La Dolce Riva: Timeless Elegance and Effortless Cool

There are few things that epitomise La Dolce Vita like a Riva Aquarama, so says Sudhir Matai.

By Sudhir Matai

The world of Italian celebrity was dominated by a few names in the 1960s, among them were Brigitte Bardot, Frederico Fellini (whose 1960 big-screen release after which the era takes its name), Fiat Cinquecento (500) and, of course, Riva Boats.

Italian boat builder Riva had made many ‘runabout’ boats, the Ariston, the Tritone and the Florida among them. But it was the Aquarama that propelled the little company onto the world stage. The Aquarama – taking its name from the wide-screen Cinerama of the movies. This was probably a dual reference to the Hollywood elite as well as the view through the wraparound windscreen, quite unique at the time. But the Riva came from humble beginnings.

The Riva family ran a boatyard on the shores of Lago d’Iseo in northern Italy. In the picturesque town of Sarnico the company worked on regular water craft. Over the decades, the Riva name became synonymous with quality, craftsmanship, and innovation. It wasn’t until Carlo Riva took the proverbial helm that the company became truly famous.

Carlo saw an opening presented by a post-war Europe that was flush with prosperity. He knew there was a market for his vision of a luxurious boat aimed at the uber-wealthy. Carlo took cues from the other side of the pond, namely from the automotive industry. He used expressive chrome and pastel-coloured upholstery that was the norm with American luxury cars of the time, and gave them a quintessentially Italian spin.

The Aquarama was introduced in 1962 and became an instant sensation. Its sleek lines, exquisite wooden construction, and attention to detail set a new standard for luxury boats. The wooden Italian speedboats oozed glamour and sophistication.

What truly set the Riva Aquarama apart was its exceptional craftsmanship. Each Aquarama was painstakingly hand-built by a team of skilled artisans. The hulls were crafted from the finest African mahogany, chosen for its durability, and distinctive reddish hue. The wood was meticulously varnished to a mirror-like finish, requiring layer upon layer of skillfully applied varnish and sanding. Up to 20 coats of the sealant were used on the wooden surfaces, each hand applied. Those who have piloted them say the splash of water against the wooden hull is far more pleasant to the ears than fibreglass.

The interior of the Aquarama featured sumptuous leather upholstery, chrome accents, and a dashboard adorned with elegant gauges like a luxury sedan. The attention to detail extended to every facet of the watercraft. The hand-stitched leather steering wheel took inspiration from luxury cars of the era. Interestingly, the helm was placed on the left-hand-side of the cabin, another nod to America.

The Riva Aquarama quickly found its place among Europe’s elite. It became a status symbol, a statement of refinement and luxury. European high society embraced the Aquarama as the ultimate expression of their discerning taste and appreciation for the finer things in life. The owners’ list read like a who’s who of the day. Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, Sean Connery, King Hussein of Jordan, Gianni Agnelli, Jackie Kennedy, Richard Burton and the Shah of Persia were just some of the famous names who owned Aquaramas. Recent owners included heartthrob George Clooney, who uses it on Lake Como.

These A-listers and royals were seen sunning themselves on the decks of their Rivas from the French Riviera to the Amalfi Coast. These iconic figures lent an air of celebrity chic to the already glamorous world of Riva boating. As the years passed, the Riva Aquarama continued to be an emblem of luxury and sophistication. Its popularity grew, despite costing as much as the most expensive Rolls-Royce in sale at the time.

It has since been immortalised in countless European and Hollywood movies over the decades. From Italian classics to many ‘Bond’ blockbusters and modern sci-fi hits such as Men in Black International and even Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.

Today, the Riva Aquarama remains a highly sought-after collector’s item. Of the 760 completed Aquaramas, 650 are reported to still exist. Models in pristine condition can fetch high six-figure prices (in US dollars). Enthusiasts and collectors willing to pay a premium for this special piece of maritime history.

The Riva Aquarama is more than just a boat; it’s a symbol of high society and a masterpiece of craftsmanship. Its rich history, impeccable design, and association with the world’s most famous individuals have elevated it to legendary status. Times may have changed, and modern vessels such as the ‘superyacht’ have taken the spotlight, the Riva Aquarama remains a shining beacon of luxury and elegance on the water.

The enduring appeal of the Aquarama is a testament to the timeless elegance and craftsmanship that define Riva’s legacy. With its rich history and unparalleled craftsmanship, the Riva Aquarama captured the hearts of enthusiasts and connoisseurs alike, leaving an indelible mark on the world of boating. Signor Carlo Riva’s vision, it turns out, was well realised.

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