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As the American auto industry struggles to stay afloat, a veteran car dealer from Los Angeles has a few thoughts about the future. Cal Worthington is a California cowboy who's famous for pitching his cars with some wild TV commercials. Now in his late 80s, Worthington is still selling cars, but as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the business isn't what it used to be.

CARRIE KAHN: Wearing his trademark cowboy hat and Western red tie, Cal Worthington faces the camera in a TV studio he built in an old bunkhouse at his 24,000-acre ranch. And without a script, he starts his familiar pitch.

Mr. CAL WORTHINGTON (Car Dealer, Los Angeles): Hello again. I'm Cal Worthington for Worthington Ford. Hey, we're having a big SUV sale. I mean, we've got hundreds and hundreds of SUVs on special sale, and they're all certified.

KAHN: Behind him, you see pictures of Worthington's snow-covered dealership in Anchorage, Alaska. By noon, he'll shoot commercials for four car lots across the country without ever leaving the ranch, just changing the backdrop. It's what Cal's been doing for the past 50-plus years, selling cars with a jingle that sticks in your head.

Mr. CAL 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. We're the best deal by far - and then I got thinking, I've got to speed this thing up.

(Soundbite of TV advertisement)

(Singing) If you need a better car, go see Cal. He's the greatest one by far, go see Cal. Give a new car to your wife, she will love you all your life, go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal.

KAHN: The ads began blanketing late-night TV in Los Angeles at a time when nothing was too outrageous for LA's auto-dealer pitchmen.

(Soundbite of TV advertisement)

Unidentified Man: Here's Cal Worthington and his dog Spot.

KAHN: Worthington's trademark was appearing with his dog Spot, which was never a canine.

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

KAHN: He used gorillas, tigers, and even rode a killer whale. The stunts turned him into a minor Hollywood star, landing him appearances on the Johnny Carson show, making him really rich, and keeping him happy - until now.

Mr. CAL WORTHINGTON: This is absolutely, beyond a doubt, the worst time I have ever seen in the car business. If we don't do something drastic, this is going to be a 1928-29 deal.

KAHN: Worthington sits in the TV room in his California ranch home, about a hundred miles north of Sacramento. It's been restored since wife number three burned the house down sauteing mushrooms. Worthington has a few memory gaps, but loves to tell a story. It's really the story of the U.S. car business.

At age 24, straight out of the Air Force, he sold his first car in Corpus Christi, Texas. Worthington says he made 60 bucks and was hooked. He opened his first dealership in Los Angeles in the late '40s, selling Hudsons.

Mr. CAL WORTHINGTON: Well, there wasn't anything else available, (laughs) and they practically gave it to me. The guy was losing his shirt.

KAHN: With pent-up demand after World War II, he sold a lot of cars. In the '50s and '60s, as America connected with interstate highways, he sold even more. He bought Dodge dealerships, Ford and Chrysler franchises. He sold them all.

Mr. CAL WORTHINGTON: Another thing I've done, I've taken dealerships that were broke and busted, and built them up and then sell them. If I have a dealership that somebody wants more than I do, I'll sell it to them.

KAHN: He says the '70s were tough during the oil embargo. In the '80s, when interest rates jumped to double digits, he launched his own financing business. At age 88, he still flies his own Learjet to check up on his four dealerships, but leaves the day-to-day management to others, like his 23-year-old grandson, Nick.

Mr. NICK WORTHINGTON: How was your service today?

Unidentified Man: It was good, good, so far.

Mr. NICK WORTHINGTON: (Laughing) Yeah?

KAHN: Like his grandfather, Nick Worthington wears a white cowboy hat and doesn't veer from the time-tested formula of hard work and heavy advertising. Both still bring customers into Worthington's flagship Ford dealership in Long Beach, California.

Mr. NICK WORTHINGTON: How did you guys find us today?

Unidentified Man: The commercial that's been playing for the last 20, 30, 40 years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NICK WORTHINGTON: Keeping you up at night, I imagine?

KAHN: This man drove more than 50 miles to go see Cal.

Mr. NICK WORTHINGTON: And in L.A., you're passing a whole lot of Ford stores just to come here.

KAHN: Nick Worthington says his grandfather tells him he should be selling at least 300 cars a month. Last month, he sold less than half that. But Nick has no regrets.

Mr. NICK WORTHINGTON: You know, my grandfather says I got in at a bad time, but you'll never learn so much as when business is down. I've probably got a good five years of experience in this last one.

KAHN: Despite the hard times, neither Worthington is ready to quit, especially Cal.

Mr. CAL WORTHINGTON: I've been so successful at it, you can't give it up. You know, you find something you can do, works well, you just can't give it up, as much as you might like to.

KAHN: But he does believe the car business is in for at least two more tough years.

(Soundbite of TV advertisement)

(Singing)I will stand upon my head to beat all deals. I will stand upon my head until my ears are turning red, go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal!

KAHN: Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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