Miles said.
In 1972, Worthington bought 24,000 acres in Orland and moved permanently to the Glenn County town in 1976. His ranch, the Big W, grows thousands of acres of olives that are pressed into extra-virgin olive oil and almond trees that produce millions of pounds annually for sale domestically and in India, China, Germany, Italy and Spain. A pilot for more than 70 years, he flew his own Lear jet from his home to check on his business dealings, including land holdings he acquired in California, Nevada and Idaho.
Calvin Coolidge Worthington was born Nov. 27, 1920, in Shidler, Okla. The seventh of nine children in a family that he described as “‘Grapes of Wrath poor,’” he left school to work at 13 as a water boy for a road crew.
He joined the Army Air Corps in World War II and was an intrepid bomber pilot on 29 missions over Europe. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and five Air Medals for bravery and service as lead pilot in some of the first American attacks on Berlin.
Worthington returned home to Texas with plans to be an airline pilot but was rejected despite his military record for lack of a college education. He bought and worked at a small gas station in Corpus Christi but sold it after a few months to start an auto dealership.
He bought and fixed up a couple of used cars and placed them in front of the post office, which drew a lot of foot traffic. He sold the vehicles, bought two more and obtained others on consignment, and discovered his calling.
“People liked me,” he told The Bee in May. “I wasn’t pushy. I answered their questions. All I knew was I could really sell cars.”
Worthington moved and hit it big in Southern California, the car culture capital of postwar America. His lanky, 6-foot-4 frame topped with a tipped Stetson and ear-to-ear grin made him instantly recognizable on TV. His genuine, down-to-earth manner charmed viewers and won him a loyal customer following.
“Cal Worthington was a legendary guy who just happened to pick the car business to go into,” said Rick Niello of the Sacramento-based Niello auto dealerships.
“And he was a humble guy, not the character you saw on TV,” Niello added. “He was very highly respected in our industry.”
Worthington, who was married and divorced several times, is survived by six children, Rod, Barbara, Calvin, Courtney, Susan, and Coldren; and nine grandchildren.
The family is planning services, Miles said.
Editors note: This story was changed to reflect that Cal Worthington began selling cars in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1946.
Call The Bee’s Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila. The Bee’s Mark Glover contributed to this report.