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Cal Worthington, 92; car dealer, Calif. icon

Cal Worthington’s ads for his dealership made him a byword for salesmanship.

Worthington Ford Inc./AP

Cal Worthington’s ads for his dealership made him a byword for salesmanship.

NEW YORK — Cal Worthington, a car dealer whose off-the-wall commercials, first broadcast in the 1950s, bombarded California television viewers for more than half a century and made him a cultural legend, died Sunday at his ranch in Orland, Calif. He was 92.

Mr. Worthington sold a lot of cars — more than a million by his count — and at his peak in the 1960s ran an empire of 29 dealerships from San Diego to Anchorage. But it was the way he sold them that made him a byword for creative hard-sell salesmanship in the great American tradition.

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Stuck with a dud location when he bought his first dealership, Mr. Worthington decided the only way to attract customers was to hit the airwaves hard with radio and television commercials that stood out from the pack. This turned out to be his ticket to fame and fortune.

In relentless campaigns that treated television viewers to as many as 100 commercials a day, Mr. Worthington proclaimed the virtues of the latest gem on the lot while, for example, strapped to the wing of a soaring biplane or standing on his head on the hood of a car — a visible demonstration of his motto, “I will stand upon my head until my ears are turning red to make a deal.”

In the background, a chorus of male voices and frantic banjo pickers sang a jingle to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” each of its many verses ending with the tag line: “Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal.”

The madness only escalated. When a rival dealer began using a pet dog in his advertisements in the early 1970s, Mr. Worthington rustled up a gorilla and told the audience: “Howdy, I’m Cal Worthington and this is my dog Spot. I found this little fella down at the pound and he’s so full of love.”

Spot reappeared as a hippo, an iguana, and a snake, but never a dog. In other Spot spots, which ran until the 1980s, Mr. Worthington rode Shamu the killer whale at an aquatic amusement park while waving his cowboy hat, chauffeured a tiger in a golf cart, and sat astride an elephant. All the while, the Cal chorus belted out the promise of fabulous deals.

The exuberant cheesiness of Mr. Worthington’s ads made him a folk hero, as much a part of California popular culture as Woodies with surfboards on the roof or Orange Julius stands. He was a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show,” where Johnny Carson performed parodies of his commercials. He appeared as himself in the 1973 Jack Lemmon film “Save the Tiger” and was the model for the car salesman played by Ted Danson in the 1993 film “Made in America.” He even infiltrated Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Inherent Vice.”

Calvin Coolidge Worthington was born in 1920, in Bly, Okla., a tiny town that no longer exists. He was one of nine children living in a shotgun house with no plumbing. He wore clothes made from flour bags.

“We were starving and barefooted,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2010.

Keen on being a pilot, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942 and flew B-17 Flying Fortresses on 29 bombing missions over Germany. He left the military with the rank of captain, a Distinguished Flying Cross, and hopes of becoming a commercial pilot, but lack of a college degree disqualified him.

Instead, using the $500 he made from selling his car, he bought a gas station in Corpus Christi, Texas. He sold used cars on the side and, after getting rid of the station, established his first dealership, Dependable Used Cars.

In 1948 he bid on a load of welding rods being sold off as war surplus in Hawaii, sold his car dealership to pay for them, and drove to Los Angeles to take delivery, hoping to save money by shortening the distance. A longshoreman’s strike stranded the rods, and by the time they were unloaded they were so water-damaged it took Mr. Worthington two years to sell them off. Improvising, he bought a Hudson dealership in Huntington Park.

Initially he made commercials with himself as the star, but in 1959 he began broadcasting a live three-hour country-music show from the dealership on Friday and Saturday nights. “Cal’s Corral,” which ran until 1972, featured such performers as Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, and Roger Miller.

The rising cost of television time forced Mr. Worthington to give up that show and concentrate on 90-second commercials. He eventually created his own company, Spot Advertising, to film as many as 40 ads a week. This prolific output led to a love-hate relationship with Californians, who sometimes felt as if they were slowly being driven mad by the assault.

At the same time, there was no denying the genius of the famous Cal jingle. Rare was the listener who could not manage a smile when hearing:

If your axle is a-saggin,’ go see Cal.

Maybe you need a station wagon, go see Cal.

If your wife has started naggin,’ and your tail pipe is a-draggin’

Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal.

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