Auto dealer and TV figure Cal Worthington dies

LOS ANGELES — Cal Worthington, who built a fortune from a series of West Coast auto dealerships and became a TV fixture thanks to folksy car lot commercials urging customers to “Go see Cal,” has died. He was 92.

Worthington died Sunday after watching football with family at his Big W Ranch in Orland, Calif., north of Sacramento, said Dave Karalis, general manager of Cal Worthington Ford in Long Beach.

The cause of death has not been determined, family attorney Larry Miles said.

The Oklahoma native, who was a decorated bomber pilot during World War II, founded his first dealership in the late 1940s in Southern California and quickly took advantage of broadcast advertising.

As his business empire grew to other western states and Alaska, Worthington starred in a series of TV and radio spots that featured him in his ever-present big white cowboy hat and his “dog” Spot — which would turn out to be animals ranging from tigers to elephants.

He also wrestled a bear, handled a snake, rode a hippopotamus and a pig, and almost had his hand bit by a mountain lion. Viewers frequently saw him trying to stand on his head, including a stint atop the upper wing of a biplane that turned him on his head. All of it was set to a speedy banjo tune with the refrain, “Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal.”

At one point, Worthington owned more than 23 dealerships in five states, according to a family statement.

Born Nov. 27, 1920, Worthington joined the Army and became a B-17 bomber pilot, flying 29 missions over Germany and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and other honors.

After the war he continued to fly a variety of aircraft, including a Lear 35, a twin-engine jet that he based at his sprawling ranch, which is a large producer of almonds and olives.

Last year, he addressed a Federal Aviation Administration seminar at the Aerospace Museum of California in McClellan, Calif., on how he managed so many years of flying safely. His last flight was from Anchorage, Alaska, to California, 10 days before his death, Miles said.

He is survived by six children and nine grandchildren.

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