How I Made It: Cal Worthington

The job: Selling cars. But just about everyone who lived in California over the last half-century knows that. Worthington, whose “My Dog Spot” commercials made him one of the most famous auto salesmen in history, has owned 27 dealerships and sold more than 1 million cars by his reckoning in his career.

Now 89, he still owns four dealerships, 10 office buildings, two shopping centers, a 10,000-acre ranch, television studio, advertising agency and finance company. He also has a 9-year-old son.

“I get too bored if I don’t have something to do,” he said.

Starting poor: Born the seventh of nine children in tiny Bly, Okla., which has since faded from the map, Worthington remembers every day as a struggle. “We were starving and barefooted,” he said. “I had a very awful childhood.” Dropping out of school at 15, he worked a variety of jobs. Until joining the military at age 20 he never earned more than 29 cents an hour, he says.

Decorated airman: As an Army Air Corps pilot in World War II, Worthington flew 29 combat missions over Germany, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and other decorations. But after the war, commercial airlines refused to hire him because he didn’t have a college degree. Worthington wasn’t interested in going back to school.

“I had to have more excitement,” he said. “The world was changing so fast, and I didn’t want to be sitting in class learning about the rainfall in Burma.”

First car lot: Worthington rented an empty lot in Corpus Christi, Texas, for $25 and the first week sold three cars, including his own. Profit was $500 — almost double what he made in a month in the Air Force — but he had to hitchhike home. “I was the car dealer without any cars,” he said. But he was hooked.

California: Moving to Huntington Park in 1949, he bought a Hudson dealership the next year from Earl “Madman” Muntz and began advertising on radio. Later he made live, three-minute television ads starring himself. Realizing the power of the medium, in 1959 he began hosting a country music show, “Cal’s Corral,” from his dealership with guests that over the years included Buck Owens, Johnny Cash and Roger Miller.

He was determined to never be poor again. “I worked a lot harder than the other guys did,” he said. “I worked day and night. Seven days a week was standard for me.”

In 1963, at a time other car sellers were suffering, Worthington bought a dealership in Long Beach (he still owns it) and sold 800 cars in the first month.

Spot: The TV commercials that made Worthington famous began in 1971 as a parody of competitor Fletcher Jones’ ads that featured puppies. Worthington’s first “My Dog Spot” commercial featured a live, snarling gorilla. “I found this little fella down at the pound, and he’s so full of love,” he said to the camera. Over the years, the commercials — in which he always referred to the animals as a dog named Spot — featured a penguin, camel, bull, elephant, bear and tiger. None of them featured a dog.

The sense of humor he learned as a child to pull though the rough times was paying off. “People would say to me ‘Cal, where’s your dog Spot?’ ” he said. That became my standard greeting.”

Bumps in the road: In 1969, an accountant embezzled $350,000, which nearly brought down his business, Worthington says. In 1978 he was charged by the state attorney general with deceptive advertising (Worthington settled without admitting wrongdoing). He’s been married and divorced three times and fought a messy, much-publicized palimony suit, which he won.

Through it all, he kept selling cars and running other businesses. According to a 2002 interview with his daughter, Courtney, who ran one of the dealerships, Worthington grossed $600 million that year.

No retirement: Though his dealerships saw a 33% drop in sales in 2009, business is up a bit this year. So Worthington is looking into buying another dealership. “It’s like watching a football game,” he said. “You just keep looking at the score.”

He won’t consider retirement. “How in the world people retire, I don’t know,” he said. “It takes a lot of guts.”