Cal Worthington, California car dealer known for “Go See Cal” commercials, dies at 92


Auto dealer Cal Worthington tapes a commercial in Los Angeles in 1985. (Los Angeles Times via Associated Press)
September 10, 2013

Cal Worthington, the Stetson-sporting California car dealer who became one of the best-known salesmen in America with his unceasing television commercials beckoning drivers to “go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal,” died Sept. 8 at his ranch in Orland, Calif. He was 92.

His attorney, Larry Miles, confirmed the death and said the cause has not yet been determined.

Mr. Worthington described himself as the son of a man who “couldn’t sell eyes to a blind man” and grew up in grinding poverty during the Dust Bowl. By the end of his career, he had become a titan of both the advertising and automotive industries, and had sold, according to his estimates, more than 1 million cars that tooled down highways and country roads.

In the western United States, where he operated dealerships from Texas to Alaska, Mr. Worthington buffeted the airwaves with commercials featuring himself and a menagerie of zoo animals, all introduced inaccurately as “my dog Spot.”

The tactic was a response to one competitor who appeared on air with his canine and another who sought to curry sympathy by introducing himself on TV with puppies from an animal shelter.

“Howdy, I’m Cal Worthington, and this is my dog Spot,” Mr. Worthington said in one commercial filmed with a gorilla. “I found this little fella down at the pound, and he’s so full of love.”

He performed stunts such as headstands and airplane wing-walks. In at least one ad, he suspended himself by his feet from a flying plane — anything to spark the interest of a prospective buyer.

Mr. Worthington promised to eat a bug if anyone could find prices lower than his and was said to have written the lyrics to jingles such as this doggerel, sung and strummed on banjos to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It”:

If you need a better car, go see Cal. He’s the greatest one by far, go see Cal. Give a new car to your wife, she will love you all your life, go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal.

Mr. Worthington became known to Americans outside his car dealership empire through his appearances on TV  programs such as “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. In one appearance, he brought with him a goose named Spot.

When Spot dirtied Mr. Worthington’s shirt, Carson remarked that he should “be glad it wasn’t that elephant sitting on your lap.” (In one of his many commercials using animals, Mr. Worthington had mounted an elephant.)

He had achieved his success in part by capitalizing on two developments of the 1950s: the growth of the national highway system, which made automobiles a necessity for American families, and the rising popularity of television, which delivered advertising to their living rooms.

To many television viewers who loved, loathed or grudgingly admired Mr. Worthington, it came as a surprise when they learned that he “never much liked the car business.”

“I just kind of got trapped in it after the war,” he once told the New York Times. “I didn’t have the skills to do anything else.”

Calvin Coolidge Worthington, one of nine children, was born on Nov. 27, 1920, in the now-disappeared town of Bly, Okla. His first and middle names reflected the allegiance that his father, Benjamin Franklin Worthington, cultivated for the Republican Party.

Mr. Worthington recalled growing up “starving and barefooted.” Once, during a lean Christmas season in the Depression years, he was chopping wood with his father when well-intentioned charity workers showed up with a turkey and gifts. His father angrily sent them away.

“I was hungry, but I was proud of him,” Mr. Worthington told the Long Beach Press Telegram years later. “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.”

To help support his family, Mr. Worthington worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps before joining the Army Air Forces during World War II. He flew 29 missions over Europe, including early U.S. attacks on Berlin, and received decorations including the Distinguished Flying Cross, according to information provided by his attorney.

After the war, Mr. Worthington hoped to become an airline pilot but couldn’t find a job because he lacked a college degree. He bought a gas station in Corpus Christi, Tex., before selling cars from an empty lot that he rented for $25 a month. When it was raining, he and buyers completed their paperwork inside the vehicles. 

He had moved to California by the late 1940s and opened his first dealership in an undesirable location in Huntington Park. The dealership had previously been owned by Earl “Madman” Muntz, a fore­father in the tradition of outlandish television advertising. “I wanna give ’em away, but Mrs. Muntz won’t let me,” he had proclaimed. “She’s crazy!”

Mr. Worthington sought to compensate for the bad location with enticing marketing. In the earlier years, he used his dealership to host Cal’s Corral, a two-night-a week country music program with performances by entertainers including Johnny Cash and Buck Owens.

During hard times for the auto industry, such as the 1973 Arab oil crisis, Mr. Worthington picked up extra money by piloting a helicopter used for traffic updates. He also sold motorized pogo sticks. Besides his dealerships, he operated financing and advertising companies as well as ­ranches and shopping centers.

Mr. Worthington’s four marriages ended in divorce. Survivors include three sons, three daughters and nine grandchildren.

Mr. Worthington played himself in “Save the Tiger,” the 1973 drama starring Jack Lemmon. Two decades later, he inspired the cowboyish car dealer played by Ted Danson in “Made in America.”

He once reflected on his fame. “My purpose was not to become a celebrity,” he told USA Today. “I was selling cars.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
SECTION: {section=national, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=national, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Most Read National