Make no mistake, Southern California is car country.
So car dealership Calvin Coolidge Worthington decided to have a little fun, turn heads and empty his lots with “My Dog Spot” TV commercials featuring a live, growling gorilla.
The commercials, in which he also used other animals as a dog named Spot — a penguin, camel, elephant, bear, lion, hippo, 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 big “Worthington Ford in Long Beach” sign at the dealership he bought in 1963.
Now that sign has come to mark the end of an age. Worthington’s family said they sold the 3-acre business, the last dealership to bear 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 for more than 40 years.
“It’s part of everyone’s childhood and life growing up here,” he added. “It’s hard to close that book to everyone.”
Shawn Abdallah, chief financial officer at the dealership, said on Saturday that news of the sale “came as a shock, even though there had been rumors for a few months that something like this was in the works.”
“The rumors were confirmed on Thursday,” he said, “when Nick gathered everyone here in a conference room for an important message.
“He said, ‘You’ve probably heard the rumours, and today I’m here to confirm them.’ Abdallah recalled. “He was very emotional. And yes, there were tears everywhere.
The buyer, Nouri/Shaver Automobile Group, plans to keep all 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, “will not be removed until March 1.”
In the meantime, visitors don’t have to go far to see reminders of the flashy stunts the Oklahoma transplant has used to sell hard during a 65-year career that made him an icon of quirky Southern California culture.
For example, in the showroom of gleaming new Ford models, there’s a floor-to-ceiling photo of Worthington cheek-to-cheek with a tiger: the most personal of all the animals that helped him build a cult following.
It’s a reminder of a quirky era when car salesmen here, in the capital of auto and highway culture, dressed up as Napoleon, wore halos and adopted exotic animals for a sale.
Worthington’s signature gimmicks were the “Dog Spot” ads, which first appeared on the air in 1971. They were originally intended as spoofs of two competitors: Ralph Williams and Fletcher Jones.
Williams had launched an ad campaign featuring a German Shepherd named Storm, and Jones appeared on TV hugging puppies.
“I decided I would mimic them,” Worthington recalled in an interview. So he borrowed a gorilla, chained it to a car bumper, and let the cameras roll.
The lanky pitchman in a cowboy hat and an ear-to-ear grin tried to appear unflappable and launched that typical folksy tactic with words of welcome: “Hi, I’m Cal Worthington and this is my dog Spot.”
“I found this little guy at the shelter,” he added with a smile, “and he’s so full of love.”
The dealership’s new owners will change the name to BP Ford.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.