May 7, 2013

Used-car king Cal Worthington still flying high

There's a good chance you never would have heard the name Cal Worthington, encountered his "dog" Spot nor had the lyrics to his car dealership jingles burned into your memory for decades, had he earned a college degree.

There's a good chance you never would have heard the name Cal Worthington, encountered his "dog" Spot nor had the lyrics to his car dealership jingles burned into your memory for decades, had he earned a college degree.

After three years as a bomber pilot during World War II, flying scores of perilous missions over Germany, Poland and France, and helping the Allied forces to victory, Worthington figured he would settle down and become an airline pilot.

"I just thought it would be a great job for me," Worthington, 92, said during an interview at a family home in Granite Bay. "Guess what they told me? I didn't have a college education. It didn't matter that I was one of the best pilots in the war."

Calvin Coolidge Worthington didn't take rejection easily. The seventh of nine kids (and the only one still living), he grew up in abject poverty in Oklahoma and had no choice but to go to work at 13 as a water boy for a road-building crew.

Fueled by memories of missed meals and secondhand clothes, this lanky whippersnapper who never made it beyond third grade, went on to amass a fortune he estimates at $300 million or more.

"We were so damn poor growing up," he said. "It has motivated me ever since."

It started with one short-lived gas station in Corpus Christi, Texas, where the war hero became an entrepreneur, pumping gas and fixing flats for 50 cents. Worthington later leased a dirt lot to sell used cars, made his first million by age 30 and built an empire of dozens of dealerships and vast land holdings, including numerous ranches in California, Nevada and Idaho.

Sticking to his mantra to use money as a tool for growth in new ventures, he also became a major figure in the almond- and olive-growing businesses.

Along the way, he emerged as a reluctant but ubiquitous celebrity, known for homespun TV commercials that charmed generations of viewers, including many in Sacramento, and transformed the way dealerships throughout the country sold cars.

Doug Brauner, who owns two Car Czar service centers in Sacramento and hosts a TV show by the same name, has twice had Worthington co-host his show. While some might dismiss Worthington as just another used-car salesman, Brauner sees him as an American hero who fought for his country and then revolutionized the auto industry.

"The guy has led a really, really remarkable life," Brauner said. "Any time you see a car dealership owner or general manager today appearing on camera, that is a direct result of Cal Worth- ington. Television auto advertising would not exist in the form it does today without Cal Worthington. The industry owes this guy a debt. He's an icon."

It might surprise his admirers that Worthington never really enjoyed appearing on TV or cutting all those commercials featuring the running gag of "my dog Spot," which would be any animal but a dog. He appeared with tigers, lions, chickens, ducks, elephants, whales – even anteaters. And they weren't always the most agreeable partners. A gorilla once tried to tear him apart; another time, a bear seized him by the throat.

One of the nation's great car dealers isn't into cars. The Ford Expedition he owns is 5 years old, chosen mostly to accommodate his long legs.

These days, Worthington is a lanky, physically fit, soft-spoken dynamo. He loves animals, gives to the Humane Society, flies his own Learjet at speeds topping 500 mph, thinks middle-class people should get tax breaks and insists wealthy folks like himself can afford to pay higher taxes to help reduce the deficit.

He lives on a 24,000-acre ranch in Orland and has six kids ranging in age from 12 to 66. He spends much of his time these days working out, overseeing his businesses, driving around the ranch and playing with his two dingoes.

He's also big on visiting his daughter and her 15 dogs in Granite Bay, flying himself to Alaska to check on one of his four remaining dealerships, cutting TV commercials produced in a studio at his home and, most of all, getting his estate in order on the off chance he doesn't keep this up for another 50 years.

He's charming and big-hearted, but even in his 90s, you still don't want to mess with this dude.

Asked during an interview why someone of his wealth doesn't travel with bodyguards, Worthington scoffed, his pride and his bomber-pilot machismo bubbling to the surface.

"I feel like I'd be protecting the bodyguards," he said with a laugh. "I'm an aggressive guy. I can handle myself."

That toughness, inward and outward, is part of what drove him to succeed. After the war – and after the rejection from the airlines – Worthington bought a small gas station in Corpus Christi. The financial prospects were modest: He would earn 2 cents for every gallon of gas he sold. By then, he was married.

One day, a young man and his girlfriend drove up for service.

"He was a naval officer and he had a nice-looking girl with him, and they were drinking," Worthington recalled, his tone growing serious. " 'Hey Buddy,' he says. 'Would you fix a flat?' So I fixed his flat, stuck it back in the trunk.

"He said, 'How much do I owe you, Buddy?' "

Worthington charged him 50 cents.

" 'Here Buddy. Here's a dollar – keep the change.' "

Said Worthington, gritting his teeth at the memory: "I turned and told him, 'I don't need your charity, thank you. And don't call me Buddy. I'm not your buddy. I outrank you, sir.' "

After a couple of months, Worthington got out of the service station business and opened a used-car dealership, drawing up deals with customers in a dusty lot while seated on a toolbox. Worthington had found his calling. He knew how to sell. He knew how to listen. And he believed in what he was doing.

By 1950, he landed in Southern California and opened Worthington Motors in Huntington Park.

"People liked me," he said when asked to explain his success. "I wasn't pushy. I answered their questions. All I knew was I could really sell cars."

He also had an eye for business. Often, he employed a simple formula. He would find a failed dealership, buy it for $1, acquire all its debts and then, using his TV commercials, turn it into a winner.

At his peak, he had 26 dealerships and was known to millions of viewers. To this day, many remember the lyrics to his bouncy, corny jingle:

"If you need a better car, go see Cal. For the best deal by far, go see Cal."

That easygoing cowboy persona was only partly true. Worthington had a keen eye for new opportunities and, rather than live lavishly, he chose to make his money work for him.

"I liked the success, finding something you can do well and like doing," he said. "I just wanted to keep growing. I saw money as a tool to work with. I still feel that way. You can't have money lying around. You need to have that money working somewhere."

He's reluctant to talk about his personal life. He was married at 21 to a 16-year-old girl, Barbara, and got divorced after 35 years, some of them rocky.

"My wife was using alcohol to excess," he said. "I finally said, 'It's booze or me. I don't want alcohol in this house.' She couldn't handle it. We finally got divorced and we remained friends. I took care of her until she died."

In 1972, he bought 24,000 acres in Orland and moved there permanently in 1976. He said he grows 4,000 acres of olives, which are pressed into extra-virgin olive oil, and another 4,000 acres of almonds, which yield about 8 million pounds annually and are sold domestically and exported to India, China, Germany, Italy and Spain.

He built a runway for his Learjet and keeps the plane parked in front of his house, not to show off but because it's practical. He'll use it for long trips to his dealerships and his office tower in Anchorage, Alaska, or to check on his other real estate holdings throughout the country.

Because of his age, he is required to pass an annual physical to keep flying the high-powered aircraft.

"I really like flying," Worthington said, practically giddy. "It's so neat to get in the seat of the Learjet and push those throttles forward. Man, that thing will pin you back."

Does he also enjoy driving?

"Hell, no," he said.

Slideshow: 92-Year-Old Cal Worthington Still Going Strong 

Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @blarob.

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