The closest I have ever come to really feeling like 007 was on a beautiful Spring day in Lago di Como.

I had spent the morning in meetings in Milan and was heading up to Villa D’Este for the Concorse d’Eleganza Villa d’Este. Outfitted in my Italian business suit with my trusty carry-on luggage, I parked in Como and called my good friend, and unofficial Riva Historian, Riccardo Sassoli. “Wait there, on the dock”, he said, “I will ask Romano to come over and pick you up”. So I dutifully stood on a rickety wooden dock on a spectacular Saturday morning in May surrounded by milling tourists.

The sound is unmistakeable. After about 15 minutes I could hear the thumping twin Chrysler V8s as they reverberated across the lake and the Riva Aquarama came into sight, nose high with a beautiful bow wave spilling across the calm water and the sun glinting of the windscreen. As the Aquarama came towards with Romano Bellini at the helm, he cut the power, the sound dropped to a burble and the boat elegantly drifted to the dock in a perfectly executed maneuver, I hopped aboard with my carry, Romano engaged the throttles, the magnificent V8’s growled into life and we roared across the lake to Villa d’Este leaving many bemused passers by standing watching on the dock as I stood on the boat in my fancy Italian suit and Persols. 

Romano is the owner of Bellini Nautica, which has one of the most extensive collections of vintage Riva’s in the world, and he had brought several Rivas from his collection for an event we were organizing with Rolls Royce for the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este. I was excited to spend the weekend with Romano and Riccardo on some of these incredibly iconic Rivas, the quintessential Lago di Como experience.

Riva is one of the oldest and most iconic brands in the yachting industry. The story of Riva dates back to 1842, when Pietro Riva began a business repairing fishing boats and building commercial boats in the small Italian town of Sarnico on the shores of Lago d’Iseo. As the business evolved Pietro’s son Ernesto added internal combustion engines to the boats and the business flourished. By the 1930’s Pietro’s grandson Serafino Riva had moved the company into production of pleasure boats and small racing boats, which he raced himself. 

In the 1950s Serafino’s son Carlo took over the business and after a struggle with his father, he took business in a different direction, with a passion for perfection, luxury and quality using the finest materials and mahogany. Riva quickly became popular with the wealthy and famous owners included Britt Ekland, Princess Grace of Monaco, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Sean Connery and even George Clooney who keeps a vintage Riva at his home in Como.

Carlo was enamored by the designs and styling of the US automotive industry at the time and many of these elements with the chromes an retro styling were incorporated into the Riva designs, particularly in the dash and interiors. Carlo even did a deal with Chrysler to utilize the V8 engines and at one time he had a Riva showroom in the Rockefeller center in New York.

His commitment to quality was fastidious and he often worked late into the evening, when he would leave his office ‘La Plancia’ and wander the production lines after the workers had left for the evening. Legend has it that with a hammer in his hand he smash anything that he considered not up to his exacting standards, so the next morning when the worker returned he would have to start over. Today several generations still work at Riva and Carlo’s exacting standards remain.   

Riva Aquarama

The Tritone was the first twin engine Riva, but the Aquarama first built in 1962 is arguably the most famous Riva ever built. In total there were 769 Aquarama built through until 1996, including 203 Super Aquaramas and 278 Aquarama Specials. Ferruccio Lamborghini was also the proud owner of an Aquarama, which of course he fitted with two Lamborghini built V12 engines.  

Ferruccio Lamborghini’s Aquarama fitted with Lamborghini V12 engines

I had the opportunity to meet Carlo several times and once asked him what was the secret to building such iconic boats. He told me that every Summer he spent months onboard using the boats in all conditions, to really get to know every element and he would make continuous improvements so that they were both exquisitely designed and practical. This same philosophy was adopted by Norberto Ferretti and this in my view this is why Ferretti Yachts were so successful as they blended exemplary design with practicality and functionality. Having spent almost 10 years in the yacht industry, it amazes me how many yachts are designed and built by people that have never spent a night on board. 

Carlo Riva 1922-2017

In 1969, Carlo sold Riva to the US Whittaker corporation due to production challenges he was facing with Unions. After struggling for a number of years it was acquired by the Ferretti Group and through the collaboration of Norberto Ferretti and designer Mauro Michelli, the brand was reinvented. The Aquariva was one of the first and most successful yachts designed and was a modern day tribute to the Aquarama, when I was CEO of Ferretti Group Americas we had sold the 250th Aquariva, all of which were around $1m. Today the Riva legend lives on with yachts produced between 8m and 50m. Though utilizing more modern technology the factory in Sarnico still feels very much the same with that exquisite commitment to quality, building yachts up to 20m on Lake Iseo with the larger Rivas up to 50m produced in La Spezia and Ancona. 

I spent a wonderful weekend at Villa d’Este and many hours on Lago di Como on the Aquarama, which is the quintessential Riva experience and really is La Dolce Vita.

*Photos from Riva Archives and the Author