In the 1920's and 1930's, aviation was in its golden years--a brilliant adolescence where swashbuckling flyboys would fly anything with wings and an engine for the thrill of it. The fringe benefits didn't hurt, either: fame, and thousands of depression dollars in prize money for breaking records or winning races. The trade-off? It seemed like everyone was an airplane manufacturer, and not everyone was good at it. If you didn't fly planes from a maker you could trust, you didn't fly for very long.
Of the "trustworthy" shops of the day, one stands above the rest: Granville Brothers Aviation. The Granville brothers were from Springfield, MA, and built biplanes for private use, but in the Great Depression there was little market for such luxury items, and they turned to making racing aircraft to earn themselves a slice of the pie.
In 1930, they built the Gee Bee Sportster Model X ("Gee Bee" from "G.B."--the Granville Bros.) to fly in the Cirrus Engine Company's "All American Derby." At 110hp, the Model X boasted a top speed of 140 mph, and was the fastest stock aircraft in the race, coming in second place to a custom-built machine. It was clear that the Gee Bee design was a winner, and their fame spread quickly.
They didn't rest on their laurels, though--they were soon marketing new and improved versions of the Gee Bee Sportster: the Model C, Model D, Model E, Model F, and Model Y (The Senior Sportster). Money got tight (as it tended to in the Depression), and they were convinced to build another racer to win the Thompson Trophy in Cleveland, OH, in 1931. The Gee Bee Model Z was the fastest airplane in America, and proved it with a win. Unfortunately, the Model Z shed a wing in a speed sprint a few months later, and rolled into the ground, killing pilot Lowell Bayles.
This ended up being the first nail in the coffin of Gee Bee aviation, but only in hindsight. The four brothers, along with a new engineer, strived for bigger and better planes, and with only half a year before the next races, went into their shop full of new ideas. They borrowed a pair of huge engines from Pratt & Whitney, and practically spray-painted the Gee Bee R-1 and R-2 around them. The R-1 was a 800hp sprinter for the days' straight courses; the R-2 was designed to fly several laps at slightly lower speed, and only cranked 535hp. The R-1 cleanly won the Thompson in 1932, and the R-2 came in 4th in the Bendix. James Doolittle, before his career as an Army Air Corps bomber colonel, took the R-1 to the 1932 Thompson Trophy, and set a world speed record of 296mph in the Shell Speed Dash.
In 1933, their luck turned for the worse again. At the Thompson Trophy race, the R-2 stalled during a pit stop and knocked off a wingtip. The pilot recovered and only incurred damage to the landing gear and wing, but the plane was out of the race. The R-1's pilot, shaken by the accident, also stalled on landing and rolled completely over, destroying the airplane and dying from his injuries. After another crash in the patched-together R-2, the brothers took parts from both and cobbled together a hybrid, the R-1/R-2. Despite the warnings of two of his older brothers, Allen Granville installed a large fuel tank aft of the center of gravity. When he took off with a full load of fuel, he was killed in a fiery wreck, effectively closing Gee Bee Aviation forever. The company was officially liquidated in 1933, but in its time, Gee Bee produced aircraft that were still inspiring the state of the art for years afterward.