Make no mistake about it, bub, Southern California is car country.
So automobile dealer Calvin Coolidge Worthington decided to have a little fun, attract attention, and empty his lots with “My Dog Spot” TV commercials featuring a live, snarling gorilla.
The commercials, in which he also used other animals as a dog named Spot — a penguin, camel, elephant, bear, lion, hippopotamus, and tiger — helped Worthington build an empire of 27 dealerships that sold more than 1 million cars.
Many of those commercials were filmed under the large “Worthington Ford in Long Beach” sign at the dealership he bought in 1963.
Now that sign has come to mark the end of an era. Worthington’s family said they have sold the 3-acre business, the last dealership still bearing the name of the legendary car salesman who died in 2012.
“It’s very sad,” Nick Worthington, Cal’s grandson, said in an interview with ABC7. “Our employees have been with us 40 plus years.
“It’s a part of everyone’s childhood and life growing up here,” he added. “It’s hard to close that book for everybody.”
On Saturday, Shawn Abdallah, finance director at the dealership, said news of the sale “came as a shock, although there had been rumors for a couple of months that something like this was in the works.”
“The rumors were confirmed on Thursday,” he said, “when Nick had everyone gather in a conference room here for an important message.
“He said, ‘You probably heard the rumors and today I am here to confirm them.’ ” Abdallah recalled. “He was very emotional. And yeah, there were tears all around.”
The buyer, Nouri/Shaver Automobile Group, plans to keep all the Worthington Ford employees, but they will have to reapply for their jobs, Abdallah said.
The iconic large blue “Worthington” sign overlooking Bellflower Boulevard, Abdallah said, “won’t be taken down until March 1.”
In the meantime, visitors don’t have to go far to see reminders of the flashy stunts used by the Oklahoma transplant to make the hard sell during a 65-year career that made him an icon of quirky Southern California culture.
The showroom of gleaming new Ford models, for instance, features a floor-to-ceiling photograph of Worthington cheek-to-cheek with a tiger: the most personable of all the animals that helped him build a cult following.
It’s a reminder of a quirky era when automobile salesmen here, in the capital of car and freeway culture, dressed like Napoleon, wore halos, and adopted exotic animals for a sale.
Worthington’s signature gimmicks were the “Dog Spot” ads, which first appeared on-air in 1971. They were originally intended to be spoofs of two competitors: Ralph Williams and Fletcher Jones.
Williams had launched an ad campaign with a German shepherd named Storm, and Jones appeared on TV cuddling puppies.
“I decided I’d mimic them,” Worthington recalled in an interview. So he borrowed a gorilla, chained it to a car bumper and let the cameras roll.
Trying to appear unruffled, the lanky pitchman with a cowboy hat and an ear-to-ear grin launched that characteristically folksy tactic with welcoming words: “Howdy, I’m Cal Worthington and this is my dog Spot.”
“I found this little fella at the pound,” he added, with a smile, “and he’s so full of love.”
The new owners of the dealership will change the name to BP Ford.