Interview With Stick Shifters of America
We sat down with Michael Briskie, Chief Gearhead at Stick Shifters of America, to learn more about automotive conservation, activism, and history.
What first got you interested in cars? Tell us a little about your automotive background.
It was the sound. My dad had a couple of pretty interesting cars, like a ’96 Firebird Formula, and I remember rushing downstairs to hear it start up every day for at least a week. I was 10. We had a couple other sporty cars when I was a kid too, nothing too crazy – a Honda Prelude, Eclipse GT… and I liked the rush I would feel from the passenger seat when I would ride shotgun (way before I was old enough for a license), and my Dad would accelerate onto a main road, revving out the motor. The way he drove made it look so engaging, I couldn’t wait to drive myself. I bought my first car a full year before I got my drivers license, a 1987 Toyota Supra with 45k miles on it. It was $4k. I saved up $2k lugging sheetrock during summers and after school, and my dad matched the other half.
Once I was on the road myself I was hooked. 15 years later I still love driving. I like exploring new places, going on spontaneous road trips with my wife, and going to the track with our Lotus Elise or my shifter kart. I also work in the automotive industry. I spent a lot of time with Volkswagen, doing events and sales training with their dealerships. I also worked at Lime Rock Park with their Drivers Club, and now I work with a startup company called TradeRev. It’s all cars, all the time.
How did S.S.A. first come about? What lead you to develop this company?
Honestly, seeing so many articles about the “Demise of the Stick Shift” and the push for vehicle autonomy is what gave me the idea. I researched it like crazy, thinking there must be an ownership club out there for stick shift drivers, but then again, if there was, why wasn’t I already a member? I know there are so many people who love driving… actual driving, not just for transportation, but for entertainment, and many of them feel just as passionately as I do about driving stick and making sure we have stick shift options in new cars for years to come.
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial bend – last year I tried a new business renting out convertibles on the NH seacoast. Before that, I developed a motorsport website. But the idea for Stick Shifters was by far the purest expression of car fan-dom I could imagine. It encompasses so many people, an entire culture around cars, and I don’t care about credit for it, I just want an organization to exist that represents guys and girls who are passionate about being involved in their drives. It’s not make or model specific, it’s just so honest about the love for driving and that involves everyone that drives stick, I believe.
Can you share a little about the company’s mission and goals?
The long-term goal is to represent a massive community of Stick Shifters to manufacturers. I want to be able to say to Audi, or to Ford, or to McLaren even, “hey guys, look we have 200,000 registered stick shift drivers… who all actually put their money on buying a car with three pedals, and of those, “x” thousand said they would put a deposit down on a contract for a stick shift TTRS.” Just an example. That’s a long ways away, but with enough support, we could have the clout to move product decisions and to make OEMs realize they can build a car for our subset of drivers, and they can have the confidence knowing our members actually buy these things.
Also, I am convinced that stick shift drivers are forced to pay closer attention to the road, less distraction, and get into less accidents. I believe we can conduct a study to prove it. This has never been done before, but if it is true, Stick Shift drivers should pay less for insurance than automatic drivers and we would fight for that to happen.
S.S.A. doesn’t claim that stick shifts are better but recognizes that stick shifts and automatics have shared the road for a long time. Why do you think we need this sort of community now?
We’ve all seen the flamewars online about which is better. The truth is, it depends on what you want from your car. Do you want the fastest track-slaying machine for best lap times? Go get your super-sequential-F1-flappy-
We don’t want to fan any flames on a auto vs. manual war. They both have a place, and are perfectly happy in co-existence! But for non-competitive driving and pure enjoyment, we believe there’s nothing more satisfying than a good manual blip downshift, and the analog experience is a beautiful thing that needs to be experienced to be appreciated. Also, have you seen the story about Steve McQueen’s daughter learning to drive stick for the Ford Bullitt presser? She was taught how, and now she loves it… drove autos her whole life and now will only drive stick. Stories like this are a good reminder that the manual gearbox is special and worth keeping around.
What factors or changes in the automotive industry do you believe have most contributed to this rise in automatics and shying away from real “driving?”
It’s convenience more than anything. I’ve worked for a major OEM and understand the product decisions that need to be made. Most people can’t have more than 1 car per person, and that one car sort of needs to do it all. So why not have the car that shifts faster, is more economical, and removes the pain points of driving a stick, like clutching constantly in traffic? This only-one-car that does it all thing is the same reason why true sports cars don’t exist in the $30k-40k price bracket. A car like the 370Z and the BRZ, for instance, will never sell in big volume because they force the owner to live with too many inconveniences as a daily driver – harsh suspension, no cargo space, bad in winter.
Yet cars like the WRX and the GTI sell all day because they are practical performance with 90% (or more) of the performance of a sports car. Thankfully those cars still sell 40%+ with manual transmissions, which more than justifies the production expense for an OEM. But really, when is the last time a dedicated sports car car (ie: a lightweight, rear wheel drive coupe, not derived from a commuter car or family sedan type of platform) was a big seller? Those pure cars are hard to find unless you go spend $50k plus on a Corvette, Evora, or a Cayman… the sort of price territory where someone can afford it as a second or third car anyway.
What kind of benefits can a member expect when they join S.S.A?
We are advocates of driving engagement, so our early focus has been on learning more about your car and it’s performance. We’ve partnered with SCDA, the Sports Car Driving Association, so our members can receive $50 off their first track day with them. You receive expert instruction, in your car, from a highly experienced driver and you get to drive in a way you only dream about on the street. Another partner is Lime Rock Park, so you can get race ticket discounts as an SSA member. It’s a beautiful track, one of the all-time greats. HMS Motorsport does performance gear like helmets and gloves. We are in talks with performance parts companies and sports car rental companies. Plenty we can do for our members! Think of AAA, but for stick shifters… membership has privileges. There is a huge car culture in the Northeast, and we hope to bring on more partners on board over the next year of operation, then push more nationally.
Also, almost forgot to mention that all members get an SSA membership card and a stick-shifting-stick-figure sticker, which is our logo, to put on their car. Sharp-eyed Volkswagen nuts will catch the logo reference to Fahrvergnügen, an old ad campaign that translates to Driving Pleasure. Longer term, we plan to go to bat for our members and make their voice heard at OEMs so they keep building stick shift cars for as long as we’re allowed to drive ourselves.
What can the enthusiast do to help keep the true love of driving alive, even in today’s age of sedans and minivans?
We’d recommend buying a stick shift car and learning to drive it. But regardless of what transmission is in your car, you can fall in love with driving. Even if you don’t have a ton of horsepower or a fancy suspension, just grab your keys and go for a joyride. Don’t pick a destination, just go down streets you haven’t been down before. Don’t take your phone… take a map. Be in the moment and realize what a wonderful thing this is, a machine that you and you alone get to pilot, so much faster than your own two feet could ever take you. It’s amazing when you just try to appreciate the incredible engineering that makes that possible, and to take an hour on the road with the windows down just enjoying the speed, the sounds, and the sights knowing there’s more road out there than you could ever explore in 100 lifetimes is humbling and gratifying. It’s the anti-commute. It’ll make an enthusiast out of anyone.
How do you feel a program like S.S.A. will impact the modern and classic car hobbies as a whole?
Tough question. I think it’s too soon to tell, but there are companies and organizations out there like the Revs Institute that are permanently etching car culture into the history books. I hope that places like that recognize the importance of the human behind the wheel as much as the cars themselves. Humans have a unique agency and decision making capability, and I believe strongly that we should promote those qualities rather than stifling them (autonomous cars, I’m looking at you). SSA members know that every gearshift is a decision – to rev out the motor, to save some fuel, to downshift for a corner at their own discretion. Yes, humans make mistakes, but most of the joys we have in life are from things we are directly involved in, applying our conscious thought. If we as people like to be entertained, especially behind the wheel, I can’t think of a better way to enjoy modern and classic cars for decades to come than driving them ourselves and driving them with purpose… even if that purpose is just for fun.
What does the future look like for S.S.A? How would you like the company to expand in the coming years?
We are a non-profit company in the state of New Hampshire. Our application for federal tax-exempt status is in progress, so that’s a major next step for us and our credibility as an organization. Right now, membership is free for the first 500 members who register and validate their stick shift ownership so that’s another major milestone, hitting that 500 number. Strength in numbers is our goal, so we are looking for growth in our membership base because, with more members, more companies will want to put themselves out there for our members to take advantage of. Likewise, more incentives for our members mean more members will want to join. We’d like to become truly national, and hit memberships in all 50 states… right now we have members in 25 states, but many are up in New England because that’s our home turf. But we’ll start locally and work on a grassroots level to make this something everyone knows about, in time.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Maybe a shameless plug to visit StickShiftersofAmerica.com and sign up for your free membership! That’s it, thank you Car Show Safari for believing in our mission and supporting us. See you all out on the road! And I invite anyone to email me personally at hello@stickshiftersofamerica.