LONG BEACH, Calif. — The legendary Cal Worthington, famed for wrestling a grizzly bear and riding atop a whale at Sea World — all in the good spirit of marketing cars — passed away Sunday afternoon in Orland, Calif. The iconic pitchman was 92.
According to Dave Karalis, general manager of Worthington Ford in Long Beach, the Oklahoma native was watching football at home with his family when he died. The cause of death cannot be confirmed.
Karalis worked with Worthington for the past 31 years and called him “not only a boss and employer, but a true friend.” And their bond wasn’t a rarity within the Worthington franchises. “Cal doesn’t treat his employees like employees. Cal actually treats his employees like family,” Karalis told F&I and Showroom.
“Cal would know the employee, he would know their wife, he would know their children — which is actually quite remarkable given that right now we’re down to five dealerships, but [throughout the years] we actually had over 32 dealerships located throughout six different states. It was something else.”
Worthington’s connection with his employees is what kept them around, Karalis said. He estimated that nearly 85 percent of Worthington’s employees have tenures of more than 15 years, with some careers spanning more than 50. “That’s unheard of in the car business,” he said.
Worthington stayed involved in the day-to-day operations of his five remaining dealerships, one located in Long Beach, Calif., and four in Anchorage, Alaska. His final commercial aired just last week, Karalis said.
Marketing cars was Worthington’s strong suit, and it’s those outrageous commercials with the “Go See Cal” jingle and “My Dog Spot” theme that made the dealer group a remarkable success story. “The Worthington name is a true iconic brand,” Karalis said, adding that the group touted a 42 percent retention rate among repeat and referral business. “People just kept coming back to see Cal.”
Worthington filmed commercials for the past 54 years, but “the commercials that Cal would remember the most were flying upside down on the wing of an airplane, riding the whale at Sea World and wrestling a bear and a tiger while filming a TV commercial.”
These epic commercials led the Television Bureau of Advertising to call Worthington "probably the best-known car dealer pitchman in television history," the Los Angeles Times reported. And he was even invited as a guest on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show,” where he parodied some of his most memorable car-selling pitches.
Worthington sold more than one million cars over his career, and Karalis said there was more to it than just the daredevil marketing campaigns. “The secret to Cal’s success is actually very simple,” he said. “Treat the customer right. That’s been his No. 1 priority for 50 years, and that’s how he’s stayed in business for so long.”
Worthington told The New York Times in 2008: "Most dealers make about 1.6 percent [profit] on every car they sell. I make about 2.4 percent because I've learned to do it more efficiently. That may not sound like much until you multiply it by a million cars."
Worthington is survived by six children and nine grandchildren. A succession plan is in place for all of the Worthington stores, and the car dealers intend to keep the traditions that Worthington dreamed up intact. “Everything should be the same,” Karalis said. “It’ll just be a different family spokesperson, that’s all.”
The TV advertising guru also served as a bomber pilot during World War II. And according to a statement released by Worthington’s family, he was awarded five Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross after his 29 missions over Europe and service as lead pilot over some of the first American attacks on Berlin. Worthington continued flying up until the day of his death; the family noted in a statement: “He was particularly proud of being recognized by the FAA for over 50 years of safe flight.”
Worthington also kept busy with farming and cattle ranching, and the family said “Worthington’s Big W Ranch is one of the largest producers of almonds and olives in the state.”
After the war, Worthington discovered a knack for vehicle sales after selling his own used car to a veteran in Texas for $500. “He made his way to Los Angeles, and the rest, as they say, is history,” read the family’s statement.