Jeepney jive
CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - May 17, 2003 - 12:00am
One of the icons of Filipino pop culture is the country’s "most noble and ever loyal" transport vehicle – the jeepney. It is celebrated in song (as in Hotdog’s Manila which makes mention of "mga jeepney na nagliliparan"), in art (Manansala, Malang and more) and cinema (Ang jeep ni you-know-who). Tourist brochures and popular histories tell the standard tale of the evolution of the jeepney – from Yankee battle-worn workhorse to Noy-pi civilian transport of the masses. That the jeepney was "invented" is solid proof, so almost everyone says, of the Filipinos’ ingenuity and creativity. But is this "invention" truly worth the adulation? Does the "King of the Road" rule or is it just a pretender to the throne?

The jeepney, the romantic story goes, was born immediately after the Liberation when thousands of surplus Willy’s GPs or general-purpose army vehicles (hence the nickname "jeep") were converted to passenger mini-buses to move city folk around. Manila’s efficient tranvia system, which served magnificently in "peace-time" was a casualty of combat. The trains were destroyed and metal from these and the rails were salvaged for scrap. A nice story, but not quite accurate.

First, GP does not stand for "general purpose" and although Willy’s was the original manufacturer, Ford also made the vehicles and used the designation GP. The original jeep was born in 1941, a marvel of engineering by Willy’s chief engineer Barney Roos. The US Army wanted to make sure that there was another manufacturer (using the same design) just in case of sabotage. Ford was selected and they designated the vehicle GP – G to stand for government and P representing the 80-inch wheelbase dimension of the vehicle. A little complicated, but hey, that’s what jeep scholars say.

Secondly, although the tranvias were wrecked, much of the infrastructure for the electric tram system was repairable. Indeed, the franchise was still viable and sold by the Manila Electric Rail and Light Company (Meralco, run then by an American concern) to a local company. Apparently, a US bus manufacturer got quickly into the act and convinced the company to shift the transport system to buses. The more efficient rail system had to wait another 30 years for the LRT.

This left the field wide open and, although buses eventually came in, it was the converted jeeps or jeepneys, as they were eventually tagged, that quickly cornered the market for Manilans on the move. The story seems plausible but, again, it is not so accurate.

Jeepney is the combination of the word jeep and jitney. Jitneys are basically taxis that took passengers for short one-fare rides. Their history goes even further back than World War II. In 1914, an enterprising fellow in Los Angeles, by the name of L.P. Draper, took his model T-Ford and started ferrying passengers for 5 cents per head. The slang for that denomination of coin (also known as a nickel) was "jitney." The name and the system stuck as jitney services sprung around the United States faster than a speeding Model-T. On a related note, The Hotdog wasn’t the first to sing praises for the service. Popular stateside tunes in the 1920s included the bouncy Jitney Jim and that former top 10 hit – I Didn’t Raise My Ford to Become a Jitney.

The American jitney’s life was cut short first by the electric tram (tranvias) operators and then by the bus operators. These larger and stronger groups lobbied to choke jitney service operators with taxes and excessive regulations for safety and operating hours. (This sounds familiar.)

The jitney service died down in the States but not before they were imported to Manila. There is no direct evidence to prove this, but by the late Twenties, jitney-like services had sprung up in Manila to service increasing traffic, which the tranvias were already having difficulty servicing. Enterprising Filipinos took a local passenger cab from a horse-drawn vehicle and married it to an automobile. It was called the auto-calesa (although it was more like a Visayan tartanilla, says author Emmanuel Torres).

The vehicle was also known as the auto-cab or the midget motor cab. It did battle with the tranvia and the then still ubiquitous calesa. The look and feel of the vehicle was unmistakably the template for the post-war jeepney. It was just a matter of the available base vehicle that set the pre-war auto-calesas from the jeepneys that we grew up with after the war.

If availability was the key, then the Ford GPW and the Willy’s MA (and a third manufacturer Bantam’s BRC) fit the bill after liberation. The Americans had a few hundred thousand of these versatile and hardy vehicles. After the hostilities, the US armed forces were hard pressed to get rid of them. A good number were just pushed off aircraft carriers into the sea. Then we asked for aid. We got little of the promised hard currency but got a lot of secondhand jeeps. (Don’t we ever learn?)

The conversion of these jeeps was almost immediate and the memory of the auto-calesas persisted enough to make the transition complete. The original roofs changed eventually from canvas to metal, and from flat to curved at the edges to shed off rainwater. The rear spare tire was moved to the side so people could get in like in the tartanilla. Eventually, all these alterations became institutionalized in a cottage industry that saw the likes of Sarao becoming household names. The jeepney driver and his trusty steed (hence the chrome horses on the hood) developed a recognizable folk persona immortalized in the 1950s Gorio and his Jeepney. (To be continued next week)
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