The history of Riva – a boatmaking legend
With groundbreaking designs and A-list customers, Riva became the most sought-after name on the water. Here’s the story of how the brand became a legend.March 9, 2015
Riva’s reputation as a high-end boat builder is quite assured. In fact, with its storied history and glamorous list of clients, it is no longer a brand, it’s a legend.
Founded in 1842 by Pietro Riva, the shipyard owes its creation not only to his ambition and ability – but to a storm that wreaked havoc on Italy’s Lake d’Iseo that same year. The storm damaged scores of fishing boats and threw the local industry into crisis. Newly arrived from the nearby town of Laglio, Pietro repaired most of the fishing boats in record time, and in turn built a reputation as a pillar of the community. Ironically, the first new-build order Pietro ever received was for a modest runabout fishing vessel – a far cry from the icons of nautical engineering and design that would go on to characterize his family's name by the 1950s.
It wasn't until the early 1900s that Pietro's grandson, Serafino – then in charge of the company – made a decision that would change the course of Riva’s history, and with it the history of the boating industry. Deciding to veer away from the production of transport vessels, Serafino saw the potential for growth in the motorboat sector, which was still in its infancy. It was a move that proves enormously successfully, as throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Riva family broke a number of records in terms of number of boats sold and had an enviable list of high-profile clients who were buying them. But these weren't just pretty-looking boats. Aside from the luxury they offered, they also became renowned for their speed, winning major national and international races and tournaments.
By the 1950s, with Serafino’s son Carlo – a symbol of integrity in the boating industry – at the helm, the company cemented its place as a producer not just of luxury boats, but of style icons. It was during this decade that boats such as the Florida, Olympic and Tritone were produced – each eclipsing its predecessor in terms of performance, quality and popularity.
The Tritone was the hallmark of ‘La Dolce Vita’ for which Riva became increasingly known, and was the brand’s most popular model. But even that – like the models before it – was only until the company launched arguably its most iconic cruiser in 1962, the Aquarama. That was the classic cruiser that would establish Riva as a boat builder above all others. The boat’s original slogan “sun, sea, joy of living” was played out by the biggest celebrities throughout the 1960s, with stars such as Peter Sellers, Ingrid Bergman, Vittorio Gassman, Anita Ekberg, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton all buying one. While Marilyn Monroe never owned a Riva, she is rumoured to have wanted one and was frequently photographed on the water aboard an Aquarama.
There is an extensive list of who’s who can call a Riva-manufactured boat their own. After a bit of digging we found that no less than 27 royals and Heads of State – eight of whom are Middle Eastern – are Riva owners, and that makes up a fraction of the Riva’s owners club. Some of the names on the list include HRH King Hussein of Jordan, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar, and former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
But it is not merely rich Arab rulers who have the option of taking their iconic boat for a weekend jaunt. Going back a bit further, famous owners have included Hollywood royalty Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren, as well as Prince Rainier of Monaco and shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis - and those are just the names Riva are prepared to release! And even though he doesn’t own one, the BBC's chief petrolhead Jeremy Clarkson singled out the Aquarama, calling it a “mahogany passport to the high life”. Today, the Aquarama model has become synonymous with a combination of taste and class, and its inclusion in various films – such asOcean's Twelve – and advertising campaigns – Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron driving an Aquarama Super in a 1993 commercial for Martini & Rossi – are proof positive of that.
But celebrity endorsements aside, as a boat, what made the Aquarama special was not only its excellent seakeeping and performance, but the extra design cues that would make Riva's boats masterpieces of design. A mahogany roundabout with speed, elegance and superior Italian craftsmanship that saw it hailed as the Ferrari of the seas. Back in the 1960s, the boat was built using the very finest mahogany available. The wood was varnished and polished up to twenty times in order to produce a hull with a hue so rich, that it still lasts to this day.
On top of that, the Aquarama introduced several touches that are still used on cruisers nowadays, such as a cushioned sundeck atop the engine compartment, a convertible sunshade over the cockpit and a swim ladder mounted in the stern – all of those were groundbreaking at the time. At full throttle, the boat’s twin engines pushed it to up to 45 knots - an incredible speed for a production boat in the 1960s.
This was how the Riva brand become a synonym for elegance, status and perfection. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. In 2000, Riva was acquired by fellow Italian shipbuilders Ferretti, and incorporated into their group of eight high-end yachting brands. This step ensured that this historic shipyard would remain at the forefront of design for years to come. “As it was yesterday, it will be forever,” their slogan proudly declares.