Yusif Barakat, Bearcat Motors Introduction

“If You Don’t Have An Amphicar, You’re Missing The Boat”

My friend Mark Amsdill joined me to visit Yusif Barakat, former owner of the Detroit Amphicar dealership called Bearcat Motors last summer. We wanted to hopefully discover some interesting history including how he got started and what it was like along the way to operate an Amphicar only dealership in the late 1960’s. What we discovered was truly astounding.

Mr. Barakat is nearly 90 years old now but is still very active and in terrific shape playing racquet ball, swimming and walking in his neighborhood regularly. Living very close to me, I decided to just look him up and see if he wanted to talk about his experiences, which thankfully he did. We planned to come to his home for a visit and take him out for an Amphicar ride on a beautiful sunny afternoon.

As we spoke to him we learned that Yusif came to the US as a boy in the 1950’s from Palestine with his family. He became responsible at a young age for his younger siblings, and had to work to help the family survive. After high school he did a hitch in the Air Force and in the early 60’s found himself in the Detroit area after being honorably discharged from the service. He worked at various jobs around the city eventually starting his own credit & collections business.

Discovering he needed a car to get around, and being stationed in Germany in the Air Force, he was fond of the Volkswagen Beetle and bought a brand new 1966 model for $1900 dollars. The VW dealer told him that if he wanted a radio to go to a certain shop in Detroit and they would install one there for him. When he arrived at this radio shop he saw that the owner had a red sports car in his show room. As the radio was being installed he started asking questions about the red car and discovered it was also a German car like his VW, but this one could go in the water! The radio shop owner saw the new VW Beetle and wanted to trade cars on the spot. This is how Yusif became an Amphicar owner. That same car is the red one seen today with the custom bow railing on it Yusif had installed after he got it.

While travelling around Michigan to many of the local lakes with his Amphicar, Yusif would often get stopped and questioned about the car (sound familiar?). Most would ask where they could get one & how much they cost. On one trip to Higgins Lake MI, Yusif was frantically stopped by a man while driving his Amphi on land and asked once again where he could get one to more easily access his cottage out on Flynn Island in the lake. Barakat finally realized that the demand for these cars was great enough that he could possibly buy some and sell them himself.

In late summer of 1966 Yusif drove to the Amphicar headquarters in Carlstadt New Jersey and strolled unannounced into the dealership. The salesman asked if he wanted to buy a car and he told him, no – I want to buy 15 of them! In a very short time, he was designated the exclusive dealer of Amphicars to the 8 states surrounding and bordering the great lakes. He would take delivery of 15 cars in the next month, so the work began. He arranged financing of working capital, secured licenses as a dealer, and found an abandoned Studebaker dealership (Kotzen Motors) at 13111 Dexter Blvd. Detroit, Mi. With 2 hoists and a show room he hired employees, set up his shop and sold his first Amphicar on March 15, 1967.

He ran sales and service for a little more than one year at this location, selling almost 50 Amphicars during that time. I went through all of the sales records and discovered that his highest selling price was $3223.00, lowest was $450.00 and the average selling price was $1847.00 although several cars were given away as promotions and one was donated to the local Sheriff. More than 40% of the cars sold were titled 1967 as that was Bearcat Motors’ only full year of sales. Those titled as 1967 had VIN codes ranging from 106 521 XXX to 106 524 XXX. The low VIN code sold was 100 437, a 1962; and the high VIN code was 106 524 183, a 1967.

Many current and former owners, including Mark Amsdill, have found his Bearcat Motors stickers still on the original cars this many years later. Mark is restoring the only green 1967 car he originally sold currently. Hugh Gordon also bought an Amphicar from Bearcat Motors in April of 1967 and it appears he actually traded in a 1966 model Amphicar on it. I have the original sales history of the cars that came from Bearcat Motors and would be happy to share that history with anyone who sends me their VIN code that can be matched to the records.

As an Amphicar owner himself, Yusif started a club called “The Amphibians” in the Detroit area with other owners. They would get together in various places around the area and perform maneuvers in the water at weddings and other special events on the rivers and lakes. They all had walkie-talkies and would communicate using signals triggering certain maneuvers, crossing over and around each other, and driving in a “V” formation in the water. They were a popular spectacle in Detroit and made the local news many times as a human interest story. Yusif admits the publicity from the performances helped drive demand for cars and sold a few cars as a result and they had fun too!

Once while taking prospective buyers on a test drive in the Detroit River, spectators called police reporting a car in the water near the boat ramp. The police quickly arrived and searched in vain for the car and possible survivors, but never found a trace as Yusif simply drove to the next ramp and back to the dealership unaware until the evening news that anything happened.

During local Detroit area flooding The Amphibians were called upon to perform several high profile rescues including a young stranded cancer patient who needed to be rushed to the children’s hospital. They drove through streets, parks, and yards filled with several feet of water and around abandoned cars to transport the young patient and other people to waiting ambulances.

The Amphibians also were involved with a particular wedding in May of 1967 in the Detroit river. The story goes that the entire wedding party and the bride & groom stood in Amphicars in the water for the ceremony. This was a highly publicized event, and I actually have a roll of 16mm film of the wedding that I am going to have converted over to a digital format to see this unique stunt in real life. I do not know much more about it, but am anticipating showing Yusif this footage for the first time in more than 50 years that he set up and participated in. I also have a 20 second Amphicar commercial on 16mm film that was sent to Bearcat Motors from the headquarters at Ranchero Motors in New Jersey that I want to digitize and be able to view. More on that later.

Sadly, the end came for the dealership as swiftly as it began within about 1 ½ years. The convergence of local newspaper & auto plant employment strikes; the destructive and bloody 1967 Detroit riots that resulted in 43 deaths, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests and more than 400 buildings destroyed; 1968 model governmental safety standards being introduced; and Amphicar Corporation shutting down production led to the end of his supply of customers, cars and the dealership all at the same time. During the riots many neighborhood buildings were burned to the ground, but because of his generosity and kindness being so well known, his business was spared destruction. It was, however, the end of Bearcat Motors on February 16, 1968.

Barakat sent out letters to investors and customers explaining that the business had closed and Amphicar Corp. would not be honoring warranties or selling cars any longer. He and his staff generously offered to be of service to owners after the business closed down to help them keep their cars in working condition. He lost his own Amphicar several years later after a failed political re-election campaign left him owing debts and he was forced to liquidate assets to pay them.

We had a great time meeting Yusif and talking to him about his time as an Amphicar dealer. He is a wonderful and interesting guy who is well versed in many subjects, and perhaps the most spiritual, peaceful and gentle person I have even met. He is a great ambassador for the Amphicar community and we wanted to meet him and capture some of his memories about Bearcat Motors, and get him out on the lake! We went on a ride with Yusif in Portage lake near Pinckney, Michigan, which was his first Amphicar ride in more than 50 years.

I have much more information and more stories to tell, which I will post here.
Keep coming back to see what I have to share as some of the information and videos have never been seen before!
 

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