The God Father Of Sole
BBC TopGear India|July 2019

Say ciao to Ciccio Liberto, the Sicilian shoemaker whose fast footwear changed the pace of racing.

Dan Read
In the Sixties, big-brained engineers came up with all sorts of ways to shave a few seconds off lap times. Upside-down aerofoils, exotic monocoques, gas turbines, early ground effects – things that required an unsociable grasp of physics and a forehead best measured in acres. But one of the smartest breakthroughs came not from some virtuoso designer, but from an unknown Italian cobbler, whose invention – the world’s very first pair of speedy shoes – made everything else look somewhat over-engineered.

Believe it or not, in the first 50 years of motor racing, nobody had ever thought to make a shoe for that purpose. Drivers were suited, but still clumpy-booted. From the top down, the typical uniform consisted of an open-face helmet, some comedy goggles and a baby-blue onesie, all incongruously offset by pair of smart, hard-soled shoes, sometimes bound in gaffer tape for a cosier fit.

But that was to change, when in 1965 a trio of Alfa Romeo drivers called into a shoe shop in the Sicilian town of Cefalù, the seaside base for teams competing in the famous Targa Florio road race in the nearby Madonie Mountains. Inside the shop, on the promenade across from the sun-spangled Mediterranean, they found a short, steely-eyed man named Francesco Liberto – Ciccio to his friends – who did a nice line in orthopedic shoes. Could he possibly make them a pair of shoes for driving in, they asked?

Later on, in a local pizzeria, they discussed what they needed: a pair of racing shoes strong enough for a footwell workout, but as thin and supple as a second skin, for maximum pedal feel. The solution was high-top booties, cut from soft, seamless leather with slim eyelets for superleggera laces. Within days Ciccio had made his first prototype pair, which was – by all accounts – quite terrible.

“I decided to glue the sole and upper to give maximum softness, without seams,” says Ciccio. “But racing shoes have to deal with high temperatures in the cockpit. So unfortunately, they melted.”

Lesson learned, Ciccio reverted to what he knew best – stitching with a manual sewing machine, made by Pfaffin Germany sometime in the Twenties, which he still uses today.

His second pair was much more successful, and so, keen to cash in on his new invention, Ciccio began approaching other drivers in the Targa Florio paddock, including Britain’s Vic Elford.

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