‘King of the road’: Meet the heir to the iconic Sarao jeepney business

Nile Villa
‘King of the road’: Meet the heir to the iconic Sarao jeepney business
For Ed Sarao, the jeepney is the lifeblood of the Philippines

MANILA, Philippines – “From the ashes of war… to the hearts of the Filipinos.”

That is how Edgardo “Ed” Sarao, the heir to the Sarao Motors business, describes the humble jeepney.

Ed is the son of Leonardo Sarao, one of the pioneers of the jeepney manufacturing industry.

How essential are jeepneys to the Philippines? For the heir of the jeepney company, it serves as “the blood of the city.”

“It circulates. It goes everywhere. It transports people, goods – may interaction sa loob ng sasakyan (there is interaction inside the vehicle),” he added.

According to Ed, the jeepney has served as a melting pot for the community, where neighbors sit beside each other and strangers make the effort to help pass the fare from one end to another. (READ: The 15 passengers you’ll meet on a Philippine jeepney)

He also mentioned how the jeepney functioned as a quintessential representation of who Filipinos are.

“It describes everything about Filipinos. Being artistic, creativeness, ‘yung pagkaresilient niya, na in any situation nagagawan niya ng paraan (our being resilient, that in any situation, we find a way). The same as the jeepney, it rose from the ashes of war, parang (like a) phoenix.”

Humble beginnings

Did you know that this cultural icon in the Philippines traces its history to World War II?

In 1953, Ed’s father Leonardo started a small automotive shop in Las Piñas City. Leonardo drove a kalesa or horse-drawn carriage at that time.

Leonardo and his brothers saw the post-World War II devastation and realized they needed a way to help jumpstart the rehabilitation of Manila. They took the army jeeps left behind by American soldiers and converted them into a means of transporting building materials and people.

Napagtuunang-pansin ng mga Filipino itong mga equipment ng mga US forces, isa na ‘yung kanilang military jeep,” the younger Sarao said.

(Filipinos noticed the equipment of the US forces, specifically their military jeep.)

“Na-fell in love ‘yung mga Filipino na hanggang ngayon ay nasa ilalim pa rin ng mga – – deep inside the heart of the Filipinos. So doon nag-start ‘yung jeepney,” he added. 

(Filipinos fell in love [with the jeepney] and, until today, this love is deep inside their hearts. That’s where the jeepney started.)

CONTINUING A LEGACY. Ed Sarao, son of Leonardo Sarao, is the heir to the Sarao Motors jeepney business.

King of the road

In a span of a decade, the small automotive shop grew into a corporation. Sarao Motors became the Philippines’ pioneer jeepney manufacturer.

From starting with just a handful of employees, Sarao Motors employed around 300 workers in its heyday, the 1960s to 1980s. The company compound was expanded several times to accommodate the swell in production.

At its peak, the company would produce around 12 to 18 units per day. In those years, majority of jeepneys in Manila bore the Sarao brand proudly. (READ: Rethinking the jeepney)

Beyond the country, the ingenious means of public transportation was noticed as well. The company was asked to present some of its jeepney units at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. In 1971, a jeepney made its way from Manila to London, and then around Europe, as part of the London-Manila Express roadshow.

Not even the Miss Universe pageant could resist the charms of what was lovingly called “The King of the Road.” In 1974, Sarao jeepneys were used for the Miss Universe motorcade in Manila.

Breaking point

However, in 2000, the company hit a breaking point. 

Due to rising costs and changes in government regulations on transportation franchises, Sarao Motors had to halt production and let go of a number of its employees as well. In fact, sales had begun to dip as early as 1995.

It was a difficult decision by Leonardo, and the announcement was an emotional moment shared by the owners and their staff.

But the Saraos were intent on keeping production alive, for those whose livelihoods depended on the jeepney.

A few weeks after stopping production, Sarao Motors resumed work at a much lower scale, with the number of employees down to around 50.

JEEPNEY PRODUCTION. Sarao Motors scaled down production of jeepney units due to rising costs and changes in government regulations on transportation franchises.

Jeepney modernization

Ed is up for the challenge of modernizing one of the main modes of transportation in the Philippines. (LOOK: New jeepneys under PUV modernization program)

He acknowledges that there are shortcomings with the current design of the jeepney, especially in terms of being environment-friendly.

“It’s a good idea,” Ed said. “I go for the challenge… [so] right now we’re doing prototypes na ipapakita sa public at tsaka sa Department of Transportation (to show to the public and to the DOTr). Just to show [that] besides doing [the] traditional jeepney, we can do something else, something else [that’s] better and environment-friendly.”

One of Ed’s sons even built a prototype of what they call “the modern jeepney” for his college thesis at the De La Salle-College of St Benilde.

Ed, however, is appealing to the government and the people to be easy on the industry. (READ: Is the PUV modernization program ‘anti-poor?’)

I think that 3-year plan nila about phasing out or upgrading, parang kulang eh. They should extend it to probably 5 or 10 years…. Dapat tingnan din nila siguro somewhere in the middle magkakaroon ‘yan ng agreement na maganda, he said.

(I think their 3-year plan for phasing out or upgrading is too short. They should extend it to probably 5 or 10 years…. They should look at it somewhere in the middle to come up with a good agreement.)

Ed also said jeepney drivers need to pay more attention to rules and keep themselves educated on road etiquette. In fact, Sarao Motors teaches its drivers the proper ways to behave when on the road.

PHILIPPINE ICON. What's in store for the iconic jeepney?

Future of the jeepney

Will the jeepney still be around in 20 years?

“Yeah. Why not? As long as there are commuters and there are people operating it, nandiyan ang jeepney pa rin dahil… embedded sa mga hearts ng mga Filipino ‘yan, sa mga puso nila (the jeepney will still be there because it’s embedded in the hearts of Filipinos),” said Ed.

With the modernization program set by the Duterte administration, Ed said the jeepney will have to keep up as well. (READ: PUV modernization: Planning, readiness issues raised at House hearing)

“Probably it will evolve into something better, even the end-users, the drivers, may be more well-educated already by that time. But, definitely, the jeepney will still be there,” Ed said in a mix of Filipino and English.

For now, Ed Sarao is grateful to stand at the helm of the jeepney industry. More than managing the company his father started decades ago, he sees his purpose in helping others reach their dreams and provide for their families.

“Ang pinaka-fulfilling about my job is natutupad ko din ‘yung mga gusto ng mga tao do’n sa pangarap nila…. ‘Pag nagkaroon ng sasakyan sila, makakahanap na sila sa buhay noon, at puwede na sila mag-start ng new life.”

(The most fulfilling about my job is helping others reach their dreams…. When they get a jeepney, they can earn a living, they can start a new life.) – Rappler.com

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