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"La dolce Riva": Italy's classic wooden motorboats

Riva boats: An Italian "Cadillac on the water"
Riva boats: An Italian "Cadillac on the water" 05:06

Alberto Galassi is raving about his Riva, a 1970 wooden Aquarama, formed of cedar from Lebanon and mahogany. The CEO of the Ferretti Group, which now owns the Riva boat brand, he took correspondent Seth Doane on a ride on Italy's picturesque Lake Iseo, racing past Riva's factory.

"Riva is beyond boating; Riva is a myth," Galassi said of the classic Riva speedboats, which have been in the hands of royalty, movie stars, rock stars and tycoons. "Let's be honest. I mean, when you say, 'I have a Ferrari,' you need to say you 'have a car'? Everybody knows what a Ferrari is. Riva is the same thing."

Ferretti Group CEO Alberto Galassi takes correspondent Seth Doane for a spin in his 1970 Riva Aquarama.   CBS News

Riva's Aquarama, designed by Carlo Riva, debuted in 1962 during the glamorous la dolce vita years of Italy's post-war boom. Stars including Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot and Elizabeth Taylor owned Rivas, and the boat itself played a supporting role in dozens of films, from "It Started in Naples" and "Oceans Twelve" to "Men in Black: International."

And talk about product placement: Riva was featured in Portofino this May, shuttling guests at the latest Kardashian wedding. "They are the new Sophia Loren," Galassi said. "They talk to the new generation. Why not? Times are changing."

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And times have changed for the company. While these wooden classics may be the spirit of Riva, the real money today is in super-yachts, which Galassi says account for around 70-percent of Riva sales.

Doane asked, "But how do you keep that sense of what made you famous in that super-size?"

"That's our challenge," Galassi said. "That's in details. Details that remind you of the previous models, the style. It's bloody difficult job, I can tell you!"

Some of those original design choices are still echoed decades later in the new Anniversario model. It's a limited-edition tribute to the Aquarama, which Riva stopped producing in 1996, spawning a new business: maintenance, the costly process of keeping them up.

Riva's Anniversario model is launched at the company's shipyard in Sarnico, Italy. To mark the 180th anniversary of the Riva shipbuilding company, they are producing a limited edition of this design - 18 in all.   CBS News

Richard Freebody showed Doane a 1963 Riva, drydocked for a tune-up at his boatyard on the Thames near London. 

Doane asked, "What's different about a Riva from another wooden boat?"

"That evocative feeling of the Sixties, and the glamour attached," he replied. "It is the design. They were sort of the equivalent of a lovely Cadillac on the water."

A 1963 Riva being restored at Peter Freebody & Co. boatbuilders outside London.  CBS News

Freebody's company makes its own wooden boats, but with some updates. Electric models still have more traditional details, and extras, such as a picnic drawer, "which is becoming quite a must-have," he said.

"Everything you need for a picnic?" asked Doane.

"Even a cake knife, for those afternoon teas by the river."

"Very English!"

Back in Italy, at Riva, Doane saw some of that same attention to detail, as Fabrizio Sonzogno sanded wood for the Anniversario, which will get 20 coats of varnish. 

At the Riva factory.  CBS News

Doane asked, "How do you feel when working on a Riva?"

"It's beautiful, because this is the spirit of the wood – you can feel it," Sonzogno replied.

A classic Riva design. CBS News

Alberto Galassi is working to keep Riva's spirit alive, though he notes they'll never make an Aquarama again, saying it would be a sin to try.

"It's a masterpiece," he told Doane. "In Italy we are obsessed, I would say, with beauty. Sometimes I say that we are condemned to beauty."


"Condemned! Because we live around beauty. We're surrounded by beauty. Something is not nice-looking, something is not beautiful? It gives us shock. So, we can't live without."

Sadly, most us will have to live without a Riva. One example, nearly 50 years old, has gone up in value to roughly three-quarters of a million dollars.

But for a few minutes, it was still pretty sweet to get a taste of la dolce Riva.

Tender loving care. CBS News

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Story produced by Mikaela Bufano. Editor: Karen Brenner. 

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