“Go see Cal – Go see Cal – Go see Cal!” E3 Spark Plugs joins the automotive and advertising industries in mourning the death of famed TV pitchman Calvin Coolidge “Cal” Worthington, who passed away yesterday at his Orland, California Ranch at age 92. From the 1960s through the 1990s, Worthington was known to millions as the goofy, friendly car dealer who would literally “eat bugs” or “stand upon my head ’til my ears are turning red” to sell you a car.
Worthington’s long-running pitch shtick began as a parody of a competitor’s commercials featuring his dog, a German Shepherd named Storm. Worthington recognized the appeal to viewers and, as any sales rival worth his salt would do, set about one-upping his competition. For years afterward, Worthington ran commercials featuring his own dog, Spot. Only Worthington’s Spot was never a dog. Instead, Spot was a lion one day, a monkey the next, then an elephant, a goose, a bull, a tiger, a skunk, a rhinoceros, a water buffalo, a killer whale from Sea World, etc.
“He was silly, but that’s what made him disarming,” Cal State Sacramento Marketing Professor Gail Tom told the LA Times. “He didn’t come across as sleazy or dishonest. People would laugh along with the joke.”
Tom grew up watching Worthington’s antics on TV.
At his peak, Worthington had 29 dealerships, primarily near the West Coast, including in multiple California towns, plus Reno, Houston, Anchorage and Phoenix. In 1988, Worthington’s automotive empire grossed $316.8 million, making him the largest single owner of a car dealership chain at the time. His advertising agency, Spot Advertising’s sole client was Worthington himself, and spent $15 million on commercials annually, the most of any auto dealer at the time. He sold automobiles from 1945 until his death Sunday and owned a 24,000-acre ranch.
Yet, many would be surprised at two bits of fact about Worthington: He never owned a car himself, opting instead to borrow rides from his own lot; and he never wanted to sell cars in the first place.
Worthington “just kind of got trapped in it after the war, the World War II Army Air Corps hero once told reporters. I didn’t have the skills to do anything else. I just wanted to fly.”
The Second Lieutenant saw combat as a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot with the 390th Bomber Group, flying 29 missions over Germany and training multiple pilots who would become some of America’s first astronauts. He was discharged after the war as a captain and was awarded the Air Medal five times, and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, which was presented to him by General Jimmy Doolittle.
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