World Book Day with an old friend

It’s World Book Day, which is an ideal time to revisit one of the most influential books I’ve ever read – Mini: Icon of a Generation by L.J.K. Setright.

Doyen of motoring scribes: Setright in later years

Doyen of motoring scribes: Setright in later years

The story of the Mini, as retold by Setright, is almost as enjoyable as being in your first, doubtless rusty, 1000cc screamer with your foot on the floor. Rather than recount the hoary old tale of Alec Issigonis’s wonder-baby in a straightforward fashion, Setright veers from one theme to another: covering the entire spectrum of influences, applications, successes and failures of one of the most brilliant designs and designers with panache.

It’s brilliantly conceived and enjoyably written but most of all it makes me smile. Precious few motoring books can lay claim to that achievement, while many of us who earn a crust from writing about cars would do well to refer back to this old master at times.

Peter Sellers, Britt Ekland and their famous 'wicker' Mini

Peter Sellers, Britt Ekland and their famous ‘wicker’ Mini

BB, Riva and Riviera Fashion

BB welcomes you to the world of Riva

BB welcomes you to the world of Riva

Ahh, the delights of the Côte d’Azur: the endless sunshine, the fragrant evenings spent with a glass of Rosé de Provence chilled to perfection as you gaze out over the palm trees to the glittering Mediterranean beyond. And there you will find, to this very day, a matched pair of icons: Brigitte Bardot and her Riva Florida speedboat. Play the groovy music and read on…

In the 1950s, the wooden speedboats built by Riva became the ultimate fashion accessory for movie stars and royalty from around the world. Founded on the shores of Lago d’Iseo in the mid-1840s by Pietro Riva, this family-owned boatyard really took off after World War 1, when Pietro’s grandson Serafino Riva moved production away from humble, hard-working transportation towards the new luxury sport of powerboating.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Riva family broke a number of records and won races on the Italian lakes with its bespoke wooden boats. After World War 2 the next generation, led by Carlo Riva, gave the brand a new level of elegance, status and material perfection to create objects of desire for la Dolce Vita.

Among the beautiful people queuing up to buy Riva’s beautiful boats was Brigitte Bardot: the object of much European desire herself. BB opted for Riva’s signature offering, the Florida, which became the defining classic in the Riva range when it was launched in 1952 – in total 1,137 boats were built, comprising over 420 ‘normal’ Floridas and 711 slightly larger and more powerful ‘super’ models.

Bardot admires her mahogany inlay

Bardot admires her mahogany and maple fillets

As its name suggested, the Florida was associated with water-skiing, and featured a large sun-bed astern, divided by a bridge of mahogany deck, filleted with maple. Early models were fitted with Chris Craft engines, followed by Chrysler and latterly Riva’s own 220 hp unit, built around a Crusader V8.

Other customers who made their way to the Riva yard included Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, the King of Jordan, Liz Taylor, Sean Connery Richard Burton, Jackie Stewart and Peter Sellers.

Sellers and Britt Ekland soak up the sun on their Riva Junior

Sellers and Britt Ekland soak up the sun on their Riva Junior

If anyone was going to eclipse BB in the Riva ownership stakes, however, it could only be that other great siren of European cinema: Sofia Loren. As a proud Italian woman, she was never going to let the blonde French ingénue free rein over the Med – and so invested in the flagship of the Riva range: the Aquarama.

The Aquarama’s hull was based on the earlier Tritone and was the most powerful boat of its kind at the time. It was styled in homage to the widescreen Cinerama movie format, which inspired the boat’s wide windshield. First built in 1962, it incorporated the open sunbathing area of the Tritone with new features, including separate front seats and a central non-slip gangway which allowed easier access to the water at the stern.

Because of the boat’s awesome performance, beauty and the craftsmanship behind it, the Aquarama was the model in Riva’s mouth-watering range that was known as the ‘Ferrari of the boat world’.

Sofia Loren relaxes on the deck of her Aquarama

Sofia Loren relaxes on the deck of her Aquarama

The style and elegance that Riva embodied in its heyday remains one of the most enduring icons of 20th Century luxury. Bardot still has her Florida tucked away in a corner of Saint Tropez, and when Robbie Williams wanted to evoke that golden age of luxury in his pop videos there was only one prop that would cut the mustard: the glorious, hand-made Riva.