Manila's jeepney pioneer fears the end of the road

MANILA (Reuters Life!) - The maker of Manila’s “King of the Road” fears it could be losing its crown as financial difficulties slowly force the iconic jeepney off the road.

Sarao Motors Inc. was one of the pioneers behind the conversion of surplus U.S. military jeeps into passenger vehicles in the Philippines after World War Two, and the colorful, iconic buses are still the country’s most popular public transport.

But higher fuel prices, saturated jeepney routes and alternative modes of transport, including mini-vans and Manila’s lightrail, could spell stop for the family-run firm.

“We have accepted that we may have to throw in the towel,” said Ed Sarao, whose father Leonardo started the business over 50 years ago, adding they may have to halt production at the factory south of Manila.

Sarao, a brand as well-known to Filipinos as Volkswagen is to Germans, has been spluttering since the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997/98.

At its peak in the 70s and 80s, Sarao Motors employed 400 workers and was churning out 18 to 20 units daily including private models for medium to low income earners.

“The plant was smoking,” said Ed, as he pointed to what used to be a busy work area packed with workers wielding, coating, hammering and polishing jeepney parts.

“Now, we’d be lucky if we have four orders in a month.” Sarao jeepneys have metal horses majestically atop the hood -- in a nod to Leonardo Sarao’s humble beginnings as a driver of horse-drawn carriages -- and their bodies are painted with flamboyant colors and mounted with tail fins and round fenders.

Many drivers festoon their vehicles with religious slogans, horoscope signs or family names. Pope John Paul II travelled in a special vehicle made by Sarao during his 1981 visit to Manila.

From hellish city traffic to tortuous tropical terrain, the jeepney is still relied upon as the surest way -- although not the most comfortable -- to get from one place to another in the Philippines. It’s also the cheapest ride in town.

In Manila, 7.5 pesos ($0.17) will cover 4 km (2.5 miles) but it’s an bumpy ride -- commuters are packed knee-to-knee on twin benches and there is no air-conditioning or windows to shield against the heat and din.

Manila is hoping to introduce an electric version of the jeepney to cut the noise and fumes and Ed Sarao is also on the lookout for opportunities to help prolong his company’s life.

The firm is looking at building jeepneys with new engines with the help of Isuzu Philippines and is also in talks with a school in Manila about providing cheap on-campus transportation.

“We are still hoping to be in the business for five to ten more years or more,” he said.

Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Miral Fahmy