Riva’s history dates back to 1842, when Pietro Riva began building boats at Sarnico, a small northern Italian town on the shores of Lago d’Iseo.
By the 1930s, by which time the business was managed by Pietro’s grandson, Serafino, the company was a leading manufacturer of small racing boats, many of which he raced himself. At the same time, it began building pleasure boats.
In the 1950s Serafino’s son Carlo transformed the business. After a considerable struggle with his father to realise his ambitions, he created wooden boats of such exceptional style and elegance that they surpassed anything his competitors produced.
Through a great deal of hard work, and some very clever marketing, the Riva brand became a worldwide legend courted by screen stars, royalty and businessmen alike. Famous owners included Brigitte Bardot, pictured here on her Super Florida, Sophia Loren, Peter Sellers and many more besides.
It is remarkable to think that Carlo Riva evolved the hull design, that is found in modern boats today, not by using high technology, but simply leaning over the bow of his boats and watching how the water parted. A classic example of this evolution is to look at how the bow of the early boats moved from being virtually vertical to much more angled as it meets the water.
Carlo also helped develop the technologies necessary to build his boats by way of wood laminates, varnishes, chrome plating and construction methods. In addition there was the masterly development of the Riva Crusader engines which were eventually at the heart of driving his craft forwards.
In the early 70’s a number of things conspired against Carlo and his passion for perfection. Firstly, there was the increasing militancy of the labour force in Italy as a whole – which Carlo managed to avoid by treating his staff far better than most – but which eventually, in the end encroached, on even Carlo’s workforce. This proved too much for Carlo and philosophy and so he looked to sell the business, to a foreign owned company, to counteract the unionisation.
The second was the advent of the new fibreglass boats now being built in numbers from the late 60’s. Fibreglass was seen as being significantly lower in maintenance time and cost, much lighter – allowing small engines yet maintaining the power to weight ratios, and it could be moulded into exotic shapes which were popular at that time.
There was also the increasingly important question at this time as to the availability and sustainability of the quality timber needed to build wooden craft.
All these factors, and others, had an impact on Carlo and as a result, in the early 70’s, he sold the Riva boatyard to Whittaker’s – a U.S.A company. A succession of owners have then since owned the boatyard, including Vickers who at the time owned Rolls Royce, however, the yard continued to steadily fall into decline through the late 70’s and 80’s.
Today the firm is owned by the Ferretti Group who have re-invigorated and re-invested in the marque with many new Riva models being created embracing both new and old materials, technologies and traditions.