California Car Dealer Remembered For Gonzo TV Ads

Famed southern California car dealer Cal Worthington died Sunday at the age of 92. His ubiquitous television ads featured circus animals and stunts and a fast-paced sales pitch.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And while we're on the subject of clever and creative ad campaigns, Southern California is mourning the death of one of its most creative salesman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Here's Cal Worthington and his dog, Spot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) Any model, any make, go see Cal.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) Give your pocketbook a break. Go see Cal. It's a giant super mart...

SIEGEL: For decades, car dealer Cal Worthington was a fixture on TV sets in and around Los Angeles. His outrageous ads with circus animals, stunts and goofy music are all seared into the region's collective memory. NPR's Nathan Rott has this remembrance.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Ask nearly anyone who grew up in Southern California, someone like Barney Barker, and you'll get a response like this.

BARNEY BARKER: Go see Cal. That's what I remember, and his dog, Spot.

ROTT: If Southern California had its own dictionary, go see Cal would be part of it. And it might say, see Cal Worthington or beloved car dealer after. People here talk about Worthington like they would an old friend. Rita Rhodes, Henryetta Benton and Marjoree Durkee grew up watching his commercials.

RITA RHODES: He's like a legend.

HENRYETTA BENTON: Yeah, he's down-to-earth. Yeah.

RHODES: We always loved him like he was, like, a part of the family. Go see Cal. Go see - you know, you'd have a fondness for him.

MARJOREE DURKEE: Yeah, I did.

BENTON: He was just kind of a folksy, kind of down-to-earth kind of guy.

RHODES: Very nice.

ROTT: And he definitely was. A native Oklahoman, Worthington grew up in the poverty of the Dust Bowl before enlisting in the Air Force at 21. He would earn a Distinguished Flying Cross as one of the first bomber pilots to lead a daytime raid over Berlin in World War II. After the service and a few odd jobs, he bought a used car dealership in Huntington Beach in 1950. And at the time, a few of his competitors were using a dog in their car commercials with great success. So he decided to mock them with a dog of his own. Spot, though, was anything but a canine. Iguanas, octupi, orcas, even tigers and bears and elephants.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

CAL WORTHINGTON: I'd say the craziest one was the hippo.

ROTT: That was Worthington in an interview with NPR in 2009. But besides the animals, the thing that really stuck out to people was the theme song, a song that Worthington wrote himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

WORTHINGTON: I first did it really slow with a big drum roll.

(Singing) If you need a better car, go see Cal - with a big drum roll - for the best deal by far.

Then I got thinking, I got to speed this thing up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing) If you need a better car, go see Cal.

ROTT: It was a hit. Worthington's business grew when soon people were singing his tune up and down the West Coast. He made an appearance on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" and opened dealerships as far away as Alaska.

BO HUFF: And he was a bigger than life human being.

ROTT: Bo Huff is a custom car dealer in southern Utah and a bit of a name in the car world himself. He grew up in Orange County watching Worthington's commercials and admires his 63-year career. And this morning, when he heard people talking about Cal Worthington, he came over to chime in this.

HUFF: He might have been selling cars, but I think that wasn't his main purpose in life. I think his main purpose in life maybe would have been to put a smile on people's face. That's what I think about Cal Worthington.

ROTT: Cal Worthington died on his couch watching football. He was 92. Nathan Rott, NPR News.

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