August 4th, 2009 by James Ferris

When it comes to Managing Perfection, my design partner James Ferris is a very likely candidate. I asked James to tell me about a very challenging current project; the restoration of an historically significant Italian RIVA speedboat.

Rivas are considered by many to be “the Ferrari of speedboats”, as such they are the very essence of Italian Design. This particular Riva is a classic, built in 1953 and christened “PERLITA TOO”. James’ challenge is to restore the boat to correct original condition, when many of the early records, documenting exactly how it was built, have been lost. Luckily, we do have this image of “Perlita Too” on her first voyage headed for Catalina, California 1953.



CASUDI: “Perlita Too” is considered one of the most important Rivas, why?

JAMES: Perlita is a BARN FIND RIVA, she was the first Riva ever to arrive in the US; sold to Hollywood producer Roland Reed (standing in the boat ~ above image), she is the only remaining Riva of 4 built with the record breaking Scripps V12 engine. Lastly she is the oldest Riva Tritone in existence and the first of 267 Tritones built.

CASUDI: Recently I spoke about classic boat restorations with Herb Hall, whom I have known for over 20 years. Herb is the owner of Sierra Boat Company at Lake Tahoe, and is himself an expert on wooden boat restoration. Sierra Boat has probably restored more wooden boats than any other restoration shop in the US. One of the points he emphasized about judging the quality of a perfect restoration was,“… if you don’t have the correct dashboard instruments (gauges) and a correct, authentic steering wheel, you can typically forget the rest of the boat”. A strong statement, so James how have you addressed these issues, since you found Perlita 19 years ago in a barn with “unidentifiable” gauges and a steering wheel you suspected was not original?

JAMES: I verified with Mr. Carlo Riva (who built Perlita in 1953 in Italy!), and with Piero Gibellini (who has written 4 scholarly books on Rivas, considered “the Bible on Rivas”), that these very unusual, one-of-a-kind gauges in the boat were in fact original and correct, although in terrible condition. Once verified, I had extreme difficulty in finding a shop that would tackle the restoration of the instruments. I shipped the gauges to a highly-regarded shop in the UK, who were enthusiastic by email, but then rejected the project due to complexity when it arrived! Finally I made a connection with Hartmut at North Hollywood Speedometer, and I sent them to LA for restoration last fall. I had real confidence in Hartmuts’ abilities after I did some research and discovered he was recommended by 3 of the absolute top auto restorers in the US; their cars have won Best in Show at Pebble Beach and other major shows. The gauges just arrived back from LA; a perfect restoration: they are correct in every way and completely original. The convex acrylic outer lens and newly chromed curved rims just as they were in 1953.


A not very good picture of our terrifically good Gauges.

A not very good picture of our terrifically good Gauges.


Finding the correct steering wheel was even more daunting. But by greatly enlarging an original photo of Perlita, in her early days in LA, we were able to confirm which steering wheel design was correct. We also have good B&W photographs from Mr. Gibellinis’ books, including a still image from a 1954 movie starring Michael Rennie & Silvana Mangano driving a Riva with the correct steering wheel (see below).



With prototype boats or first in series, as is Perlita, unusual or interesting accessories are often used. In this case Mr. Riva commissioned the factory that made steering wheels for Alfa Romeo, to make a steering wheel similar to those found on certain models of Alfa Romeo, however finding one was unlikely. Then in an amazing gesture, the historian and author Piero Gibellini came through for us; putting together a correct example of the steering wheel, made from two examples in his collection in Italy, and sent it to us in the US.

I took this “composite” original steering wheel to Butch Dennison in Washington to do a “Pebble Beach”- quality restoration for our boat. Among his extensive credits, Butch recently restored a very rare 1938 Alfa Romeo 2900 for one of his clients, which swept “Best in Show” honors at both Pebble Beach (2008) and Villa D’Este (2009).

After the steering wheel was disassembled & finishes removed (see below left) we decided how to proceed with the restoration. Several of the existing pieces were too far gone to restore to my standards, so will be be fabricated from scratch. When I returned a month later (also below) I discussed the final points with Butch and Darren Buell; how I wanted the final finish to appear, and what were the correct colors of the the original plastic.

Butch Dennison, James & Darren Buell


CASUDI: On to the main issue: of all the boat restoration shops you considered over the last 10 years, why did you finally make the decision on Chris Casparis’ Sea Sonic Boats in Kelowna, BC, Canada to do the woodworking and final assembly of Perlita?

JAMES: To really understand this you have to understand that Chris is Swiss; he has restored Rivas in Switzerland, and is himself precise like a Swiss watch in everything he does. ☺ This was the type of precision, accuracy, and “respect for original” wood working I was looking for. Also, quite fortuitously, Chris has maintained his connections in Switzerland, and through one of them we sourced the over 30 foot long mahogany planks we needed to renew the hull of Perlita. The wood was shipped to Canada in the summer of 2008, and has been slowly air-drying since then. This is the wood in Switzerland prior to it being shipped (below left) and arriving in Vancouver, BC in its 40′ box (below right)



CASUDI: You said that only four Riva’s were built with the Scripps V-12 engine. Why is this engine so important, and how did you determine who should restore it?

JAMES: This engine powered the boat which Mr. Riva himself piloted to a world speed record in 1953. The Scripps V12 was purpose-built for marine use; it has very large displacement (900 cubic inches), and extreme amounts of torque all through the rpm range. A perfect combo!

There were only three engine shops in the entire US that met my criteria for the restoration of Perlita’s engine, and I selected Jim McNeilly in Seattle. He has restored many engines to show-winning quality, winning many awards. Another plus was that Jim was close enough for me to visit regularly and collaborate with throughout the restoration process. Interestingly, the network of machinists and craftsman Jim uses is diminishing, and the window of opportunity to do this type of restoration in the future could become very limited. I had to move quickly, and now the engine is nearing completion after over a year. Jim will do a final test of the engine with the restored instruments and paint it the correct original paint color, before transporting it to Chris in Canada.

CASUDI: My final question was actually asked by Bob Goff (whom we assisted as founding members of the Sierra Angels, a few years ago) and whom we visited at Tahoe recently. Over an enjoyable glass of wine, Bob asked with the usual charming twinkle in his eye…“how do you go about trying for perfection in a restoration or renovation project without making yourself “crazy” and setting yourself up for failure?”

JAMES: After many years of working toward this goal, I have decided that we should strive for perfection; however we should be very happy if we achieve excellence! That said, I would like to mention that it is sometimes difficult for me to know when to stop the striving, and accept what we have accomplished. This is where our network of Riva experts are extremely helpful. Especially people such as Alan Weinstein, known as the “Riva Guru”. Alan has helped us extensively with issues of originality, including questions of authenticity of parts such as the twin 35 gallon gas tanks, the correct style of the upholstery, and the original boat structure. Alan’s shop in Florida takes care of clients such as former Ferrari F1 driver “Fast Eddie Irvine”, the founder of Netscape, the inventor of Armor-all, and radio personality Tom Niven.

We’ll have an update soon on the intriguing challenge of perfectly recreating the original upholstery, when even the correct material is no longer available……

JAMES: And now it’s my turn to ask: How does managing a project like this relate to managing an Architectural project?

CASUDI: Our criteria for successful management doesn’t change, whether it is a boat or car restoration, an extensive house renovation, or even running a company. ☺

Our meticulous planning and organization are a given, of course. Our adherence to a consistency of design in architecture or in this case restoring every detail to the original Italian design, make our projects standout and excel. No detail is too small to be done excellently; for example while in Butch Dennison’s shop you showed Butch the original Perlita gear shift knob, “Oh, we can make the exact same thing, just take a look at this ” Butch indicated showing you the knob they had made recently for an early 50’s 166M Barchetta Ferrari, exactly like (or quite similar) to the knob you found in Perlita. Later when I asked you, you told me the Ferrari was probably worth around four million dollars.


With a project as rare as this Riva speedboat restoration, we are only the caretakers for future generations rather than designers. Our responsibility is to originality, authenticity, and preservation of this excellent example of the Essence of Italian Design.

Comments, suggestions or discussion; please comment below, or email James at

Caroline Di Diego

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