It was Julius Caesar back in 49 BCE who first established the craft of boat building on Lake Como. He set up colonies of Greek artisans to help build and maintain the boats needed to transport his troops and to defend the lake as part of the trade routes he established over the Alps. The Byzantines added their expertise such that a boat building tradition was established that lasts to this day.
By the end of the eighteenth century, Lake Como had become a favoured location for aristocratic villas and so started a further expansion of local boat building to include luxury man-powered launches and gondolas. Ferdinando Taroni migrated from Venice to set up the family boatyard in Carate Urio in 1790.
From out of that business numerous other family dynasties of boat builders established themselves on the lake. Not all but most of those families are still involved in one way or another in boat building. In addition to Taroni, they include Riva, Cranchi, Mostes, Matteri, Molinari, Abbate, Colombo, Cadenazzi and Posca – all originating on Lake Como. With the increased use of the lake for recreation, some of these boatyards developed international renown in building competition sailing boats and powerboats.
Power Boat Racing
Every year the Como Yacht Club hosts the powerboat racing gala, the Centomiglia del Lario. The race was first established in 1949 with funding provided by Remo Cademartori, proprietor at the time of a large villa in Blevio and owner of the cheese empire that still bears the family name. Cademartori also provided the funding needed to revive the fortunes of the Taroni boatyard in Carate Urio which had been established by Ferdinando Taroni back in 1790. A powerboat built in the Taroni yard at Carate Urio won the very first edition of this long distance race.
Another boat builder further up the lake in Mezzegra was interested in power boat racing. This was Guido Abbate who won one of the first Gold medals awarded by the Federazione Italiana Motonautica travelling at a record breaking 80 km/h in a boat named Pamblo. The Abbate yard had first been established in 1873 but under Guido it became world famous for building so-called ‘Three Point Hydroplanes’. Guido himself was a very successful power boat pilot and won the Centomiglia del Lario three years running from 1955.
Three Point Hydroplanes
In 1949, the Americans brought over to Europe the first so-called three-point hydroplane with a V8 engine. This revolutionary design allowed the boat to rise when powered up such that there were only three points of the hull touching the water. This design opened up a new era in powerboat racing and massive opportunities for Lake Como’s boatyards to dominate the sector.
The story goes that Guido Abbate stole the design of Blitz III by breaking in overnight to its storage under Como’s Stadio Sinigaglia on Viale Puecher and jotting down all its particulars. Others have claimed the industrial espionage was done by the Verona based producers of marine motors, BPM, while Blitz III was competing at Trieste. Whatever the truth, Guido Abbate was just one of the Lake Como yards to go on to design record breaking 3 point hydroplanes.
The apex of success for Italian pilots of three point hydroplanes and the Lake Como boatyards which produced them came on December 27th 1953 at the Orange Bowl Regatta in Miami Beach. As the Associated Press agency reported:
Three Italian power-boat racers took first, third and fourth today in the international Grand Prix, feature event of the four-day Orange Bowl regatta.
The winner was Mario Verga, a Como industrialist in a boat called Laura 2 built on Lake Como in Mezzegra by Cantiere Giulio Abbate. The other Italians mentioned were Ezio Selva whose boat Moschettiere was built in the Cantiere Carlo Timossi and Achille Castoldi piloting a boat also built by Carlo Timossi.
The Cantiere Carlo Timossi was based in Azzano on Lake Como. Carlo Timossi started as a designer for the famous yard of Pietro Riva based in Sarnaco on Lake Iseo. Riva permitted him to develop specialist hydroplanes whose production soon moved over to Lake Como. Timossi’s greatest success came from his collaboration with the champion pilot, Ezio Selva, and the series of his hydroplanes called Moschettiere powered by Alfa Romeo Formula 1 engines.
Ezio Selva gained fame as an Olympic diving athlete who, on retiring from that sport, took up speed boat racing in 1950. He won Italian and European Championships in 1951, 1952 and 1954. In December 1957, in trials before the Orange Bowl Regatta at Miami Beach, he improved on his own personal record of 141 mph to break the world speed record for his class at 146.1 mph, aided by the same Alfa Romeo Formula 1 engine used by Manual Fangio in 1951. Three days later his boat, Moschettiere, flipped over at 100mph in front of the judge’s podium during the second heat of the Orange Bowl Grand Prix. His son dived into the water to save his father but tragically he had already been killed on impact with the water.
Carlo Timossi also built the Ferrari Timossi Arno XI for Achille Castoldi. Castoldi decided to concentrate on seeking to break world records once Mario Verga replaced him as Alfa Romeo’s principal competition pilot in 1953. He also decided to switch to a Ferrari V12 to power his hydroplane in a bid to beat the world speed record for boats in the 800kg class. Castoldi duly did break that record on the 15th October 1953 at Sarnico on Lake Iseo travelling at 242.708 km/h. Since that class of boat no longer exists, Castoldi’s record stands to this day. The Ferrari Timossi Arno is now displayed in the Ferrari museum.
Meanwhile, in the Abbate boatyard in nearby Mezzegra, Guilio Abbate was building Laura for Mario Verga. Verga owned a silk printing business on Como’s Val Mulini which provided him with the funds he needed to indulge his love of speed boat racing. His boats, all named Laura after his daughter, were powered by Alfa Romeo as were the Moschettiere of his friend and rival, Ezio Selva. In 1953, with Laura 1, he won the World Championship in the 450kg class. In the same year he won the 800kg championship in Laura 2. He then turned to the Timossi boat yard to build Laura 3 with specifications he hoped would win him the world speed record. Trials of this new boat started in July of 1954 with Mario keen to get the record before Donald Campbell’s jet-powered Bluebird could enter the competition. On 9th October 1954, Mario set to break the record on Lake Iseo but, as the boat reached 190 mph it bounced twice on the water with its nose rising ever higher until it mounted into the air, backflipped and crashed down into the lake. The rescue boat found Mario dead in the cockpit. Thus ended the golden era of Italy’s powerboat racers – but not the continuing international success of Como pilots and boatyards.
The Timossi boatyard was bought up in 1980 by Tullio Abbate who had taken over his father’s boatyard in Mezzegra in 1975. Tullio introduced new construction materials as early as 1969 to his father’s boatyard as he gradually moved away from wood and aluminium to fibreglass bodies. He was also a very keen and successful speedboat pilot who beat his father’s record of victory at the Centomiglia del Lario by taking the cup eleven times over his career. He broke the world speed record for his class of boat in 1997 travelling at 223 km/h.
Tullio’s boatyard became synonymous with speed and he attracted a vast range of clients from the world of motor racing as well as other celebrities interested in purchasing one of the yard’s speedboats such as the Sea Star range. His client list included Schumacher, Piquet, Gilles Villeneuve, Keke Rosberg, Maradona, Matthaus, Prost, Airton Senna, Vialli, Mancini, Giacomo Agostini, Arturo Merzario, Bruno Giacomelli, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Stefano Casiraghi as well as Silvester Stallone, Madonna and the Versace family – many of whom visited his boatyard in person. As he has stated:
Here we have been used to hosting celebrities a good thirty years before Clooney arrived. Here in this boat yard that was originally a textile mill and where they made tennis rackets and skis – because I am a man of the lake and I will never leave this corner of the world.’
Unfortunately Tullio Abbate did leave this world recently on 9th April 2020 struck down by Covid-19 in Milan’s San Raffaele Hospital. He was 75 years old. His boat yard is now in the hands of his children. Elsewhere the Abbate name continues through Bruno Abbate and his boatyards in Grandola ed Uniti on the lake as well as larger production sites in Sardinia. Bruno Abbate has continued the tradition of powerboat production and the Primatist range of luxury yachts.
While Giulio Abbate and Carlo Timossi started off the local tradition of building three point hydroplanes, other boatyards also took up the challenge. Particular mention needs be made of the Molinari family with Eugenio, Renato, Livio and Angelo all producing three point hydroplanes. Some of these can be seen in the Eugenio Molinari Museum in Lezzeno.
A boatyard in Lipomo named Lucini e Frigerio started 3 point hydroplane production in the 1970s and gained significant success throughout the 80s and 90s. The yard still exists and it is now the main site for renovation of old boats. For example the Lucini yard renovated the Ferrari powered hydroplane owned by Count Guido Monzino, the owner of the Standa chain of department stores and the last private proprietor of Villa Balbianello.
Count Guido Monzino
Guido Monzino was not a regular competition pilot but he was the owner of a hydroplane he had built for him by the San Marco yard in Milan. Monzino was born in 1928 into an aristocratic family living in Moltrasio. He went on to take over the directorship of the family business, the Standa chain of department stores.
However he was also an explorer and an adventurer who had financed and led a successful expedition to the North Pole in 1971 and to the summit of Mount Everest in 1973. Back in 1957 he had bought a Ferrari V12 engine salvaged from a fatal crash in 1953 during the Mexican Carrera Panamericana. Monzino had this engine mounted into the San Marco hydroplane and then used it for his daily commute on Lake Como to the Como Yacht Club on Viale Puecher. From there he would get into his Ferrari car to continue on his journey to the Milan headquarters of Standa. In 1958 he competed with this boat in the Raid Pavia Venezia, the longest river race in the world. He came a very respectable third. He later lost interest in the boat and dedicated more of his time to exploration. In 1974 he achieved a lifetime ambition by buying the Villa del Balbianello, and so devoted his energy to restoring the villa to its present day glory. So in 1969 the boat, now in a sorry state, was sold in auction to Dody Jost, an Austrian student who was studying at the time at the Milanese Brera Academy. In 1992 he gave the hull over to the Cantiere Lucini in Lipomo and the engine to Ferrari with restoration finally completed by 1998. The boat is now viewable (along with other hydroplanes) in Jost’s museum attached to the Hotel Nautilus at Moregge on the western shores of the Lecco leg of the lake.
Star Class Sailing Yachts
Specifications for Star Class yachts were first established in 1911. The class first entered the Olympics in 1932 at Los Angeles and has since proved to be the longest lasting of the Olympic classes. In recent years the world market for this type of boat has been dominated by only three suppliers – two of which are based on Lake Como. They are Lillia Cantiere Nautico, a boatyard originally set up in the 1950s in Musso but building Star class since 1975 and now based in Pianello del Lario, and Folli Lariovela established in 1977 in Abbadia Lariana.
While production of power boats has been mainly based on the Como leg of the lake, these sailing boatyards are found where the lake winds Breva from the south and Tivano from the north predominate – all the way up the Lecco leg and across the northern part of the lake.
The success of these two yards in the Star class is phenomenal. Folli and Lillia came second, third and fifth in the 1980 World Championships. In the Athens Olympics of 2004, Lillia took gold, silver and bronze. Lilla have won five Olympic, twenty nine World, forty one European and fifty National titles. Folli have also shared similar successes.
Lillia’s Star class production was started by Gianni Lillia leaving his brother Domenico, better known as Meco, to run the family butcher shop in Musso. Gianni died tragically young from cancer in 1981 at which point Meco, in spite of having no knowledge of boat building, decided to take over the business and keep his brother’s vision and ambitions alive. It was thanks to Meco’s collaboration with Torben Grael, a then young gifted Brazilian yacht racer, that he turned the business into a world leader. Grael went on to become the so-called ‘Maradona of Yacht Racing’ while Lillia achieved world wide predominance alongside Folli in the production of these boats.
Danilo Folli, originally from Milan, was himself a keen sailor and yachting competitor. He decided in 1977 to set up his own boatyard in Abbadia Lariana dedicated to the production of Star class yachts. He and his family moved up at the same time to live in nearby Mandello Lario.
Thanks to a collaboration with designer Gilberto Colombo, Folli Lariovela soon established itself alongside Lillia as a world leader. Danilo’s name lives on in the annual Danilo Folli Memorial Trophy race held in Mandello. Both Folli and Lillia are still family-run businesses producing boats apprised for their quality around the world.
Where to Visit
For anyone interested in the history of boat production on Lake Como, a visit to the Lake Como International Museum of Vintage Boats in Pianello del Lario is a must. Here you can see the reproduction of Mario Verga’s Laura, many other hydroplanes and a collection of the sailing boats produced elsewhere on the lake. I cannot recommend this museum sufficiently. It has been well resourced to create excellent displays with multi-lingual information.
Examples of Lake Como boats powered by Ferrari motors can be seen at the Ferrari Museum in Maranello and Modena while Alfa Romeo boats can be seen at the Alfa Romeo Museum in Rho on the outskirts of Milan. The San Marco Ferrari V12 hydroplane commissioned by Count Guido Monzino and other hydroplanes can be viewed at the Scuderia Dody Jost in the Hotel Motel Nautilus in Moregge.