In 1932, the United States Navy gave Curtiss a contract to design a parasol two seat monoplane with retractable undercarriage and powered by a Wright R-1510 Whirlwind, intended to be used as a carrier based fighter. The resulting aircraft, designated the XF12C-1, flew in 1933. Its chosen role was changed first to a scout, and then to a scout-bomber (being redesignated XS4C-1 and XSBC-1 respectively), but the XSBC-1's parasol wing was unsuitable for dive bombing. A revised design was produced for a biplane , with the prototype, designated the XSBC-2, first flying on 9 December 1935.
The SBC-3 the initial production model was powered by a radial Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp Junior R-1535 engine. The SBC-3 began operational service in 1938. Eighty-three SBC-3s were built.
The SBC-4 was powered by a radial Wright R-1820 Cyclone 9 engine. The SBC-4 entered service in 1939.
The Navy took deliveries of the new aircraft in mid-1937 with the first batch of carrier based aircraft going to the USS Yorktown, but time and technology caught up to the advanced biplane. It was relegated to hack duties and service as an advanced trainer for training units in Florida. The last aircraft was stricken from the Navy roster in October 1944.
Foreign interest for the concept of a dive bomber led to orders abroad. One hundred seventy-four SBC-4s were built including 50 SBC-4s that were delivered to the French Navy. Five of the French order were delivered to the British Royal Air Force who named them the Curtiss Cleveland Mk.I. The Junkers Ju 87 design was influenced by aircraft such as the SBC Helldiver.
The SBC Helldiver was not destined to have a long US service life, but its impact was felt as the type made a lasting contribution by serving as the key platform in developing dive bombing tactics and honing aircrew skills crucial to winning the war in the Pacific.
The 50 SBC-4s delivered to France were actually planes already in service with the United States Navy. On 6 June 1940, Naval reservists received orders to immediately fly 50 SBC-4s to the Curtiss factory at Buffalo, New York. At Buffalo, a Bureau of Aeronautics inspector informed the pilots their aircraft were to be flown to Halifax, Nova Scotia to be loaded aboard the French aircraft carrier Béarn. From Buffalo to Halifax, the reserve pilots were officially employees of Curtiss. Curtiss paid each pilot $250 plus return rail fare from Halifax to Buffalo. All navy insignia were removed from their uniforms or taped over. Upon return to Buffalo, the pilots went back on Navy orders for return to their home bases.
Curtiss employees worked overtime to remove and replace all gear and instruments marked BUAERO, BUSHIPS or BUORD. The Navy .30 caliber (7.62 mm) machine guns were replaced by .50 caliber (12.7 mm) guns and the planes were repainted in camouflage colors with the French tricolor on the rudders. The hasty conversion did not allow time for adequate checkout of replacement instruments. Weather deteriorated with rain and fog over most of the route from Buffalo to Halifax. The Bureau of Aeronautics inspector temporarily halted flights after one of the first pilots was killed in a crash between Buffalo and Albany.
When the weather improved, sections of three aircraft were dispatched from Buffalo to Burlington, Vermont, then over the White Mountains (New Hampshire) to Augusta, Maine, and then to Houlton, Maine. After landing at Houlton, the planes were towed down a road across the Canadian border for takeoff from a New Brunswick farm pasture to avoid legal implications of flying over the border. The surviving 49 aircraft flew over the Bay of Fundy and were loaded aboard Béarn at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. France surrendered while Béarn was crossing the Atlantic; so Béarn turned south to Martinique where the SBC-4s corroded in the humid Caribbean climate while waiting on a hillside near Fort-de-France.