Cal Worthington may be 88 and not operating his Long Beach dealership on a daily basis, but the legendary car dealer is far from leading a quiet retirement. The World War II airman still visits his dealerships around the country, flying his own Learjet at an age many wouldn't drive a used Ford. Worthington was one of the first businessmen to use the emerging media of television to market their products in the 1950s. Viewers came to know him for his humorous ads selling Ford vehicles that mentioned he was appearing with "his dog Spot" except that Spot was never a dog but rather a tiger, a seal, an elephant or a bear. Those commercials are popular today on YouTube and he still films TV ads every week at his ranch north of Sacramento, though he's dropped the Spot routine. While the 6-foot-4-inch entrepreneur smiles easily as he paces around his Long Beach dealership in his trademark Stetson, Worthington acknowledges he's never had it so rough. Worthington's dealership group once had 13 locations, but has since shrunk down to four, including two in Alaska. Over the years, Worthington estimates that he's sold 1 million vehicles, but sales are now down by about 50 percent. Worthington sat down with the Business Journal to reflect on his long business career and longevity secrets, and the future of the troubled auto industry.

Question: How are you doing these days?

Answer: I'm doing pretty well. Still alive and kicking. I live in Northern California on a ranch in the city of Orland. I fly my own jet around to visit my dealerships and families.

Q: Fly your own jet at 88? That's amazing.

A: I served in the United States Army flying for the Army Air Corps, where I was the aerobatics champion at Goodfellow Field in San Angelo, Texas, and served as a second lieutenant. During the war, I was a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot with the 390th Bomber Group, flying 29 missions over Germany for six months, and was discharged after the war as a captain. I wanted to be a pilot once I discovered my love of flying.

Q: Did you come from a family of barnstormers?

A: I was one of nine children and we were poor. I ended up dropping out of school at age 13 and went to work. Although I was born in Oklahoma, I grew up mainly in East Texas, in an area called Pistol Hill (now known as Laird Hill near Kilgore).

Q: This was during the Great Depression. I imagine, then, it was very difficult.

A: It was real tough on my family trying to make ends meet. I remember once as a teenager trying to crank up our old truck after my mom and I went to the grocery store. The crank sprang back too fast and I was unprepared so it broke my arm in two places. We rushed to the hospital but the doctor wanted $15 to fix my arm when all we had was $6 left from groceries. I remember standing there in agony as my mom talked him down to $6. But she was a determined woman and I admired that about her.

Q: Do you regret not being able to stay in school?

A: At the time, I didn't really take to school so I didn't miss it. I liked working and got to do all kinds of odd jobs like as a messenger and as a water boy for a road gang. It was the hardest work I had ever done, 10 hours a day and at 15 cents an hour. But I do believe that nowadays the education system is much better and encourage all my family to go to school.

Q: So how did you end up in the auto industry?

A: After leaving the Army, I wanted to be a commercial pilot, but couldn't because I didn't have a college degree. So I sold my car for $500 to purchase a gas station in Corpus Christi, Texas, where some of my family had moved. But that wasn't profitable so I sold it for $700, which taught me about the thrill of making a deal. I sometimes used to sell cars outside the station and thought it may be worth pursuing.

Q: What was the first step?

A: I would sell used cars in front of the post office in Corpus Christi because people would frequent there to get their mail. I ended up renting a dirt lot for $25 a month, where I ended up making a $500 profit one week by selling three cars, and thought I would make it a full-time career as cars were catching on in America. My first dealership was called Dependable Used Cars.

Q: It seemed much easier to start a business back then than now right?

A: Oh, gosh, yes. My business license cost me $25 and that was it. You have to have all kinds of insurance and pay so many fees. I couldn't imagine today building what I was able to then and I admire those who have that courage.

Q: How did you end up in California?

A: It was not planned. Around 1948, I bid on some welding rods that were out in Hawaii because there was a good market in reselling war surplus goods that the military was getting rid of. I ended up winning, which I thought wouldn't happen, and had to come up with $11,000, so I sold my house and two car lots in Corpus Christi. It would be cheaper to ship them to California and figure out what to do with them.

Q: So then what happened?

A: The longshoremen at the ports went on strike so I ended up having to wait three months until they were unloaded. When they were, they were in such bad shape from the water damage that I could barely sell them. I ended up having to make a home here during the two years it took to sell those things and thought the car business was a safer route to go. So I bought a Hudson dealership on Slauson Avenue in Huntington Park for $2,600 I was able to pull together in 1950.

Q: When did you start using television to sell cars?

A: The dealership's location wasn't all that great. Earl William "Mad Man" Muntz had owned it and lost money, and so did the second dealer who I bought it from. So TV seemed to be a good way to reach people across the area. At first we did the show live, so we had to be so careful about avoiding a mistake. One rule we had: no scratching below the belt.

Q: So what was the concept at the time?

A: In 1951, they went from live to film and my commercial was the first ever done on tape in Los Angeles. Still, I was new to commercials and did nothing fancy at first. I produced and hosted a show called "Cal's Corral" and we used little known country bands at the time which would play for a half-hour between car ads until our four-hour program ended. We ended up doing the program on both Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

Q: You had people like Johnny Cash on, how was that?

A: That was just as he was trying to break into country music. He was good, but was having drinking problems at the time; he seemed like a sad man at the time.

Q: How did you come up with your dog Spot campaign?

A: Those commercials were meant to be a parody of a string of commercials by a local Ford dealer that many said was my rival. The commercial began with the dealer saying, "I'm so and so, and this is my dog, Storm." Storm was a German shepherd and usually lounging on the hood of the first car to be featured in the ad. After joking I was going to use a gorilla, my staff dared me and I couldn't turn it down.

Q: And since then Spot has been a killer whale from Sea World, a tiger, a bear and an elephant. Did you ever have any mishaps?

A: You know, most of them were great. I loved that tiger. At first I was scared of her, but once I got to know her she ended up liking to play like a kitten. One time my cowboy hat fell off and I reached for it while the bear did, too, which tried to claw at me. But they closed the cage door on it just in time. The trainer yelled at me for doing that, saying next time to let him have the damn hat!

Q: Were the stunts with animals worth the risk?

A: The feedback was unbelievable. People liked that I was using humor to sell cars and poking fun at a competitor without being offensive or derogatory. And I can tell you sales went up, too.

Q: Why did you drop the animals?

A: I just have 30 seconds to make the sales pitch and don't have time for gimmicks. It's much more expensive for TV ads now so you don't have the time to horse around with animals anymore and get right to pitching the deals.

Q: Do you come down to L.A. to shoot the commercials?

A: Oh, I do commercials every Monday. I shoot them at the studio at my ranch, all different ones for each dealership.

Q: How long ago did you leave Los Angeles?

A: About 30 years ago I moved up there to my ranch. I still work out of my office up there, and occasionally come down here and work at the dealership. I have businesses in Alaska where I own a few office buildings and shopping malls as well as two dealerships.

Q: Is Long Beach the heart of your company?

A: I opened this one in 1964, so it's been the one I have owned the longest, but I like all my dealerships of course.

Q: So how do you run your businesses from a ranch?

A: First thing I do, I get up and look at the fax machine and see how many cars we've sold the past day at the dealerships. That helps me keep a finger on the pulse of what's selling. If I see something, I will call the manager of the store and discuss our game plan for the commercial we'll be shooting. I have a gym at my house and exercise and ride horses on my ranch, too, almost every day.

Q: How many ranches do you have?

A: I have a ranch in Idaho; two in Nevada; and one in California, where I live.

Q: Do you like the country more than the city?

A: I sure do. I like the tranquillity. When I come down here it really bugs me with the traffic. I grew up in the country so maybe it's in my blood.

Q: I notice you really do have a penchant for Western fashion. It's not just for your commercials.

A: Yes, I just like the way Western-cut clothing fits and am known for wearing my Stetson hats. I have about six of them and they get good money, like $2,500, when sold at charity auction. I like to stand out, and here in Los Angeles, wearing Western clothes will do that. And I hate pleated pants, just think they look stupid.

Q: You're turning 89 this year. How have you managed to stay so young?

A: I run a lot and did a marathon recently. I used to swim an hour every day, but have cut down on that a little but think it helped over the years. I am not a vegetarian but avoid sugary and fatty foods, and have never smoked, so I think all that helped.

Q: Tell me about your family.

A: I have six children ages 8 to 62 from three marriages as well as four grandchildren. Most of them live around California so I see them when possible. I see the youngest one about half of the year. I love having a big family and actually being able to have the means to support them and enjoy them. I'm the last survivor of my brothers and sisters, and we were so damn poor and had to all work so hard that we never really got to enjoy each other that much.

Q: How is business?

A: Awful. Our business is off 50 percent. I know it is for other dealers, we all compare constantly and all of us are suffering the worst we ever have. But people are tapped out, they just don't have any money and too much debt so it's hard to work with that.

Q: When you see so many car dealers having to close up, how do you stay motivated?

A: It's hard. It's really hard. A lot of these guys have been hanging on by a string. They can't make it anyway. They are out of money, out of credit. We are going to lose a lot of dealers, probably 400, 500. I think you just have to offer the best deal possible.

Q: How did we ever get into this mess?

A: I think we all had a hand in it. I think many people didn't know what their limits were, nor was anyone telling them who should have what those limits were. I think some people handing out the money at these banks got greedy and exploited people trying to reach the American dream. It's odd to think as a businessman that maybe we did need the government to step up and regulate more.

Q: Interesting analysis coming from a guy named after Calvin Coolidge.

A: Well, I was raised Republican out in a rural part of Texas and Oklahoma so I have always thought of myself as Republican. But I like Obama, and think he's taken some bold actions.

Q: What do you think when you hear people compare this recession to the Great Depression?

A: I think that if President Obama hadn't acted immediately, we would have ended up in the same boat as we did with President Herbert Hoover. Hoover said, "Prosperity is right around the corner." That didn't happen. Obama did some radical moves that I think will in the end pull us out within a year or so. But it's tough right now, business is terrible.

Q: What would be your advice to Ford and other major automakers?

A: I think Ford needs to work on the public relations campaign. They build a darn good car. The Fusion gets the best gas mileage of any midsize car, even over Toyota. The Taurus and Focus are great deals for the money. But they don't sell because of our image that we don't sell good cars. GM has the same problem. The secret to the car business or any business really is marketing. That's what I learned.

Q: Will Spot ever reappear?

A: I use old footage in some of today's commercials, so it's still there. The last one I did with an animal was in the late 1980s. But maybe for my last commercial my real dog Spot will finally show up. Stay tuned.

Calvin Coolidge 'Cal' Worthington

Title: Owner

Company: Worthington Dealership Group

Born: 1920; Shidler, Okla.

Education: Ninth grade; dropped out at 13 to start working

Career Turning Point: Using television commercials to advertise his first dealership in the 1950s

Most Influential People: His father, Benjamin Franklin Worthington also named after a historical figure who supported a wife and nine children

Personal: Lives at 24,000-acre ranch in Orland; divorced three times. Has two
children with his first wife, three with second and one with his third: an 8-year-old boy named Coldren Wilshire

Hobbies: Flying his Learjet to cities where his dealerships are located, riding horses on his ranch, spending time with family

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