I saw my first driving shoe in the summer of 1980. Every year Cambridge, where I lived, was over-run with foreign exchange students. The EF lot we called them, after the logo on their blue-and-white backpacks. They would gather in huge packs down by the river or on the town’s commons, and their gaudy clothes caught my eye. I was stuck in a bit of a teen rude boy rut, all Fred Perry’s and chunky brogues, and I liked the Euro look: brightly coloured lamb’s wool jumpers slung over shoulders, pastel polo shirts, lightweight canvas trousers in light blues and greens. And driving shoes. They all wore these little moccasin slip-ons with tiny rubber nubs that covered the soles and ran right up the back of the heel. A friend’s parents took in a couple of Italian students for the summer - you could earn a good wedge putting up the EF kids. I asked one of the lads, from Turin, to look at his shoe: a chestnut brown leather job with black nubs. It was ace, and made my tassle loafer feel like a house brick.
Inside, the legend: Tod’s.
It would take me three years before I actually got to see a pair of Tod's in a shop, try them on, and buy them. In 1983, I blagged a job working as a stagehand for a touring dance company, and we zipped all over Europe for three months. It was great: I got well paid, fed, put up, and traveled all over France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy for free. Near Lake Como I saw a display of Tod’s in a shop window. I went in, tried on a pair of brown leather Gommino driving shoes, and have been hooked ever since. Not a healthy addiction, as Tod’s come in at a minimum of £250 a pop.
The Italian firm was started by Filippo Della Valle in a basement in Cassette d’Ette in La Marche province in Italy, in the 1920s. He made sandals to sell to girls at the Sunday market. His son Dorino Della Valle took the firm and transformed it from humble cobblers into a quality shoemaker, and his son, and current chief, 56-year-old Diego expanded the firm and started supplying shoes to American department stores in the 1970s. He chose the name JP Tod out of the Boston phonebook because it ‘sounded good in any language’, and soon dropped the JP. The first Gommino driving shoe was produced in 1978, and they have been a regular best seller ever since. Created as an under-stated luxury item, the little shoe with 133 tiny rubber pebbles (originally intended to give drivers’ grip and flexibility on the pedals of their Ferraris, no doubt, as they navigated the treacherous roads of the Amalfi coastline) is now seen in every hue in the rainbow. It takes 100 steps to make a pair, but they still manage to turn out 15,000 pairs daily. Diego himself always wears only black or brown – low key. Unlike myself.
Over the years I have had burnt orange suede, deep red, green leather and white eye-wateringly expensive Tod's. I stopped wearing them for years, put off by hoorays and Hollywood stars taking them up. I’m over that now, and have welcomed the driving shoe back, although I have branched out from Tod's. I recently bought a two-tone pair with a more conventional flat sole and no running nubs up the back of the heel. As a non-driver, this makes sense to me. These latest blue-and-white linen and leather shoes from English company Fins are my favourite kicks this summer: I’ll wear them with tailored shorts, jeans or a seersucker suit, and they come in at a reasonable £110.
There are other options: Fiat heir Lapo Elkann has launched a driving shoe as part of his Italia Independent fashion line. Proper lairy colourways (dogtooth and metallic lilac or silver; fuchsia and purple, anyone?) and they claim to use the same rubber blend used in Formula 1 tires for his soles. Handy if you’re a really fast runner I suppose. Don’t be put off by the likes of Jeremy Clarkson and money-dumb stock-brokers sporting driving shoes with horrible pleated chinos and cargo shorts: bust them out with a white jean, no socks and a loose black linen shirt and push for the jaded Italian playboy look. If nothing else it’ll keep you out of flip-flops.