Henry Jamison “Jam” Handy was born on March 6, 1886, so we figured today would be a good day to talk about his contribution to the American automotive and film industries.
A medal-winning Olympic swimmer in 1904 and again as a water polo player in 1924, Handy also had another talent: a knack for explaining complex concepts in an easy-to-understand way.
He funneled that skill into the nascent film industry and soon found himself producing military training movies and slides for troops serving in World War 1.
After the War, Handy’s filmmaking expertise easily translated to the commercial sector, where he and his Jam Handy Organization would crank out thousands of films, cartoons, and commercials until his death in 1983.
But it’s Handy’s work with the automotive industry (Chevy and GM in particular) that we’re going to talk about today.
Jam Handy & The Automobile Industry
Just as he did with the U.S. military, Handy produced a significant volume of easy-to-follow, intuitive training materials for the automobile industry. Originally intended for dealers and service techs, Jam Handy films cover a range of topics, from marketing demos to engineering tutorials.
More importantly, as their reach expanded outside car dealerships and into libraries and classrooms, the films helped teach and inspire the next generation of automotive enthusiasts—and continue to do so today.
Jam Handy movies are equal parts educational and entertaining. And though he wasn’t alone in the market, what makes his films so endearing is the straightforward way in which they break down complex systems to explain the basic scientific principles behind them.
To give you an idea of what we’re talking about, we picked ten of our favorite films from the Jam Handy catalog. Check them out below.
10 of Our Favorite Jam Handy Automobile Films
1. Over the Waves (1938)
Part instructional film, part marketing effort, this Jam Handy classic teaches the viewer how a modern automotive suspension system works. You’ll see how familiar parts like control arms, coil springs, and shocks all work together to give your car a smooth, comfortable ride—and the film makes sure to feature the Chevy Bowtie prominently along the way.
2. Formations (1936)
Though it’s difficult to imagine a world before the automobile, the meteoric rise of the car’s popularity after World War 1 ushered in a big problem—how to teach folks to drive. Basic rules like right-of-way, signaling, and yielding were all new concepts back then, and communities across the country scrambled to make sure drivers knew the proper protocols. Jam Handy came to the rescue with this enjoyable traffic tutorial.
3. Safety Patrol (1937)
Following up the motorist-oriented “Formations,” Jam Handy gave us “Safety Patrol” the following year, which put the focus on the pedestrian. Done again with support from Chevrolet, this nearly 10 minute film shows you how to safely interact with traffic. If the Academy gave out awards for “The Best Pedestrian Traffic Safety Film,” rest assured this one would’ve taken home an Oscar.
4. Auto-Lite on Parade (1940)
Any member of the Blue Oval brigade is surely familiar with the name Autolite. But long before it came under the Ford umbrella, Auto-Lite was supplying the entire automotive industry with spark plugs, starter motors, and a host of other critical vehicle electrical components. Jam Handy gives us a tour of an Auto-Lite factory here, and we get an up-close look at vintage manufacturing and testing processes.
5. The Corvair In Action (1960)
In this unabashed advertorial for Chevy’s new rear-engined compact car, we get to see Jam Handy’s team thrash on a fleet of Corvairs for a solid six minutes. Want to see a Corvair make figure-8s on a skidpad? How about watching a Corvair cross a stream? Or maybe you’d just like to see what happens when a full size Chevy wagon plows into the back of one. This film has all that and more, enjoy.
6. Free and Easy (1940)
If M. Night Shyamalan directed a Jam Handy flick, this one would be it. It begins by talking about air, then it moves to air pressure, and ultimately vacuum. But for that trademark “Shyamalan Twist,” Jam Handy’s writers make a smart transition from vacuum to its practical application inside the automobile—GASP! It was in your car the whole time!
7. Hydraulics (1936)
“Hydraulics” isn’t as coy and subtle as the “Free and Easy” film is, as it goes right to science—but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. As you’d imagine, this film quickly pivots from the fundamentals behind hydraulics to its real-world use, specifically in a vehicle context. Expect to hear a lot about brake systems in this one.
8. The Chance You Take (1965)
As it’s one of his darker, more ominous films, consider this one from the “DC Universe” side of the Jam Handy catalog. But despite some grisly car crash scenes, the intent is to educate folks on the importance of vehicle tires. This film address the topics like tire tread, contact patches, and proper inflation. And spoiler alert, considering its production was funded by General Tire, you can bet the film leans heavily on the superiority of General’s products.
9. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (1948)
Though it’s not directly related to the automobile, we wanted to include 1948’s “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” in our list because it showcases how well versed the Handy film crew was in animation, which is echoed in other films like Handy’s brake system tutorial “Facts or Friction.” And if you look closely, you’ll see it was directed by Max Fleischer—the same guy who helped animate Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman.
10. Spinning Levers (1936)
“Spinning Levers” is Jam Handy at his best: explaining how a complex system works (in this case, a transmission) with the help of simple, easy visual aids. Again working with Chevrolet, this film begins with animation of the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes and ends with some slick footage of a woman effortlessly shifting her 1936 Master Deluxe Sedan down a hill. Bravo.
So, what do you think? Is there another Jam Handy classic that we missed? Let us know your favorites in the comments below.