SPECIAL REPORT

The rise and fall of the man who created an icon

MANILA • With 700 pesos he borrowed from a godfather, Mr Leonardo Sarao began a company in 1953 that, for more than 40 years, would produce the Philippines' most iconic mode of transport.

Mr Sarao created the jeepney. He bought a jeep the US Army had left behind after World War II, and had the rear bed stretched to carry six passengers, three on each side.

He then turned it into an icon.

 
 

He wanted the jeepney to be unlike any other vehicle in the world. And succeeded, with each of his jeepneys as gaudy as the laws of decency would allow.

He used brass statues of either an at-ease horse, a MiG fighter jet or a swan as hood ornaments. Most of his jeepneys did not have just two side mirrors; they had 12, two on the sides and 10 more on the hood.

(Mr Sarao) wanted the jeepney to be unlike any other vehicle in the world. And succeeded, with each of his jeepneys as gaudy as the laws of decency would allow.

Mr Sarao's jeepney was also a canvas on wheels. No two jeepneys that rolled out of his 2.5ha assembly plant in Las Pinas city, 30 minutes south of the capital Manila, were identical.

Each was done by hand, with customised paint jobs such as mythical creatures, haunting landscapes, heavy metal bands, scantily clad women and the Virgin Mary.

Each jeepney also had a name or slogan, written in big, bold letters just above the windshield: Delilah, Rosa, Zig Zag Queen, Brutista, In God We Trust, and the proverbial King Of The Road.

Inside, there were quotes from the Bible, lyrics of kitschy songs, or simply hoi polloi humorous phrases such as "God knows Judas not pay" or "Mr driver, sweet lover".

At its peak, Mr Sarao's company was assembling six to 10 jeepneys a day. In the 1970s and 1980s, it built half of some 500,000 jeepneys on the road.

But somewhere along the way, time caught up with Mr Sarao. His company - Sarao Motors - had been producing the same product using the same methods for 30 years.

When a debt crisis struck the country in 1983 and the peso plunged from just six to the US dollar to 20, Sarao Motors found itself paying three times as much for the imported auto parts that made up almost 80 per cent of its jeepneys.

When the government began easing import rules on new cars, the company had to compete with overseas manufacturers that were producing better, safer and more comfortable passenger vehicles.

Then in the 1990s, another financial crisis swept Asia. The government also began limiting the number of jeepney franchises it was issuing.

Sarao Motors, already limping, finally threw in the towel. In 2000, Mr Sarao shut down his company. A year later, he died, aged 80.

Sarao Motors re-opened in 2011 but, by then, it was just a shell of its former self.

The king had reached the end of its road.

Raul Dancel

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2015, with the headline 'The rise and fall of the man who created an icon'. Print Edition | Subscribe