Williams Bros. 1/32 GeeBee R-1

KIT #: ?
PRICE: $22.95 
DECALS: Two options
REVIEWER: Tom Cleaver


            Is there a racer better-known around the world than the Gee Bee Model R?  To most fans of the sport of air racing, as well as all aviation enthusiasts, it is the quintessential 1930s air racer, with its barrel shape and bright red and white finish.                                    

            Granville Brothers Aircraft Company was founded in 1929 in Springfield, Massachusetts.  Their original product was the Gee Bee Sportster, an open cockpit single-seat monoplane of with a very clean look, powered by a Jacobs radial.  The airplane had good performance, but the Depression killed its commercial possibilities.  The brothers Granville then decided that the only way they could build and sell airplanes was to get noticed, and in the 1930s that meant designing an air racer.  They figured they already knew how to make an airplane fast, so the job was to make it faster.

            Following the spectacular crash of the first Gee Bee racer, the Model Z, flown by Lowell E. Bayles in 1931, Gee Bee started to get the reputation of designing “killer ships.” 

            In 1932, famed distance record-holder Russell Boardman purchased 51 percent of the Springfield Air Racing Association (SARA) and ordered two racing planes from the Granvilles, designated the R‑1 and R‑2. They were to be identical, except the R‑2 had a different cowling to accommodate the smaller Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. engine and a slightly larger wingspan; it was planned this model would compete in the coming Bendix Transcontinental Race.  The R-1, powered by a Pratt & Whitney 1340 Wasp T3D1 engine rated at 550 h.p. (and hopped up to 740 h.p.), was designed to win the Thompson Trophy race, the premiere racing event in the United States at the time, attracting upwards of 100,000 fans even in the depths of the Depression; it was the aviation equivalent of the Indianapolis 500.  It was also hoped the R‑1 would win the 1932 Shell Speed Dash.

            While legend has it the airplane was designed with chalk on the concrete floor of the hangar, the truth is more prosaic.  Chief Engineer Howell "Pete" Miller and Zantford "Granny" Granville spent three days of wind tunnel testing at New York University, working with Alexander Klemin, professor of aeronautical engineering, and utilized the most advanced knowledge available at the time.  The teardrop‑shaped fuselage was found to be the best way to streamline the big radial engine.  Wind tunnel tests on fuselages of varying fineness ratios showed that minimum drag was attained at a fineness ratio of 3.00 to 3.50.  Since the Wasp engine was 54 inches in diameter, the fuselage diameter would be 61 inches at its widest point, with an overall length of 17 feet 9 inches, to obtain a fineness ratio of 3.50.  Counter-intuitively, the design meant that a large frontal area would create less drag than a smaller frontal area.  Based on the wind tunnel data, Miller predicted the Model R-1 would have a top speed of 298 mph, which turned out to be very close, since the actual airplane had a top speed of 296.2 mph.

            The cockpit was located just in front of the vertical stabilizer to give the pilot better vision while making turns around crowded pylons.  It also turned out that this fuselage acted as an airfoil, an early “lifting body, allowing the pilot to make “knife-edge turns” right next to the pylons without losing altitude, which became the secret of its success:  flying the course as low and tight as possible without cutting a pylon is still the best way to win an air race.

            When completed, the airplane was exactly what it looked like: a Pratt & Whitney R‑1340 engine with wings and a tail attached.

            Boardman decided that he would concentrate on the Bendix Trophy race, and convinced Jimmy Doolittle - America’s leading pilot - to fly the R-1.  Doolittle had won the 1924 Schneider Cup race, held the first Doctorate in Aeronautical Engineering issued by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and had pioneered the development of blind flying technology.  Even for Doolittle, the R-1 was a handful; it was no “hands-off” airplane no matter how well-trimmed.  The small wings, very low polar moment of inertia, and tiny control surfaces made for an airplane that could rapidly get away from all but the most skilled pilots, a shortcoming was common to most air racers of the day. Doolittle later described flying it as “balancing a ruler on the pointed end of a pencil.”

            In the 1932 National Air Races, held over Labor Day weekend in Cleveland, Ohio, Doolittle was not only victorious in the Thompson Race on September 5, 1932, he also lapped his competitors in the process, as he averaged 252.67 miles per hour over 100 laps.  He then went on to set a new World Landplane Speed Record of 296.2 mph in the Shell Speed Dash.

The Springfield Union of September 6, 1932 quoted Doolittle: "She is the sweetest ship I've ever flown. She is perfect in every respect and the motor is just as good as it was a week ago. It never missed a beat and has lots of stuff in it yet. I think this proves that the Granville brothers up in Springfield build the very best speed ships in America today." 

            The reputation of Gee Bees as “killers” continued when Boardman was killed in the R-1 during the 1933 Bendix Trophy race.  After taking off from a refueling stop in Indianapolis, Indiana, the R‑1 stalled, caught a wingtip and crashed; this was really a matter of pilot error and not a result of anything inherently bad in the design.  Boardman had previously crashed the R-2 during the 1932 Bendix, surviving a crash that destroyed the airplane.

            In 1934, the R‑1 was repaired with parts from the R‑2 to create the "Long Tail Racer."  This Model R also crashed, though pilot Roy Minor was not severely injured. After yet another rebuild, the Long Tail Racer was sold to Cecil Allen, who - against the Granvilles’ advice - modified by installing larger gas tanks aft of the center of gravity, which made the aircraft unstable in pitch.  Allen took off with a full fuel tank, pulled up, stalled, crashed, and was killed. After this,  the aircraft was never rebuilt.

            If there was a design flaw to the Gee Bees, it was the use of the Clark-Y airfoil.  This is an excellent low-speed airfoil (used by the J-3 Cub, for instance), but not what is needed for a high-speed, high-weight, high-powered design.  Delmar Benjamin built a replica of the R-2 in the 1980s, with a different airfoil, and has flown the airplane in air shows for years without a problem.

            Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino has a full-sized replica of the R-1, which I have checked out closely.  This is not an airplane to be flown by a six-footer like yours truly.  If you want to get an idea of what flying a Gee Bee was like, sit down, extend your arms all the way and touch your fingers, with your hands just higher than the top of your head.  Then spread your arms, holding them out at the same angle, till they are horizontal.  The area inside the line you described by your arms is what is not visible forward if you are seated in a Gee Bee in the landing position.  No wonder they had so many landing accidents!


            To my knowledge, this kit by Williams Brothers, which if I recall correctly was released about 1973 (I remember seeing someone with one of the kits at a meeting of the old Golden Gate IPMS, which makes it no later than early 1974 for me), is the only model of the Gee Bee other than the 1/48 kit originally issued by Hawk back when I was mumblemumble years old, a very long time ago, back in the early Jurassic (Actually, the copyright stamped on one I have is 1952).   

            This is one of the first, if not the first, Williams Brother racer kit released, and is still one of the best in terms of production quality.  The one piece wings and horizontal stabilizers are thin, with sharp trailing edges, and the kit assembles without much if any seam filler if you take time to test fit carefully before applying glue.  There is a basic cockpit (but racer cockpits from that era are very basic!), with an instrument panel decal.  The kit decals provide the markings for both the R-1 and R-2.  Additionally, there is a choice of cowlings, though only one engine. In fact, it is impossible to make an R-2 from this kit if you are so disposed, since the R-2 had longer-span wings than the R-1, something that is hard to create here.

            Williams Brothers was purchased a few years ago following the death of the founder, and the kits are being re-released in new boxes with new decals.  This kit showed up at the LHS in the original boxing, with the original Scale-Master decals.


             Construction is very straightforward so long as you start with the plan that this is a limited-run kit.  I didn’t find flash to clean up.  I pre-painted the cockpit pieces and the engine parts, then assembled them.  The cockpit fit easily inside the fuselage and I glued the halves together.  I then attached the wings and horizontal stabilizers, and assembled the main gear.  Rubber tires are provided, but there is also a pair of injection-molded plastic main wheels, which I chose to use.  The nice thing was that by careful test-fitting and assembly before applying glue, I only used some cyanoacrylate glue for a seam filler along the upper fuselage. All the other seams disappeared under a scraping with my X-acto.


             I gave the model an overall coat of Tamiya Flat White.  When that was dry, I applied a thin coat of Tamiya Gloss White.  When that was dry, I masked off the scallops, having Xeroxed the plans so I could cut them up to give myself masking sets.  I then applied several thin coats of the last of my Gunze-Sangyo “Red Madder,” which was a red almost light enough to match the red in the decals.  When that was dry, I unmasked the model and gave it a solid coat of Future.

            The decals may have been 30 years old, but they went on without problem with Micro-Sol.  When they were set, I washed the model and gave it another coat of Future, since the instructions stress how smooth and shiny the paint scheme was on the original.


             I painted the prop with Talon acrylic metalizer Aluminum, then applied some SNJ polishing powder to bring out a real shine.  I attached the prop and unmasked the canopy.  The rigging wires were done with RB Productions 2BA stainless steel wires.


             The original may have flown 80 years ago, but it is still one of the most dramatic-looking airplanes to ever take to the sky.  The kit is worth picking up when you find it, since it provides good quality at low cost, and it is highly unlikely anyone else will ever release a kit of this airplane. This kit may be 35 years old, but until I saw this one on the shelf at the LHS, I had resisted getting one.  I’m glad I waited, since I appreciate it now. Highly recommended.

 Review kit courtesy of my wallet.

Tom Cleaver

March 2011

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