Cal Worthington, car dealer and TV showman, dead at 92

Zaz Hollander
Cal Worthington stands in front of one of his barns on his ranch in Orland, Calif. on Thursday, May 2, 2013.
Randy Pench
This undated photo released by Worthington Ford Inc. shows a photo of Cal Worthington car dealer famed for TV ads. Worthington, who built a fortune from a series of West Coast car dealerships and became a TV fixture thanks to commercials urging customers to "go see Cal," has died. He was 92. (AP Photo/Worthington Ford Inc.)
Cal Worthington poses with his dog Spot - as he warmly referred to the tiger he used in his auto commercials - while being photographed in 1976 while serving as the Grand Marshall of the bicentennial parade in Orange County, Calif. Worthington, 92, made millions selling cars in California making a name for himself with his witty car commercials which were live on television starting in the 1950's.
Photo courtesy the Worthington family

Calvin Coolidge "Cal" Worthington, the charismatic car dealer and war hero made famous on the West Coast and in Alaska by his offbeat television commercials, died Sunday at his California ranch.

Worthington was 92. He died suddenly while watching TV football with family, according to their Sacramento attorney, Larry Miles. A cause of death is not yet known.

Worthington, a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service during World War II, at one point operated more than 23 dealerships in five states. More recently, Worthington Ford operated three dealerships in Anchorage and one in Long Beach, Calif.

But it was those commercials -- and the hard-to-forget "Go See Cal!" refrain -- that made Worthington a household name starting in the early 1970s.

"Cal Worthington and his dog, Spot!" they'd start. Then along came Worthington with anything but a dog. He'd ride an elephant or killer whale, once even a hippopotamus. He'd walk bears or tigers on leashes. A chimpanzee made frequent appearances, wearing a duplicate of Worthington's trademark cowboy hat.

Those commercials were Worthington's idea, created by his company Spot Advertising and spawned by a series of ads run by rival car dealers featuring their dogs, Miles said.

"His first commercials in that vein were 'My dog is bigger than your dog ... and I can get you a better deal,' " he said. "It's amazing. You can walk into a room anywhere in the western U.S. and if people are over 40 or 50, if you say 'Cal Worthington and ...' they'll finish the sentence."

Worthington, one of nine children, grew up in Oklahoma.

He left home to become a bomber pilot, flying missions over Europe during World War II and serving as lead pilot over some of the first U.S. attacks on Berlin. He received five Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery and service.

Worthington never stopped flying, piloting a Lear jet from his home in Orland, Calif., north of Sacramento, to various business interests including the Alaska dealership, Miles said. Son Rod served as co-pilot.

He was in Alaska about 10 days ago, fishing and visiting his stores. The Worthington family owns three dealerships in Anchorage: Cal Worthington Ford Lincoln on Gambell Street, Mercedes-Benz of Anchorage on East Sixth Avenue and Cal's Park & Sell on East Dowling Road.

Worthington discovered his car-selling skills after the war. He sold his used vehicle to another veteran in Texas for $500, the story goes.

He leased a dirt lot in Texas to sell used cars, became a millionaire by 30 and built an empire of dozens of auto dealerships and land holdings, including ranches in California, Nevada and Idaho, according to a report in the Sacramento Bee.

Worthington's Big W Ranch in Orland is one of the largest producers of almonds and olives in California, Miles said.

Worthington's voice was still on the outgoing phone message at the Gambell Street dealership in Anchorage Monday morning.

Employees were saddened Monday to hear about the loss of the man behind the Worthington empire.

"We're going to miss him," said Tim Toth, finance director for Worthington Ford of Alaska. "He's a great man and did great things. He was the personality of his businesses. But you know ... business goes on and that's what he'd want."

Worthington is survived by nine grandchildren and six children.


Car dealer Worthington still flying high (Sacramento Bee