Arts & Culture
February 13, 2024
5 minute read time

History of an Icon: Jeepney Past, Present, Future

Joseph Borromeo
Photos by
Illustrations by

The Philippine Jeepney, often hailed as the undisputed King of the Road, registers in the minds of many as an icon of Philippine culture. Its inception takes us back to post-World War II Manila, where proper means of public transportation was hard to come by due to the amount of destruction the city had endured. A stroke of creative genius came through by repurposing hundreds of surplus Jeeps left behind by the Americans, offering a viable means of cheap public transportation, and introducing the first generation of the Jeepney that persists to this day.

Jumping off the design from the 1945 Willy jeeps, numerous local makers attempted to repurpose its design to accommodate more passengers. It was Leonardo Sarao and his brothers, founders of Sarao Motors, who rose above the rest with their hallmark design.

The Sarao Jeepney design consists of a rigid chassis manufactured locally supporting a 16-20 passenger seating area.

The loading area is located at the rear (although some versions come with a side entrance located just behind the front seat), with low headroom space that requires the passengers to stoop as they enter or exit the vehicle.

The frontage of the car is ornamented with various accessories such as grills, mirrors, and antennas (all for aesthetic purposes).

The exterior body uses layers of locally sourced galvanized steel sheets forming its distinct shape, with windows spanning the sides just above the passenger’s seat.

As a cultural image, this design of the jeepney had cemented itself as an icon of Philippine culture in 1964, during the New York World’s Fair. Its iconicism goes two ways; the base model provided by the manufacturer infused with the creative personality of the jeepney driver. The base model, in the case of Sarao Motors, would be a boxy conglomerate mass of angled steel sheets on wheels. Its blank state would then be adorned with the driver’s personality with customized paints and accessories, ranging from airbrushed slogans or icons to decorating the hood of the vehicle with metal horses, horns, mirrors and the like.

Out of this union, the jeepney is born. This partnership creates the idiosyncratic nature that persists in jeepney art; claiming that no two jeepneys are ever the same. The more borloloy (lavish Filipino decor), the better. Enthusiasts such as Godofredo Stuart goes as far as to say that jeepney art becomes the one place for proletarian art; the people’s art.

As a significant mode of Philippine public transportation, is the jeepney performing as it should? The average Jeepney suffers due to destructive practices such as:

Reduced maintenance
Improper calibration of injection systems
Misalignment of wheels
Tampering with the engine systems

Its ramifications are multiplied by the thousands of jeepneys that still ply the roads, creating the culture of smoke belching, fuel-guzzling jeepneys we all know today.

This calls for a new generation of jeepneys to rise, highlighting the need for more environmentally conscious, user-oriented utility vehicles. Initial steps towards a more eco-friendly jeepney began internally by replacing the surplus diesel engines with Euro-4 compliant ones. Other jeepneys tried using LPG engines, to satisfy Euro-III standards. However, that solution was insufficient.

With the passing of the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program (PUVMP) launched by the Department of Transportation, the government is relentless with doing away with these fuel-guzzling vehicles. At a glance, whatever held down the jeepney concerning energy efficiency has been stripped away, doing away with the dense layers of metal sheets weighing the vehicle down. The modernized e-jeepney is now lighter, with a unified body streamlined to be more fuel-efficient and passenger-friendly.

These newer models allow the vehicle to be tailored to their specific routes; taking into account various factors such as passenger profile and density, distance and peak loads. As such, some jeepneys will maintain the perimeter seating similar to the Sarao jeepney for shorter yet high volume routes. Others, with front facing seats with a higher floor to ceiling height, to allow passengers to stand inside.

Together, they boast a whole range of new and improved amenities such as the addition of CCTV cameras, free Wi-Fi, automated fare collection systems (similar to the Beep card system); all running on an electric engine.

Do the qualities that make the jeepneys iconic for the Filipino have a place in the future urban setting? Modernization enforces a greener future for the jeepney while pushing drivers and operators deeper into debt, for the sake of compliance. Despite its intentions, the push becomes an epitome of gentrification at the cost of marginalization. Will we compromise the cost of our icon for the cost of our environment?

Soon enough, the jeepney’s reputation as the undisputed king of the road will find itself preserved in antiquity; its antics for the borloloy a remnant of an era plagued by indifferent transportation infrastructure. In its place, a modernized, eco-friendly generation of jeepneys will shuttle through the streets. The trade-off, in a perfect world, should implore for a more proper transportation infrastructure, where all stakeholders ought to benefit from the modernization.