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Un-Silent Cal, the Great American Car Dealer

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Cal Worthington knew how to have fun and sell lots of cars in the process.

 

Calvin Coolidge was a tight-lipped U.S. president nicknamed “Silent Cal.” He once said, “I will never be hurt by what I have not said.”

Calvin Coolidge “Cal” Worthington made a name for himself as an American car dealer who publicly said and did a lot of crazy things, and didn’t live to regret it. He died the other day at age 92. People had plenty to say about his colorful career.  

The southern California dealer’s madcap late-night TV ads ran from the 1950s to 1980s. They affected viewers in many ways, sometimes unwittingly.

For instance, some people on online message boards recalled that as youngsters in California they misinterpreted Worthington's famous jingle, “Go See Cal,” as “Pussy Cow.” Wow. That’s a combo for the animal kingdom.

Speaking of which, appearing in Worthington’s ads was his “dog” Spot that never was a dog. Spot at various times was an elephant, a tiger, lion, snake or some other decidedly undomesticated creature.

When not riding a hippo on TV appearances, Worthington performed stunts, such as standing on his head on the hood of a car (he had to take off his big signature cowboy hat for that one) or perching his 6-ft.-5-in. frame on the wing of a plane in flight.

The Oklahoma-born Worthington had his own country-music show. He appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He played himself in a couple of B-movies, Into the Night and Killer Tomatoes Strike Back.

Worthington’s ads made him a celebrity. They also sold lots of cars. He became a megadealer with 29 stores. He once reigned as the largest single owner of a dealership chain, according to the Sacramento Bee. The Worthington Auto Group still owns four stores in California and Alaska.

Worthington, one of nine kids and a school dropout at age 13, died on his 24,000-acre (9,700 ha) ranch near Sacramento.

He once said he didn’t know how to do many things, but he sure knew how to sell cars. It’s doubtful he could become the head of a big dealership group today. People with business degrees, not a former construction-site water boy (an early “previous employment” entry on Worthington’s resume), typically are first in line for those executive jobs.

Modern dealership advertising occasionally goes for the offbeat angle. “Some dealers more than others are willing to do quirky things today,” TV ad consultant Adam Armbruster tells me. “They are OK with having fun. After all, buying a car should be fun. Lightheartedness can work in dealer advertising. Human nature is timeless.”  

Sure it is. But when was the last time you saw a rhino named Spot in a dealer TV spot?  

 

 

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Steve Finlay

Steve Finlay is the editor of WardsAuto Dealer Business magazine and a senior editor for WardsAuto.com. His journalism career started 42 years ago as a crime reporter. A Michigan native, he likes...

Jim Ziegler

Jim Ziegler, president of Ziegler Supersystems, is a trainer, commentator and public speaker on dealership issues.
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