Sarao and the Jeepney Legacy

What else can be said about the jeepney? In such a short amount of time since its introduction after World War II, this transportation innovation has become an icon that has become representative of the country itself. Love it or hate it, there is no doubt that as far as Philippine roads go, the jeepney is indeed the king.

And in the realm of the jeepneys, the most recognized name behind them is an icon by itself: Sarao Motors, the jeepney manufacturer that has helped elevate the status of the jeepney to what it is today. The Urban Roamer has been privileged to get to visit their headquarters in Barangay Pulang Lupa, Las Piñas and see history and automotive technology come alive.

Sarao Motors was established back in 1953 as an automotive shop by Leonardo Sarao, a kalesa driver who decided to transform the jeeps left behind by the American soldiers into a form of transportation by adding a roof and increasing the capacity of the number of passengers they can handle and adding railings at the back and top for passengers to hold on to. The result was the evolution of the jeepney we know today; these Sarao jeepneys would become the standard in Philippine jeepney aesthetics.

the typical Sarao jeepney, with the model of a horse at the front which is said to symbolize Leonardo Sarao’s beginnings as a calesa driver

the calesa, the mode of transport from which Sarao started

At its height, Sarao Motors manufactured thousands of jeepneys in its headquarters which by then has become a Las Piñas landmark. Sarao jeepneys made their way to New York City for the 1964 World’s Fair and to London for a tourism roadshow presentation in 1971. However, Sarao Motors did not escape unscathed from the challenges the global market was facing at the dawn of the 21st century. With rising costs of production hurting the business, Sarao Motors decided to greatly downsize its operation and no longer do mass production of jeepneys, concentrating its efforts instead on small-scale and custom production of jeepneys .

The headquarters of Sarao Motors these days is visited by tourists who wish to learn a bit more about the Philippine jeepney. By itself the structure has not changed much since it was opened sometime in the 1950s. While the manufacturing operations are not as massive as they were before, one can still see the trademark Sarao innovation at work as it has been churning out some interesting jeepney units in recent years like a jeepney configured to carry heavier loads and a jeepney configured as an SUV-type of vehicle, which was actually a product of a thesis made by a Sarao scion who studied in College of St. Benilde.

These innovations stand side by side with the old, like a 1955 type of Sarao jeepney on display, which had a smaller capacity than the standard jeepneys plying the streets these days.  It would be nice if Sarao Motors would put up a museum where these units can better be displayed, though I heard the Saraos do have such an idea in mind but the cost in constructing and maintaining a museum is holding them back at this time.

Despite scaling back operations, Sarao remains to be the name people will associate jeepneys with. Jeepneys may have evolved and will continue to evolve but the legacy of Leonardo Sarao and Sarao Motors will remain always a part of Philippine culture.

 

The Urban Roamer’s visit to Sarao Motors is part of Las Piñas heritage walking tour recently organized by the Heritage Conservation Society-Youth and Las Piñas-based heritage group. My thanks to them for organizing this tour and being able to be part of it.

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