The real deal
July/Aug. 2006 California Country magazine
By Kate Campbell
Iconic car salesman loves family, farming and flying most of all.
Iconic car salesman loves family, farming and flying most of all
The driveway in front of Cal Worthington's Orland ranch house is a mile long. The famous car dealer-turned-rancher is quick to say, however, that the ruler-straight strip of asphalt isn't for parking cars. To illustrate his point, he hitches a thumb in the direction of a hangar where his Learjet is parked.
A decorated World War II bomber pilot, Worthington has never lost his fascination for flight. And, he has never lost his desire to be outdoors and work with animals. On a recent tour of his ranch in the Sacramento Valley, Worthington talked about his life, his far-flung business interests and his love of flying, family and farming.
"All my life I've wanted to be a rancher, even when I was a little kid, but I wound up in the car business," Worthington said. "I used the car business as a means to get a ranch. I've been selling cars for many, many years and have used the money I made to acquire ranches."
Those ranches include the 10,000-acre "Big W" in Orland, two spreads in Nevada--one previously owned by Bing Crosby, the other by Art Linkletter--and a sizable cow-calf business in Idaho. In all he owns and operates more than 50,000 deeded acres. Through grazing permits and water rights, he has access to well over a million more.
Worthington also owns major car dealerships in San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Seattle and Anchorage. He estimates that he has sold more than a million cars during his 50-year career.
The man is best known, however, for his unique television ads that aired in the 1970s and '80s. Now considered advertising classics, the ads featured Worthington's "Dog Spot," which was every kind of exotic animal but a dog. According to a spokesman for the Television Bureau of Advertising, Cal Worthington is probably the most widely recognized car-dealer pitchman in television history.
With his homespun charm and business savvy, Worthington has been able to parlay his success selling cars into a life that provides even greater satisfaction.
"When I leave my dealerships in the city, I come out here and compare my surroundings--with all the flowers, the wide-open space, the cattle, the horses, the dogs--and I love it," said Worthington, eyes scanning the horizon for cloud formations.
"I used to love to go hunting. Every year I'd just live for the hunting season. But after I got my ranch, all of a sudden I didn't care about hunting anymore. I realized the reason I wanted to go hunting was to get out into the country and be with nature.
"I still like to ride through a herd of antelope and see them take off. I like to see big deer out on my place. It's nice to see mountain lions once in a while and elk. But I don't need to hunt anymore."
Sweeping his arm across a ridgeline on the Big W Ranch, which he has owned for 30 years, he points out some of the more than 4,000 acres of almond trees that last year produced about 6 million pounds of nuts. The ranch features black Angus cattle and he runs about 1,500 head.
Worthington said success comes "from hard work and hanging in there. I mean, I can't run. But I hung in and hung in and ran a marathon. You do that with determination and persistence. It doesn't take a lot of talent. It takes motivation."
Part of that motivation may have come from growing up during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era. Born in Bly, Okla., in 1920, Worthington was the seventh of nine children in a family he called "bone poor." Their house was built in the "shotgun" style--one room added after another as the family grew and more space was needed. There was no indoor plumbing. The family got by with the help of a small garden and 100-pound sacks of flour.
"We used the flour sacks for clothes and survived on biscuits and gravy," he recalled. "Times got hard. There were 15 people for every job. Dad didn't have a job, and with his third-grade education, he didn't have a lot of skills to offer. He couldn't drive the car (a Dodge touring car with a canvas top) because he couldn't afford the gas.
"He put the car up on blocks to save the tires. One day the finance company came out and hauled away our dream car," he said. "We all stood around in tears and watched them leave."
As the situation worsened, the older Worthington children began leaving, heading for the Texas oil fields. Finally his father and mother loaded what belongings they could fit into a Model-T truck and set out for Kilgore, Texas, with the six younger children tucked into the load.
Worthington quit school at 15, joined the Civilian Conser-vation Corps and went to Colorado to build trails in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park. After six months, he returned to Texas and did whatever he could to earn a little money.
In 1942 Worthington passed the tests required to become a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot, then shipped out to England on the Queen Elizabeth. He flew B-17 bombing raids over Germany, surviving 29 missions despite heavy attack.
"Anything after 10 missions was considered living on borrowed time," he said.
After being discharged as a captain, Worthington wanted to be a commercial pilot. His dream was stymied, however, by the requirements for a college degree. Next he tried his hand at running a gas station. He then turned to selling used cars in front of a Texas post office, making folksy pitches when people got their mail. Worthington sold a few cars and moved to a dirt lot he rented for $25, where he made a $500 profit in one week, and decided this would be his career.
In 1950, Worthington moved to Huntington Park, Calif., with a Hudson Motor Car dealership, and purchased time for a three-hour live country music show on television every Saturday and Sunday. He had all the country musicians on that would later make it big--Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Glen Campbell and Roger Miller.
"Country music was becoming very big, and it sold a lot of cars for me," Worthington said.
When television became more established and sponsorship of entire programs was too expensive, he turned to doing commercials. The "dog" Spot came to life to counter a Chevrolet dealer in the San Fernando Valley who was using a large German shepherd named Storm as a prop.
The first Spot was a gorilla that roared. Later, Spot became a killer whale, a lion, a monkey, an elephant and a goose that, in a memorable appearance on The Tonight Show, laid something other than an egg on host Johnny Carson's suit.
Off-screen, Worthington is far different than he acts on television. Instead of a zany cowboy pitching cars, he's soft-spoken and modest, inclined to listen more than he talks. Although his large, log cabin-style home is gracious, it isn't ostentatious.
"I don't try to impress anybody," he said. "I don't wear fancy jewelry or fancy clothes or drive fancy cars. I try to be honest with people, down to earth, and make sure customers are happy. That's the best advertising I can do.
"The only thing that might seem fancy is my airplane. But I use it. It's not just a joy. I can be at my ranch in Nevada in 45 minutes. I also have businesses all over the West Coast. I'm in Alaska several times a month."
Married and divorced three times, the 85-year-old Worthington has six children and four grandchildren. His oldest child is 59; his youngest is 5. His older son, a retired American Airlines pilot, lives on the ranch and oversees much of the operations. Most of Worthington's children, in fact, are involved in the family's various businesses.
On weekends, the airstrip in front of Worthington's home is busy with the takeoffs and landings of his children in their own aircraft. This summer his middle son will marry in Monaco and all the Worthington children plan to pilot in for the event.
"At this age I'm having a lot of fun," said Worthington. "I have a 5-year-old boy who is a delight to me. I enjoy my family. When it's all said and done, I enjoy my family most, by far. Family is what life's all about. You can have everything in the world and if you don't have anybody to share with, you don't have much.
"If you don't have love in your life, you don't have anything."
Kate Campbell is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.