The Riva Aquarama is arguably the most iconic boat in history. The luxurious Italian runabout simply oozes class and style from every angle. The name alone, Aquarama, derived in part from the widescreen cinema format Cinerama, popular in the early 60s and reflected in the boat’s wraparound windscreen, seems to encapsulate the pure essences of Italian design.
Built by Italian yachtbuilder Riva, the design was in production from 1962 until 1996, and its inherent mix of beauty, speed and craftsmanship soon earned its reputation as the Ferrari of the seas.
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The Birth of Riva
Riva started in 1842, when Pietro Riva began building boats in the small northern Italian town, Sarnico, on the shores of Lago d’Iseo. Legend tells of a sudden and devastating storm striking the town and damaging the boats of the local fishermen shortly after Riva moved to the area from Laglio near Como. The fishermen turned to Pietro Riva and persuaded the young boatbuilder to repair their craft. As a result of Riva’s successful repairs, he earned the trust of the local people which would form the cornerstone of his fledgling boatbuilding business. The first boats launched by Riva already betrayed the style and personality later to become synonymous with the company’s designs. With both respect and a growing reputation, Pietro’s far-sighted son, Ernesto introduced internal combustion engines on Riva boats marking the direction the company’s future would lie. By the 1930s, the business was managed by Pietro’s grandson, Serafino. The company was now a leading player in the manufacturing of small racing boats, many of which were raced by Serafino himself. They also began to diversify into building pleasure craft. By the 1950s, Serafino’s son Carlo had transformed the business. Carlo Riva saw the company’s future in the luxury speedboat market, contrary to his father’s beliefs. They almost came to blows over it. Nevertheless, Carlo prevailed and was soon pushing his meagre capital into securing six V8 engines from the American company Chris-Craft. Chris-Craft had initially insisted on a minimum order of 50 engines, but the quick-thinking yet financially limited Riva spuriously claimed that Italian law would only allow him to import six engines at a time. Through sheer hard work and the use of some very clever marketing strategies, the Riva brand soon became a worldwide legend. Hollywood screen stars, royalty and successful businessmen hungrily courted Riva’s designs. From Bridget Bardot to Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren, Riva’s legend was established.
One of the remarkable things about Riva’s hull designs is that they were achieved by Carlo simply leaning over the bow of his boats and watching how the water parted. The evolution of this design can be seen in the change from being virtually vertical in early examples whilst being far more angular in later craft. Carlo also helped to develop the necessary technologies for building boats crafted from wood laminates, varnishes, chrome-plating and construction methods. In addition to this he also developed the Riva Crusader engines which would become the heart of his designs. By the early 70s and with the business suffering from a trio of ailments, the competition being led by newer production methods such as fibreglass, increased unionisation of the workforce and the question over the sustainability of quality timber, Carlo sold Riva to an American company, Whittaker. This was the first in a succession of owners, which also included Rolls Royce owner of the time, Vickers, none who could successfully manage the declining business. Today the business is owned by the Ferretti Group who through a series of investments, have re-invigorated the company. Through embracing and combining new methods and old materials, technology meeting tradition, Riva are now once again a luxury marque with a wide range of models.
“A jaw-dropping, eye-watering, hand-biting man-made spectacle.” - The Riva Aquarama
These are the words used by author, TV personality and journalist, Jeremy Clarkson to describe the Riva Aquarama his book You Got Soul and it’s difficult to disagree with them. The elegant lines seem to have been sculpted rather than built. The all-wooden construction of a hull of deep rich wood contrasted with the lighter wooden decking is a symphony of boatbuilding excellence. Such was Carlo’s devotion to wood, it is said that he wouldn’t even tolerate a plastic toilet seat onboard.
The hull of the Aquarama was based on the earlier speedboat by Riva, the Tritone, in turn inspired by Chris-Craft runabouts. The 8.02-8.78 metre hull was sheathed in mahogany and varnished to accentuate the beauty of the natural wood grain. Riva didn’t skimp on production costs. It is estimated that workers spent over 3,000 hours on some of the boats and used 30 microns of chrome within the construction. To put this into perspective, a luxury car may have around 1.5 microns! Depending on engine choice, power was delivered by twin-engines and ranged from 185hp up to 400hp per engine. On top of the engine compartment was a cushioned sundeck. Inside, the cockpit was a ocean of white and turquoise leather. The craft featured design elements such as separate front seats and a central non-slip gangway which allowed easy access to the swim ladder at the stern- all highly innovative at the time. There were four main variants of the Aquarama produced: Aquarama, Aquarama Lungo, Super Aquarama and Aquarama Special. In total, with a production run lasting from 1962 to 1996 a total of 769 Aquarama were built. This includes 203 Super Aquarama and 278 Aquarama Specials.
With its reputation as the Ferrari of the seas, it is somewhat ironic to consider one of the finest examples of the Riva Aquarama is hull number 278, commissioned by supercar supremo, Ferruccio Lamborghini. Whilst waiting three months for the boat to be built and dissatisfied with the standard V8 engine, Lamborghini adapted a pair of 350bhp 4.0 V12 Lamborghini engines from the 350GT supercar. This made his boat the fastest Aquarama ever built and one with the heart of a Lamborghini. The boat has passed through various owners since Lamborghini, and now is fully restored back to its original pristine condition. The craft currently features two Lamborghini 4.0 V12s with six twin Weber carburettors hitting 350bhp, leading to a top speed of 48 knots compared to the 40 knots of a standard V8 powered Aquarama. The engines were adapted to maritime use and made to rotate in opposite directions to eliminate prop walk.
After the Ferretti Group took over control of Riva, an updated variant of the Aquarama, the Aquariva Super was put into production. The new version still features the mahogany and maple synonymous with the brand, but the new 10.07 metre hull is now constructed from Kevlar composites rather than the traditional wooden method. The sunpad at the stern is faithfully reproduced although the performance, 41.5 knots from twin 370hp Yanmir engines, is no longer class leading.
However, it’s hard to beat the original Aquarama for pure sophisticated class and luxury. In recent times Hollywood star Charlize Theron drove an Aquarama Super in a spot for Martini & Rossi whilst Jude Law drove a Special for the 2011 Dior campaign. From James Bond’s Goldeneye to George Clooney’s Ocean’s Twelve, the Riva Aquarama is still the last word in seagoing elegance.
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