The Great Carlo Riva

If there was ever an iconic brand it is Riva.  The company was established in 1842 on the shore of Lake Iseo, Italy, by Pietro Riva, the great-grandfather of Carlo Riva who was born on February 24, 1922, during the heyday of motor boating, at the time when the first real speedboats were being built.  Carlo Riva became a legendary boat and yacht designer and builder, designing boats and setting the style for others to follow.

The company’s founder, Pietro Riva – who after moving to Sarnico Laglio, near Como – became the master of his own destiny – moving from repairing damaged boats for the local fisherman to building his own boats.  These boats quickly stood out for their unmatched style and personality.  Riva rapidly gained great respect and recognition; the boatyard flourished also thanks to the farsightedness of Ernesto Riva, who had succeeded his father Pietro and introduced internal combustion engines on Riva boats. With this the era of large cargo and passenger boats operating on the lake thus began.

After World War I, Serafino Riva gave Riva products their final imprinting and turned the boatyard’s precious crafts into a real brand, allowing it to take a step into history: production steered from transportation to power boating, which at the time was still dawning.  Between the 1920s and the 1930s Riva, through its racing yachts, collected a large number of records and victories in national and international competitions.

In the 1950s, Serafino’s son, Carlo opened a new futuristic shipyard — currently protected by the Italian Superintendence for Artistic and Architectural Heritage — and the company began building the type of boats its name still conjures to this day: classy, sophisticated, well-crafted pleasure boats, starting with the Ariston, then the Tritone (the first two-engine yacht), the Sebino (the company’s first series), and shortly thereafter, the Florida, made famous by Brigitte Bardot, Liz Taylor, Sean Connery, and others. Aristocrats and business tycoons alike clamored for the beautiful wooden boats.

Carlo created Riva’s golden era.  Even today, these jewels preserve intact all the charm of that time, made of paparazzi, movie stars wearing foulards and glamorous sunshades, celebrity love stories, luxury and timeless elegance. The 1950s were the years of Carlo Riva, who had been driven by boundless passion for boats and the family business since he was a child.  And much like Ferraris, Rivas had by then become the synonym of elegance, status and perfection.  Selected materials of the highest quality, a painstaking care for the tiniest details, unparalleled, long-standing expertise and craftsmanship.  Riva’s creations became the object of desire for the aristocracy, award winning athletes, successful businessmen and movie stars.

In the decade of the Italian industrial revolution, dominated by the myth of speed and racing cars, l’Ingegnere, as Carlo Riva is called, sensed the importance of this phenomenon and created a series of wooden yachts characterized by unique, unmistakable design features.  One of them was the Ariston, of which Carlo Riva says it was “designed with love, born pure and strong like a pedigree horse. Unforgettable! It was my Lord of the Sea”.  In 1956 Riva started cooperating with designer and architect Giorgio Barilani, whose graphic and design activities for the boating industry were then devoted exclusively to Riva, where Barilani was the design manager between 1970 and 1996.

In November 1962 another myth was born: it was named Aquarama.  Since its presentation, at the third Milan International Boat Show, the Aquarama became the symbol of Riva par excellence, almost “a brand within the brand”. The name of the yacht drew inspiration from the Cinerama system, the American experimental wide screens.  The slogan the yacht was launched with contained several key-words: “Sun, sea, joie de vivre!”  The prototype was the mythical Lipicar no. 1, the evolution of the Tritone.  8.02 meters in length, 2.62 meters wide, capable of sleeping up to eight people, two berths at the bow, two 185 hp Chris-Craft petrol engines, a speed of 73 km/h.  The price: 10 million 800 thousands liras.

The year 1969 was another milestone in the history of the legendary brand: it was then that fiberglass production started.  The first two Riva models in composite material were born: the day cruiser Bahia Mar 20’ and the cabin cruiser Sport Fisherman 25’. The new material was first accurately studied by purchasing the hull from the Bertram boatyard. The hull was subsequently redesigned and both models were then finished with wood details, in line with Riva’s tradition.  Between the 1970s and the 1990s, more yachts were created, including the St. Tropez – which was produced until 1992 – and the Superamerica, the first large cabin cruiser, which was available on the market for more than 20 years. In spite of the success met by fiberglass, Riva’s production of wooden runabouts continued until 1996, when the last Aquarama Special (hull number 784) was built.

In September 1969, Carlo Riva, frustrated by a tough union climate, sells the shipyard to the US company Whittaker, maintaining the role of Chairman and General Manager, from which he resigned in 1971.  These roles are taken on by Gino Gervasoni, his partner since 1950.  Old and new models evolve, Riva’s tradition continues.  In 1989, one year after the English Group Vickers, of which the brand Rolls Royce was part too, had bought 100% of the shares of Riva, Gino Gervasoni, who had married Carlo Riva’s sister, left the shipyard after 41 years of activity.  This is how the presence of the Riva family at the shipyard came to an end.  In 1991 Riva presented the 58′ Bahamas at Genoa International Boat Show – it was the first yacht designed by Mauro Micheli.

Most recently, Carlo Riva attended the launch of the Rivamare last spring.  He died on April 11, 2017 at the age of 95.  His enthusiasm and creativity will be missed even by those who have only seen a Riva in a James Bond movie and especially for those of us who have enjoyed the class, sophistication, power and fun of zipping around the water on one of the hippest boats to ever grace the seas. There are bigger boats and jazzier boats but few compare to a Riva.  Bravo Carlo….  (

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Gregory Brown