Remembering Carlo Riva, Designer of the World’s Most Beautiful Boats

Aquarama

Thanks to our friends at Classic Boat Magazine for this excellent report on Carlo Riva who died earlier in April. We once shared a video on TotalBoat Show that was very popular amongst our readers, and so once again in honor of the man himself, we share the video at the bottom of the page. Enjoy. 

Carlo Riva Obituary

Carlo Riva, the man who designed the world’s most beautiful boats, died at the age of 95.

Carlo Riva, 1922-2017, creator of the most desirable motorboats of all time, died on 10 April, in his home town of Sarnico on the shores of Lake Iseo, where the Riva family established its first boatyard in 1842.

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Carlo became the fourth generation of Riva boatbuilders after reading mechanical engineering at the Technical Industrial Institute in Cremona. Like many young Italians after the war, Carlo was captivated by the pizzazz and wealth of the New World, and would read and re-read American yachting magazines. One thing in particular caught his eye – the mahogany barrelback runabouts built en masse by the venerable American firm of Chris Craft. Carlo’s father Serafino was a strict traditionalist, and father and son acted out the struggle of Italy’s new generation emerging to challenge its traditional past – “I lived in total opposition to him whom I saw bitterly toil to produce one boat at a time” – as he put it to us four years ago.

Even before that, at the age of just 15, Carlo had proved his design flair with the hydroplane Brun-Ella that was piloted to many race victories. By the age of 30 he had drawn about 45 boats, but it took considerable work to persuade his father to let him try building boats in a more modern, production-line method, as practised by Chris Craft.

The money to fulfil his dreams came in the form of a loan from a neighbour – the celebrated gunsmith Mr Beretta. In 1954, two years after securing the right to buy Chris Craft engines in a deal upon which his future hung (there were no Italian engines of sufficient reliability) he opened a futuristic white facility on Lake Iseo that would go on to build, in less than 20 years, over 4,000 wooden runabouts.

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These were golden years for Riva, and for Italy in general, which was going through a post-war revival now known as the ‘dolce vita’ period. Unlike the contemporary and utilitarian FIAT 500 and Vespa scooter, icons of Italy’s journey from rural past to industrial future, Rivas were a totem to luxury, style and speed, putting the Italian glamour epitomised by Ferrari and Lamborghini on the surface of water. In fact Ferrucio Lamborghini owned a Riva, as did Brigitte Bardot, Peter Sellers, Sophia Loren and Sean Connery; Rivas were always expensive. “You are paying for quality not luxury,” Carlo said, years later: his adherence to quality control and detail were legendary at the time.

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Carlo’s first boat, the Corsaro of 1946, a barrel-backed mahogany runabout, set the tone for every boat that would follow, namely (in order): the Tritone, Ariston, Scoiattolo, Sebino, Florida, Aquarama, Junior and Olympic, the last woodie. Of these, the Florida might have sold the most (over 1,100) and the Ariston might be the prettiest; but the twin-engined Aquarama became the defining boat, a global lynchpin of Italian flair to this day. One example recently sold at auction for a shade under $1 million, making the Aquarama an anomaly in the classic boat market.

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The very special Riva Aquarama built for Ferrucio Lamborghini, restored with its two V-12 Lambo mills

Carlo sold the company in 1969, staying at the helm for two more years, then left, keeping the servicing and restoration arm RAM at the Sarnico campus, and Monaco Boat Service, in a long tunnel under Monaco’s palace. He went on to build Italy’s first marina in 1975.

When we asked readers to vote for their favourite classic boats for our 200th issue, the Aquarama, recently described by Jeremy Clarkson as “the most beautiful thing in the world”, was the only motorboat to feature. Carlo leaves behind two daughters, Lia and Pia, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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And as promised, here is that video you all loved: ENJOY!

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