Whilst it has been said that the national transport in
Thailand is a 125 cc motorcycle, the ideal transport for a family of five; the
most ubiquitous form of transport is the ‘song taew’ or baht bus. These
converted pickups come in many guises all over Thailand, but all follow much of
the same style. Two rows of seats in the back, and a roof. As a public ‘bus’
it works reasonable well, and other than the fact that there are ten times too
many of them, the system is ok.
In the Philippines, the equivalent is the ‘Jeepney’,
which has a much more interesting history than the ‘song taew’. The
fascination of the Jeepney comes in the utilization of vehicles and engines that
were already existing, and adapting them to the requirements of the time.
Today’s Jeepneys are vehicles that can trace their roots, some 50 plus years
Most people are aware that the Jeepney was derived from the
American Jeep, itself a most interesting development. These were not, as again
popular ‘wisdom’ would suggest, designed by Willy’s, but were first
designed and produced by Bantam Engineering in Detroit, the makers of the
American Austin Seven, and the first batch of these ‘Scout Cars’ rolled off
the assembly lines in 1940. The American government later had Willys and Ford
also make these vehicles to the Bantam design. The name ‘Jeep’ came later,
being a phonetic interpretation of G.P. (General Purpose) vehicle, and allegedly
coined by a lady journalist when being shown the prototype, so never say that
women writers don’t know anything about the motor industry!
When General MacArthur said “I shall return” he did not
say anything about coming back to pick up the Jeeps that the US government had
left in Manila in 1945, and in fairly short order, the ex-US Army military
vehicles were plying the streets of Manila, and the enterprising new Filipino
owners began using them as taxis, replacing the horse-drawn ‘calesas’,
painting them in bright colours to alert passengers to the fact that this was a
version of public transport. This was the beginning.
To protect the drivers and passengers from the sun, the Jeep
grew a fixed roof. More seats became necessary to give these diminutive taxis
some economies of scale. More bums on seats needed more seats for bums, and so
the original six seater ‘auto-calesa’ began to grow appendages on the rear
to get more people on board, until the much longer 16 seater PUJ’s (Public
Utility Jeep) became commonplace.
As the Jeep began to mutate, it got its name of
‘Jeepney’. It was no longer a modified ex-WWII Jeep, but had become its own
persona. It had also produced its own motor industry, manufacturing and
assembling these now unique vehicles. Not only to manufacture, but to keep them
running, there was now an attendant vehicle repair industry, and to satisfy the
Filipino penchant for decoration and then some, there was a parallel industry
making the elaborate accessories, such as the mandatory chrome-plated horses for
the bonnets of the new vehicles.
It did not end there. With the Filipinos being the musicians
of Asia, there needed to be a way of giving these Jeepneys some music on the
run, and the auto-sound industry grew to encompass this important side of the
Jeepney story as well. Several hundred decibels of distorted sound was the norm
until a few years ago, but recent legislation in Metro Manila has turned the
volume down of late.
So we have the Jeepney, still around in 2005, uniquely
showing it origins from the Philippines, described best by Valerio Nofuente. At
the front of the Jeepney, often right on top, is a plastic headdress verging on
a crown, with names like Jeepney King, Queen Leah, Super-Star or one of the
Jeepney body makers, such as Sarao Motors written on it. At night, this will be
festooned with blinking lights, around some saint’s statue.
Between the visor and the windshield is usually a plastic
strip on which is written the route, such as “Quiapo-Espana Extension,” or
“Cubao-Quezon Boulevard.” On the windshield are the last few years
accumulation of Land Transportation Commission stickers, stickers from
universities or from pilgrimages to Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage at
Between the bonnet and the windshield is another bit of space
that is usually dedicated to the name of the jeep - the name of a child,
grandchild or the owner, like “Inang Petang,” “Noel-Rowena” - in large
The bonnet is the special repository for the Jeepney
decorator. Here is at least one chrome horse in memory of the horse drawn
calesa. Along with the horses is usually a forest of other decorations including
aerials, mirrors and numerous parking lights.
The grille can be copied from Ford, Toyota or Mercedes Benz
or made of steel bars in the image of the original Jeeps, and will normally also
have much decorative work in the way of more lights. Even the bumper is another
item to carry more art-work as well as the number plate.
The side of the Jeepney will carry painted rocket ships, Star
Wars or Buck Rogers; jet fighters like those of the Philippine Air Force’s
Blue Diamonds, planets in orbit, bursts of flame, landscapes, and girls names.
The steps have more slogans and welcoming signs such as Watch
Your Steps, Halina Baby (Let’s Go, Baby), or Welcome Chicks or even Walang
Sabit (The Driver Is Unattached), or Wanted Wife 35-25-35.
The interior may include an altar, with its image of Our Lady
of Perpetual Help, or of the Suffering Christ. With fervour and ritual, the
driver hangs a garland of sampaguita or everlasting flowers near this altar
(sometimes on the rearview mirror), an offering somewhat pagan in spirit, since
in return God is expected to help him earn the day’s bread.
Stuck to the windshield beside the cassette player-recorder
are stickers and printed inscription that carry instructions such as Magbayad ng
maaga nang di maabala (Pay early so as not to cause delays); Barya po lamang sa
umaga (Only change please, in the morning); and to remind passengers of the
honour system of fare collection, God knows Hudas (Judas) not pay.
While the international auto manufacturers may build more practical people
movers, a minibus (or a song taew) does not have the mystique that is possessed
by a Jeepney. Over 50 years of tradition has been incorporated in today’s
Jeepney, something the minibus cannot claim. As is often quoted, there are
horses for courses, and the Jeepney keeps his chrome plated and on the bonnet!
One of the biggest problems in buying second hand cars
anywhere is getting a ‘real’ history on the vehicle. Just by chance, three
owners contacted me in the last week to say they had their cars for sale,
normally driven by their wives. Two of these people I know personally, and the
cars likewise, and they are both excellent vehicles.
The first is a five year old Cefiro, bronze in colour with
around 80k only on the clock. Full service history done through Nissan and no
major bingles. Drives like new as the advert would say (and it does) and 550,000
baht is the asking price on this one.
The second is an Audi A80. It’s a 1994 auto sedan with a 2
litre engine which has just been completely overhauled by the Audi dealer in
Chonburi. It has new tyres and is in very good condition. Ideal 2nd car for her
indoors. Price 225,000 baht ONO.
If you are interested in either of these, contact me and I
can put you in touch with the owners - however, no dealers and no dreamers,
The third car is an interesting old classic, and I have been
invited to come and drive it. After I manage to do this, I will feature this car