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He Changed His Spots, but Calís Still the Car-Sales King

Published: April 8, 2008


The Cal Worthington Collection

Stars sharing the spotlight in Cal Worthington’s ads included Shamu.


The Sales Pitch, Minus Salesmen (April 8, 2007)

The Cal Worthington Collection

Appearing with animals was a staple of Mr. Worthington's ads.

Jerry Garrett for The New York Times

2007 MODEL Cal Worthington at his dealership in Long Beach, Calif.

HI, folks, Cal Worthington here,” said the voice from the television set. It was 1950; our family had just become the first on the block to buy a television set. When we turned it on, one of the first faces that popped up on its little round screen was a tall, skinny cowboy in a white hat selling used cars. In the background, singers chanted: “Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal.”

Fifty-seven years later, that same cowboy — still wearing a Stetson — is still on television here, still selling cars. Who is this guy? Dorian Gray?

“I’m 86 now,” said Calvin Coolidge Worthington, in a down-home drawl, during a telephone conversation from his 24,000-acre ranch in Orland, Calif., about 100 miles north of Sacramento. “Born in November 1920 in Oklahoma, seventh of nine kids in my family. I’ve actually been selling cars since 1945.” In the meantime, Mr. Worthington has been married three times and had six children: the oldest is 60, the youngest is 6.

Cal Worthington has also become a legend in auto dealerships, selling cars throughout the American West from Texas to Alaska. By his count, he’s sold more than a million cars — nearly every make and model ever made — and grossed billions of dollars.

Every fair-size city in America has probably had its own version of the fast-talking used-car salesman, usually distinguished by a 14-carat smile, a loud sport coat and a bad comb-over. Southern California had a bumper crop of these flamboyant television pitchmen in the 1950s, including halo-wearing “Honest John” and “Wild Hog Tony,” two characters portrayed by Tony Holzer, and Earl Muntz .

With his good looks, folksy charm and his dog, Spot — who never looked much like a dog — Mr. Worthington always seemed a cut above that crowd, though he was an integral part of it.

It was those TV ads that made Mr. Worthington a cultural icon. The ads made him a minor Hollywood celebrity and led the Television Bureau of Advertising to cite him as “probably the best-known car dealer pitchman in television history.”

Mr. Worthington recalled pioneers like Muntz. “Those guys are all dead now. You know, I actually bought my first dealership from Madman Muntz!”

Despite Detroit’s uphill battle for sales, Mr. Worthington says he’s partial to American cars. “Guess I’m a redneck at heart,” he said with a chuckle. “Color me red, white and blue.”

But he’s not sentimental; he knows how to make a buck. “Most dealers make about 1.6 percent on every car they sell; I make about 2.4 percent because I’ve learned to do it more efficiently,” he said. “That may not sound like much until you multiply it by a million cars.”

It has been enough to buy him dozens of dealerships, an office building, three shopping centers and eight huge ranches. He also operates his own advertising agency, television studio and finance company.

“I’ve scaled back a bit on the dealerships; I own just four now,” Mr. Worthington explained.

He and I had agreed that the next time he flew his Learjet 35 into town we would meet at his Ford dealership here, where the walls are a gallery of photos from more than a half-century of his famous television ads. Mr. Worthington showed up the very next week and greeted me with a firm handshake and a steady gaze from steel-blue eyes. He’s still Marlboro Man handsome, about 6-foot-4, lean as the day he left the Army Air Force in 1945, and he still has a full head of hair — little of it gray — under that ever-present Stetson.

Mr. Worthington came to Southern California in 1948 after a much-decorated military career piloting B-17 Flying Fortresses on 29 combat missions over Germany.

He made enough selling used cars to start trading in war surplus. That’s what brought him to California, where it took him nearly two years to sell a ship full of corroded welding equipment he’d bought. He cleared $13,000, which was enough to buy a Muntz dealership.

Mr. Worthington became an early believer in the power of television advertising. Rather than buy ad spots, he produced entire programs. Every Saturday and Sunday night, he was host of a three-hour variety show broadcast live on a Los Angeles station from Cal’s Corral at his dealership. The show featured a who’s who of country music stars, including Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and Roger Miller. The rising cost of television time eventually forced Mr. Worthington to focus on shorter ads in which he praised specific cars on his lot while wearing a 10-gallon hat and a garish western suit from Nudie Cohn, the rodeo tailor.

One day a rival dealer appeared in commercials with his dog, named Storm. As a joke, Mr. Worthington started countering with ads featuring “my dog Spot.”

“Only Spot was never a dog,” he said with an infectious, off-kilter grin. “It was always a chicken, or a possum, or a duck or something. But it was never a dog.”

Over the years it became a signature gimmick. Mr. Worthington appeared with a zoo’s worth of creatures, including a lion, an elephant, a water buffalo, a gorilla, a tiger, a rhinoceros, assorted snakes and even a killer whale (which he rode) at Sea World.

Mr. Worthington, whose formal education ended with the ninth grade, said he had only one occasion to rue his lack of schooling. “I wanted to be an airline pilot after World War II, but the airlines wouldn’t take you unless you had a college degree,” he said.

What Mr. Worthington did have was a showman’s flair for buying and selling.

Through the 1960s, he was the nation’s top Dodge dealer; he even inspired a national Dodge ad campaign, “The Good Guys in the White Hats.”

At one point, his holdings grew to 29 dealerships. His portfolio, he said, was a forerunner of the dealership chains that dominate American auto retailing today.

But he became overextended in the mid-1960s, and after the 1973 Arab oil embargo, was forced into major retrenchments. For a time, he supplemented his car-selling income by flying his own helicopter each morning over Southern California, doing live traffic reports on the radio. That made him all the more well known.

In the ’70s, Mr. Worthington’s fame brought him acting roles in television shows and in the movie “Save the Tiger,” always as himself. But then times got tougher for him personally as well as professionally. In 1978, the state of California sued him for deceptive advertising; the case was settled without an admission of guilt, with Mr. Worthington paying $50,000. In 1979, he divorced his wife of 37 years, Barbara, and married Susan Henning. That marriage ended badly seven years later.

The same year, he settled another deceptive-advertising suit against him for $60,000. He said state regulators demanded so many disclaimers in his TV ads, there wasn’t time left to sell cars — much less horse around.

Mr. Worthington, then 75, started to throttle back his automotive empire. In 1995, he married Bonnie Reese, a 35-year-old radio personality.

He swore off dangerous stunts like wing-walking on biplanes, swimming with Shamu and nuzzling Bengal tigers. He stopped doing head-stands (“I will stand upon my head till my ears are turnin’ red to make you a better deal!”) and eating bugs in commercials. Even Spot was put out to pasture.

These days, he is active in philanthropic work and regularly auctions off rides in his plane, or one of his signature Stetson hats, for charitable causes.

In contrast to his outlandish on-air persona, in private life he is quiet, low-key and polite. He says he doesn’t smoke, drinks in moderation and exercises regularly. All things considered, he’d rather just fly, which he concedes is still his first love.

“I never much liked the car business,” admitted Mr. Worthington, who doesn’t care to collect or even own cars of his own. “I just kind of got trapped in it after the war. I didn’t have the skills to do anything else. I just wanted to fly.” I teased him that the car business was just a back-door way to help him buy airplanes.

“You ain’t far wrong on that,” he said with a laugh.