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Through the Lens- A look at the work of Jam Handy

It’s possible that some of you may have never heard of Jam Handy, but you’re likely familiar with some of his work. Few people deserve more credit for documenting the culture of American automobile manufacturing from the mid- 1930’s through the late 1950’s, but there is so much more to the man behind the camera.

Born as Henry Jamison Handy in Philadelphia in 1886, Handy grew up in Chicago, the son of a newspaper editor. Handy attributed his early interest in engineering to his time spent as an adolescent every year at the World’s Fair, touring the exhibits and meeting people. He was a bright student, who proved a challenge to his teachers, as he was known to question conventional teaching techniques. After high-school graduation, Handy enrolled in the University of Michigan at the age of 17. His time at U of M was short-lived however, when, as a campus correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, Handy was suspended for a story he wrote which satirized his elocution professor’s lecture as a course in love making. The article resulted in a one year suspension, after which Handy could re-apply. He instead chose to leave, but due to the incident had difficulty getting accepted in any other schools until he was finally accepted to the University of Pennsylvania, only to leave that school under pressure after only two weeks.

Handy was a very capable competition swimmer, whose earliest claim to fame was popularizing the Australian Crawl swim stroke. He earned his first Olympic medal for swimming in 1904, taking the bronze in the St. Louis Olympics, the first year the Olympics were held in the United States. Handy was also a bronze medal winner in the 1924 Olympics in Paris, for water polo.

After his brief stints in college, Handy took a job with the Chicago Tribune, eventually landing in the advertising department, where he gained valuable insights into marketing. Always interested in education, it was during this time that he began to develop an interest in the educational possibilities of motion pictures and slide shows. In 1911, he formed the Jam Handy Organization. Based strategically in Detroit, Handy found he had a willing market in the Detroit automakers, and began producing primitive training and promotional films for a variety of different car makers. The onset of World War I proved to be an opportunity for the filmmaker, as he began to produce military training films. On the

automotive side, Handy’s production company produced films for Buick, Cadillac, Ford, GMC, and Pontiac, however it was Handy’s decades long relationship with Chevrolet for which he is best known in automotive circles. Through the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s, Handy produced hundreds of promotional films for Chevrolet, over a large variety of topics, from design and engineering, vehicle production, sales, promotions, and even skits dealing with issues like road rage, and how to be a courteous driver. Always with a patriotic flair, Handy’s work beautifully captured the thinking and culture around which American cars were being designed, produced and sold for many years.

Would you like to see an animated film about the life-cycle of a drop of gasoline, from fuel tank to exhaust pipe? Handy produced one.

Would you like to see a film about how the lubrication system within an engine keeps everything lubricated? Handy produced one.

How about a film which shows, in the simplest of terms, exactly how manual or automatic transmissions, and rear differentials work? Handy produced one.

Maybe you’d like to see a film which beautifully illustrates how precision measurement of components, down the 10,000th of an inch made mass production possible? Handy produced one.

Some of you may recall Chevrolet commercials in the 1950’s depicting Bel-Air’s, and later on Impala’s, jumping off of ramps and traveling at speed up on two wheels to show the strength of Chevrolet’s suspension and frame design. Jam Handy was responsible for those films.

Mr. Handy also made the beautiful and vibrant Dinah Shore a spokesperson for Chevrolet in the late fifties, producing many commercials, making Ms. Shore synonymous with Chevrolet.

World War II and the Korean War kept the Handy studios busy as well, with over 7,000 military and industrial instructional and highly patriotic motivational videos produced. Many people are also unaware that it was The Jam Handy Organization that produced the animated 1948 version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

So what is the draw? When presented with an opportunity to learn all about automotive technology that is decades old, why are the Handy automotive films so enjoyable to watch after all these years?

I think it’s because they’re so fundamental. Jam Handy was truly a pioneer, years ahead of his time. Even today, the films represent relevant lessons in science; physics, chemistry and engineering, explained in ways that practically anyone can understand. Technology has advanced, and we’re constantly finding new ways to incorporate exotic materials into our cars, but at the foundation of it, the Handy films show us why things work today the way they do. They offer a look at the history of design and engineering that we otherwise would not have. The purpose of a vehicle’s suspension has always been to isolate passengers from bumps on the road, and Handy explains the physics behind suspension design in a way that is simplistic and relevant even today. Handy’s use of models, animation, diagrams, and simple displays of experimentation make understanding the complex (what goes on in your transmission or differential) fun to watch and easy to understand. If you’ve ever wondered if it was possible to measure the weight of a lead dot from a pencil on a piece of paper, or whether the deflection from the pressure of a fingertip on a section of steel railroad track could be measured, (and it can, to the millionth of an inch) Handy shows you how it’s done. His automotive films represent the automotive equivalent of Bill Nye or perhaps the MythBusters, and he brought it all to us without CGI or a green screen.

Of course, Handy did not produce his impressive volume of work alone. At its height, The Handy organization employed hundreds, including model builders, writers, directors and camera crews. The company even had its own orchestra for recording the music that the films were often set to.

The Handy Organization continued its relationship with Chevrolet into the mid-1960’s. Most sources claim the Handy studios in Southfield, Michigan closed down around 1970, and Mr. Handy passed away in Detroit in November of 1983, at the age of 97. Mr. Handy’s accolades were many during his lifetime, receiving multiple awards in recognition of his accomplishments. Sadly, much of the company’s archives and history have been lost to time. Fortunately for us, much of the work Handy produced for Chevrolet is no longer copyright protected and lives on through the internet on places like YouTube. There are worse ways to waste an afternoon than by watching some of Handy’s work. You’re guaranteed to learn something you didn’t know, and likely gain an appreciation for the history of the engineering and design of many of the components still present in our cars today.

Happy Motoring.

John Hansen is an automotive writer and owner of Michigan Automotive Inspection Services, which provides professional pre-purchase inspection, consultation, and appraisal services for classic automobiles located in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.

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