He Changed His Spots, but Cal’s Still the Car-Sales King
Worthington spots a way out of Hard Times
Click here to hear an introduction from Cal
Cal Worthington has been in the car business for 57 years, and has sold over a million cars and trucks and has probably sold more cars and trucks than anyone in the world. Throughout
this entire period of time, he and his staff have dedicated
themselves to fair and honest attempts to make sure you get the best possible
deal. Cal's slogan has always been, "I'll stand on my head to beat anybody's
deal," and he's proved it time and time again.
Be sure to visit My Dog Spot: the Cal Worthington Archives, featuring never-before-seen outtakes from Cal's most famous commercials! Click here to see one Classic Video Medley!
Long Beach, California
All original content copyright ©1997 by Cal Worthington and may not be reproduced without written permission of the big guy himself.
Worthington spots a way out of hard times
CARS: Founder of iconic L.B. dealership has survived, thrived through the years.
By Joe Segura, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 07/05/2008 10:15:15 PM PDT
The scene was quintessential John Steinbeck, a page from the "The Grapes of Wrath."
A tall teen and his father, chopping wood to sell, to buy food for the family table. It's a 1930 s Christmas Eve, but they're not thinking of a holiday feast. Just basics - a routine for many Depression-era families struggling in Oklahoma and throughout that Dust Bowl region. A car pulls up to the thin, lanky pair, and four men - friendly, but somewhat uneasy - make an attempt at small talk before getting to the point. They've come bearing gifts, a turkey and holiday goodies. But the gesture hits the wrong note, and the father erupts: "Things is tough, but they ain' t that tough. Give it to someone who needs it." The startled Samaritans left with their untouched offerings. The family matriarch was furious. There were nine children who would have enjoyed the food. However, the teen had a different outlook:
"Me? Well, I was hungry, but I was proud of him, and I guess it's something that has stuck with me to this very day. People lose something when they are given handouts without any way of paying it back," Calvin Coolidge Worthington remembered. The Christmas Eve lesson was one of many that honed Worthington's survival skills, instilling a spirited streak of independence that would provide him an edge in tough times.
Worthington - an icon of the car culture known to generations of TV viewers as simply "Cal" Worthington would recount the lesson in a brief biography, and he recently traced the times he was forced to depend on his wits and skills to survive.
Over the past 87 years, most of his challenges have had happy endings - or, more precisely, happy chapters. Worthington has risen above simple survival to become one of the nation's most successful car dealership owner-operators, and he has done it in such a style that he's etched his persona into our car culture's consciousness as few others have. But darkening economic clouds have been raining on his parade lately.
The Worthington Ford showroom was all but empty during a recent weekday. There was no hustle and bustle, no phones ringing - the sights and silence of bad times. Outside the Cal Worthington showroom at 2950 Bellflower Blvd., almost 1,000 new and used vehicles basked under a late afternoon sun, and few tires were being kicked. Cal Worthington - and his grandson Nick - are taking a hard look these days at their operations at the Long Beach-based dealership, another in Carlsbad and two in Alaska. Cal Worthington estimates that over the years he's sold a million vehicles at his various dealerships, grossing billions, but these days, sales are down by about 55 percent, according to Nick Worthington, 22, the property's general manager. There's a push, both said, to have more fuel-efficient vehicles added to the dealership's inventory, but they expect the transition from what Cal Worthington calls "big, old, gas-eating" vehicles to be somewhat slow. "You can't switch as quickly as you like," Nick Worthington added.
The dealership, however, hopes to upgrade a giant sign anchored off nearby Lakewood Boulevard - with help from Long Beach City Hall. City officials and Worthington Ford Inc. are negotiating a loan to refurbish and upgrade the dealership's electronic display at 2601 Lakewood Blvd. The proposal, which returns for City Council review by the end of July or early August, involves a $200,000 loan with a 12-year term, with monthly-interest-only payments for the first seven years. The loan would be paid over the remaining five years at a fixed interest rate of 4 percent per year, according to a city staff report. The funds, the report said, would come from the city's Revolving Loan Fund Program in the Business Assistance Fund in the Department of Community Development. At a council meeting June 10, Cal Worthington - his signature Stetson respectfully off - reminded city officials that his dealership had generated $20 million in sales taxes over the past 34 years. The city staff report appears to support the detail, stating that the Ford dealership - located in Long Beach in 1974 - "consistently has been a major sales tax generator."
"He's certainly been the most recognized retailer in Long Beach," Robert Swayze, manager of the city's Economic Development Bureau, said recently. In an interview, Cal Worthington said he believes sign upgrades will help business. "We just have that gut feeling," he said, adding that the existing sign is dim. "We'd like something fresh, and it would make a better impression."
Over the decades, if anyone in the auto business has demonstrated how to draw in customers, it's been Cal Worthington. His name evokes images of an endless string of zoo animals and stunts, with jingles that either charm viewers or drive them crazy. One familiar refrain, "I'll stand on my head!" resonated in the Long Beach City Council chamber as Worthington stood at the podium, discussing the pending loan. But following a profile of the salesman in the New York Times, one reader of its Web site commented: "My mom HATED the Cal Worthington commercials when I was a kid. When one of them would come on she would change the channel - which (irked me), because these commercials were made of pure unadulterated awesome." His showmanship skills were sharpened by trial and error. At first there were three cars introduced as they drove into view. The theme shifted to entertainment spots in the late '50 s, mostly country music including stars-in-the-making like Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Glen Campbell and Roger Miller. "Country music was becoming very big, and it sold a lot of cars for me," he recalled. That was shortly after he arrived in Huntington Park, at a dealership once owned by Earl William "Madman" Muntz, a pioneer in television commercials with an oddball persona. "It was a terrible location, so I used television," Cal Worthington said. As a gag, to mimic another dealership featuring a dog named Storm, Worthington introduced a "dog named Spot," although there never was a canine, simply a menagerie. The commercials were hits, bolstered by a jingle with an addictive tune and lyrics, all written by Worthington. The commercials featured a wide range of creatures - tigers, snakes, parrots, alligators, camels, frogs, elephants, pigs, seals, porcupines, a grizzly bear and a killer whale named Shamu. The grizzly got a little rough with Worthington, who attempted to retrieve his 10-gallon snatched Stetson. "That was a no-no," he added. "The bear thinks it's his." However, one of the most daring commercials was a biplane wing walk, using only a seat belt around his waist and straps around his feet as it flipped, flying upside down. "I wasn't frightened," he said convincingly, adding there was no parachute. "But I wasn't sure about the hookup."
High and mighty
The plane stunt is rooted in a love - an "original passion" - with planes. As a child, he was thrilled as barnstormers swooshed through the skies. One pilot took him on a 50-cent ride, attempting to scare the youngster, who was only excited by the experience. "I became an addict," he recalled. "It didn't scare me - I wanted to do it again!" While war raged in Europe, Worthington's boyhood dream of flying seemed within reach while the family was living in Corpus Christi, Texas. Before the conflict he repeatedly encountered resistance from recruiters, who insisted he needed at least two years of college. With war declared and a sky-high desperation to find pilots, standards were relaxed. Worthington was able to pass a college equivalency exam, benefiting from being good at math and from the reading he did during his Civilian Conservation Corps stint. He enlisted in the Army Air Force, with his salary jumping to $325 a month after passing pilot training. An added bonus: There was a chow hall for the lanky soldier. "My body started filling out," he said. The rookie flier found himself a co-pilot leading the first daytime flight over Berlin in a B-17 Flying Fortress, which was badly damaged by an 88-millimeter cannon shell. A United Press International wire-service photographer snapped a picture of the battered bomber, an image picked up by newspapers across the country.
After the war, Worthington attempted to be an airline pilot. However, there was no place for a pilot without a college degree. "It was a total miscalculation on my part," he said. "I thought it was going to be a cinch." With little luck on the job hunt, he attempted to get back into the Army Air Force, but the military was letting people go "like crazy." Back home in Corpus Christi, he purchased a gas station after selling his 1936 Hudson Terra plane. The location was bad, so he sold it to a Navy lieutenant awaiting a discharge. He purchased another Hudson, quickly selling it and several other cars in front of a post office, where he'd pitch them to pedestrians. He rented a vacant lot for $25 a month, his first successful business, but there was no office for the deals. On a rainy day, they were sealed in the cars.
'Grapes of Wrath'
Despite spirited - and, eventually, successful - efforts to escape the stranglehold of poverty, Worthington takes great pride in his roots. Calvin Coolidge Worthington was born Nov. 27, 1920, in Bly, Okla., and named after the 30 th U.S. president - his father, Benjamin Franklin Worthington, was a staunch Republican. His mother, Vidella, already had six children, and she would add two others. Cal Worthington outlined his life in a book, "My Dog Spot, The Cal Worthington Story," by Bob Cox. "We were dirt poor," he recently recalled, with a distinct sound of pride. The family often lived in shacks, and they wandered the Dust Bowl area in search of work, often seeming like Steinbeck's struggling souls. "That book could have been written about my family," Cal Worthington said recently. A chapter in the Cox biography, in fact, is titled "The Grapes of Wrath Revisited." In the chapter, Worthington recalls his family's move to Kilgore, Texas, again in search of working opportunities. "We loaded our personal belongings on the Model-T, just like the Joads, only we were even poorer." He added, "We (eventually) moved out into the sticks where there were noisy, smelly oil wells. The rent on the house was $5 a month. It had large cracks in the floor and the walls, and we promptly filled the cracks with newspaper to keep out the dust and the wind."
Worthington has high praise for his parents. In the book, Vidella is a rock for the family, loyal - although at times frustrated - to her husband, and a sacrificing woman who labored under difficult conditions to keep the family fed and comfortable. Benjamin Franklin Worthington - handicapped from a lack of skills and an inability to drive safely - was a hard worker, when work was to be had. "He was the best man who ever lived," Cal Worthington, the only surviving child, said in an interview. With Roosevelt's New Deal, changes rippled across the country, including the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Worthington, a 13-year-old ninth-grade dropout, went to work on a road gang as waterboy. "At least I could be doing something to help my family out," he said in his biography. "It was the hardest work I had ever done, 10 hours a day at 15 cents an hour," he added. "The times were different then, and I carried two buckets with separate dippers, one for the whites and one for the blacks." He eventually joined the CCC ranks, where he earned $30 a month, of which $25 was sent home. It was that program where he discovered the joys of reading - a tool that would help to change his life. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me," Cal Worthington said recently.
Cal Worthington's survival is testimony that he not only conquered setbacks, but often rebounded to reach new levels of success:
.In the 1960 s, slightly more than a decade after launching into the business, Worthington was the nation's top Dodge dealer. He eventually had 29 dealerships under his belt. After the 1973 Arab oil embargo, however, he was forced into major retrenchment, which included the move to Long Beach.
.Worthington raised his family - six children, age 61 to 7 years - mostly in Orland, about 100 miles north of Sacramento. "Family is most important," Nick Worthington said of his grandfather. However, Cal Worthington's three marriages ended in divorce.
Nick Worthington understands the toll taken in dealership careers. "Car business is tough on married life," he said, adding he has only one day off per week, working 11-hour shifts.In 1978 and 1979, Worthington settled cases filed by the state of alleged deceptive advertising. The cases were settled, without admission of guilt, with him paying penalties of $50,000 and $60,000, respectively. He said the complaints were filed by competitors. "I was getting too much of the market," he said recently, adding that the "pump advertising" cannot be taken literally. "They were picking on me." And there also are irate customers that any business might encounter.
One unhappy customer, the 6-foot-4 Cal Worthington recalled recently, gave his dealership "pure hell," although it had resolved the woman's problem. The irate customer went to the dealership's phone operator, demanding to speak to the boss. Informed of the visit, Worthington told his operator that he didn't want to deal with "that old battle-ax." The caustic customer, he added, overheard the comment and stormed toward his office, but she didn't quite beat the operator's alert. She burst into the office, but left without satisfaction - she failed to look under the desk, he recalls with a smile.