September 25, 2019 By Mavelle Durian Photos by Author and Sarao Motors, Inc.

Sarao Motors here to stay

Continuing the legacy of ‘King of the Road’ amid PUV Modernization Program

The Philippine jeepney has long been a symbol of the Filipino’s ingenuity, innovation, creativity, hard work, and resilience.

Now, this iconic, post-World War II creation also wants to be known for its staying power.

As transportation agencies in the Philippines gear up towards the public utility vehicle modernization program (PUVMP) of the government, is it finally time to say goodbye to the traditional jeepneys that have become a quintessential representation of our country and for many decades the lifeblood of the Philippine transportation?

Don’t say your “para po sa tabi” just yet as according to its creator, they are here to stay.

Ed Sarao believes that the jeepney industry isn’t going to roll over and die just yet, saying it only needs to undergo changes, in compliance with the standards of the PUVMP.

When the Department of Transportation (DOTr) announced the PUV modernization program, Sarao Motors, Inc. started to research on how it can stay relevant with the times, partnering with companies that specialize in making eco-friendly materials.

“In 2015, we started making prototypes. Then we teamed up with other companies to achieve this. Kasi mukhang hindi na uubra ‘yung mga surplus parts na dating ginagawa namin. We have to introduce a vehicle that is all brand-new and environment-friendly. We’re currently working on a universal body chassis that can be installed with either full-electric, LPG, or the Euro 4 or 5-compliant engines,” said Ed Sarao.

Sarao Jeepney’s Origins

Dedication, positive outlook, and Filipino culture. These are the reasons why Sarao Motors, Inc. became a world-renowned jeepney brand and kept the business running for 67 years.

Sarao Motors, Inc. started when Ed’s father, Leonardo Sarao Sr., and his siblings saw an opportunity during the post-war transportation crisis in the 1950s. They then built their first shop along Zapote Road, Las Piñas. Back then, the Sarao brothers started tinkering, fabricating, and customizing military jeeps — the Willys — that were left by the Americans.

The 1st generation of Sarao siblings, who were the first ones to roll out the jeepneys on the streets.

The jeepneys were then conceptualized out of necessity until it became a mainstay on the streets of Metro Manila, winning the hearts of every Filipino in the process. As the industry continued to flourish, jeepneys evolved from the short version of the Willy-based jeepney that can be occupied by two to three persons, to the bigger version, a 100% all-Filipino fabrication and customization.

Sarao Motors first shop in Zapote, Las Piñas

Later on, Sarao Motors became a sought-after brand. Their jeepneys were brought and exhibited abroad, particularly in Europe for the London Manila Express. It was also featured in Zaldy Zshornack and Josephine Estrada’s 1966 movie “Jeepney Boy”, used in Eddie Guttierez’s and Susan Roces’ movie Hi-Sosayti. Even Saint Pope John Paul II rode a Sarao jeepney during his papal visit in Baguio City.

Reeling From the Economic Crunch

Despite the jeepney’s success, luck wasn’t always at the side of Sarao Motors, Inc. The Asia-wide crisis that hit the region and former president Joseph Ejercito Estrada’s administration, made it more difficult for the jeepney-maker to thrive.

“That was also the time when Erap’s administration approved the wage hike, the rise of economic crisis, and the jeepney industry was on the skids. What we did to stay, we closed our shop for a few weeks, downsized our production and manpower, and we re-opened,” Ed said.

Prior to Estrada’s administration, Sarao Motors was able to produce 12 to 15 units a day until production was reduced to eight to 10 units. When Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s administration came, the manufacturing company declared a dry season, before the business bounced back during the presidency of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III.

To make the business afloat, Sarao Motors was engaged to do special projects.

“Anything with wheels, basta kaya namin, gagawin namin. Karosa, andas, food truck, aircon jeepneys, and tranvia. There were also hotels and restaurants asking us to do commissioned work,” Ed said.

Reinventing Itself

Currently, Sarao Motors has partnered with Chinese electric company Le Guider and is working on a universal body chassis that can be installed with either full-electric, LPG, or the Euro 4 and 5-compliant engines.

They also plan to retain the traditional look of their jeepneys, but with modern touches, and will soon introduce new models that will comply with the PUV modernization program of the DOTr.

Modern jeepney design of Sarao Motors, Inc. that complies with the PUV modernization program.

“We didn’t make any petition to the government to say that we’re against the modernization program. We really have to make some changes, because whether we like it or not, the automotive industry is leading towards electrification program,” Ed said.

When asked what made Sarao Motors remain in operation, the heir of the jeepney builder shared: “Sarao Motors is still here because of the history that we imparted in the company. That counts a lot. Years of experience, craftsmanship, and the quality of our vehicles.”

From research paper to prototype model. The diesel-powered Sarao Prototype-ONE was the product of thesis of Jackie Sarao, son of Ed.

Here to stay

The future is now becoming clear for Sarao Motors. Ed said that their family will still continue to build vehicles.

Iniwan sa amin ito ng mga tatay namin as a legacy, and we have to continue and keep this place running before we decide to venture to another business. That’s why all of my siblings and relatives are here in our shop. Although we’re getting busy with our respective works, we have to stay here.”

The second generation of Sarao. (L-R) Ed Sarao, Malu Sarao, and Romy Sarao. Missing in photos are Normilito Sarao, and Leonardo Sarao Jr.

A Philippine symbol as iconic as the jeepney isn’t ready to relinquish its King of the Road throne yet. Not when its creators vow to stay relevant in these changing, modern times.

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