Immortalized in songs, movies, toys and touristy shirts, the iconic jeepney is equal parts historical and horrid
With the recent announcement by the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board that old jeepneys will be phased out—or maybe not, since the memorandum is just a draft circular—there has been a lot of buzz about what may or may not replace these lumbering post-war dinosaurs on our roads.
The truth, really, is that they’re irreplaceable.
Every Filipino over the age of six knows the story: As American troops started pulling out of the country after the war, they left behind thousands of military surplus Willys Jeeps. Also built under license by Ford as the “GP” (no, “Jeep” doesn’t stand for GP), these were tough buggers with lots of life left in them. But they simply weren’t worth enough to cover the cost of shipping them back to the United States. These tiny trucklets were soon snapped up by locals and converted into four-seaters, with cushions put over the rear fenders for two extra passengers.
One creative Filipino, Leonardo Sarao, figured he could fit more. By extending the rear deck and adding grab-bars to the rear of the Jeep, he raised the capacity to eight passengers (plus “sabit”), codifying the formula that competitors and hundreds of backyard manufacturers would soon follow. Within the next few decades, Sarao was a millionaire.
The jeepney was so popular that builders had to import wartime surplus from other countries to keep up with demand. And when surplus jeeps became scarce, they started manufacturing bespoke parts and extra-long ladder frames. By the ’80s, jeepneys were proudly displaying decals boasting their underhood specs. If you had a “4BA1,” you were cool. If you had a “4D30,” you were bad-ass.
Piston-based pissing contests weren’t the only things driving jeepney decoration. As Sarao had been a kalesa driver before becoming an entrepreneur, he brought this aesthetic to his products, with lovingly stamped steel-plate decor and metal horses. Some makers went further and farther: quilt-stitched leatherette interiors, more glass and lights than an ’80s disco, and so many horses, cocks and trumpets on the hood you could barely see through the windshield. Even worse, many drivers kept their entire cassette collection in racks on the dashboard, completely obscuring what little free glass was left.
Yet, even in the post-cassette age, the jeepney is an ergonomic nightmare. The side-mounted spare tire, the short front bench and the need to accommodate two front passengers force the driver to sit crabwise, hunched over to reach the floor-mounted gearshift.
There are precious few instrument gauges, only half of which actually work. The controls are worse: a vague gear shift, a heavy clutch, weak brakes and unassisted steering make piloting a jeepney a sweaty and thankless task.
Not that passengers are any happier, crammed like sardines in the back. Where original jeepneys had three-per-side benches, modern jeepneys have 10-per-side or even 12-per-side pews that aren’t, in reality, big enough to hold more than eight adults each. This is why making sabit is so popular. Some people would rather risk death by dismemberment than put up with elbows in their faces and knees in their crotches. Riding a jeepney down a pockmarked road can be just as dangerous as living in this “drug war” era.
Despite these issues, jeepneys have provided the transport backbone of the country for decades, piled high with passengers or farm goods as they navigate unpaved roads, ford rivers and floods, and generally brave the kind of conditions you’d need a tank to get through. Simply put, the jeepney is indispensable.
Or it was. Thanks to the rising cost of surplus parts and the falling cost of more economical surplus trucks, many jeepney builders have gone out of business. Even Sarao the company is a shadow of its former self. The expense of maintaining non-standardized jeepneys with ever rarer replacement parts for old engines means they will eventually go the way of the dodo, whether or not the LTFRB bans them.
Which is a shame. As inadequate, unsafe and irritating as it may be, the jeepney is a part of our national identity. The shared discomfort, irritation and infatuation with this mechanical monstrosity are among the few universal constants of the Philippine experience.