The visit of Pope Francis was certainly a memorable one. Not only did millions of Filipinos have the opportunity to experience his charisma first-hand, they also got the chance to see how the iconic jeepney can turn into one of the most interesting Popemobiles to date.

Painted in white and bearing the insignia of the Vatican, this Popemobile was different from the one that shuttled Pope John Paul II around the Philippines back in 1995. The vehicle back then was designed to protect its occupant by enclosing him in bullet-proof glass, metal armor, and run-flat tires. And while it got the job done, it limited the Pope John Paul's exposure to people.

The 2015 Popemobile

One of three vehicles used by Pope Francis during his January 2015 visit was very different from existing ones. Shaped with the lines of the iconic Philippine jeepney, the only glass for the passenger area was in front. And the only thing it was designed to shield the Pope from was the drenching rain and buffeting winds as it plied its route.

Being open at the sides and rear of the vehicle meant that Pope Francis could interact with many of the Filipinos who came out to greet him. Not disappointing them, he took many opportunities to bless children and wave to the adults along the routes he traveled.

Another thing that differentiated this from other vehicles in the past is that more than one person could ride. So people like Cardinal Tagle were able to accompany the Pope as he traveled around Metro Manila.

I never got the chance to get a good look at the Popemobile during that historical visit as I was more focused on its passenger. However, that didn't mean it went unnoticed. Hoping to see it again one day, I jumped at the chance when it was put on display at a chapel near us.

Public Jeepneys

For those not familiar with public jeepneys, they are one of the most common forms of transportation in the Philippines. Being a descendant of the American Jeep during World War Two, they still retain much of the shape; only they are longer.

Most modern jeepneys will be painted in festive colors designed to attract attention. One of the most interesting things that jeepneys have will be the painted artwork on the sides. Apart from showing off the artist’s skill it is also a way of expressing the driver’s individuality.

The front grill will most likely be made of the same metal and color as the rest of the body because this tends to be easier to maintain. However, that doesn't mean that there aren't versions with grills, they're just a little less common with newer jeepneys today.

These vehicles sit on high sidewall tires and have and rest on simple suspension systems that provide even higher ground clearance. This comes in handy when a jeepney has to brave the floods or pot holes in the city. It is also a big help for going through rough roads in the countryside.

All jeepneys are divided in to two compartments. The front one has a bench facing forward and is wide enough for the driver and two other passengers.

The second compartment is directly behind the driver and is composed of two benches facing the center of the jeepney. The seating capacity can vary from seven per bench to as much as ten.

[Twelve, if you were to squeeze more people in.]

Since the roofline is consistently low, passenger need to bend at the waist when getting in and out of the jeepney.

The sides, which are at the back of passengers, are open to allow air to freely flow in and out. In times of rain, a translucent plastic sheet connected to the roof is unfurled over the openings.

Speaking about openings, there is not rear door to enable passengers to get on and off easily. Unlike the windows, there I no cover lowered here when it rains so passengers seated here are sometimes treated to a fine spray of water when stopped in traffic.

Apart from colors, each jeepney will be adorned from front to back, including the inside. On the outside, the hood can have ornaments such as winged horses. Others hoods may have one to as much as five rather long air horns that blow a tune or canned laughter.

Internally, some of the more interesting things I have come across include ceiling mirrors, a disco ball, knitted curtains, dancing LEDs, and even black lights.

[Just about anything can be used to decorate a jeepney.]

Private Jeepneys

Unlike the stretched versions of public jeepneys, private ones retain the overall dimensions and seating arrangement of the old World War Two jeeps. But instead of being colorful, they are usually clad in stainless steel from the front to the back.

They will have two seats up front; one for the driver and the other for a single passenger. However, the rear seats can vary from one vehicle to another. One can have a pair of forward-facing seats; another can have a pair of short center-facing benches, while some may not have any seats at all.

In most cases, private jeepneys will be running on regular profile tires and will sit low to the ground. Just because they are low doesn’t mean they aren’t driven hard, though. Thanks to a tough chassis and a rust-resistant body, many private jeepneys can be seen taking paths car owners avoid.

It is this combination of ruggedness and flexibility that continues to make the private jeepney popular, especially in the provinces.

And just like cars, some of these private jeepneys will have air conditioning and even a good sound system.

Jeepney-inspired Popemobile

One of the vehicles used by Pope Francis for his January 2015 visit to the Philippines takes many of the design cues from the public and private jeepney.

The first thing one notices when approaching the Popemobile is that iconic curved hood held down by spring T-clips on each side. And while the front looks like the many public jeepneys plying Metropolitan Manila's streets, it is differentiated by the high roof of the passenger compartment and its pure white paint.

The high passenger roof allowed Pope Francis to stand as the vehicle moved about. To keep the wind from buffeting him, as well as minimize the rain drenching him, a vertical windshield was installed.

Similar to a private jeepney, the rear of the Popemobile has front-facing seats. Only this one has two rows behind the driver instead of just one. The first one was where Pope Francis sat, while the second row was occupied by people like the Pontiff’s Aide and Cardinal Tagle.

Foot and handholds were strategically located at the outer sides of the passenger area to enable the Swiss Guards to be close to the Pontiff. Apart from providing security, his guards had a high vantage point from which to spot babies and children that were brought to Pope Francis for blessings.

[Quite a number of babies and children were selected from the sea of Filipinos.]

Included in the display were life-sized pictures of Pope Francis. And judging from the turnout of people taking pictures, it appeared to be a rather popular attraction.

[Perhaps it is because the Popemobile will be sent to Rome as a gift to the Vatican.]

Final Thoughts

Seeing jeepneys plying Metro Manila's streets everyday sometimes means that I take it for granted. But I must admit, seeing those iconic lines interpreted into the Popemobile put it in a whole new light.

Compared to other Popemobile s I have seen in the past, this one was eye-catching for all the right reasons. And seeing it up close did not diminish its appearance at all. On the contrary, being able to examine its details, something which television cameras did not capture, only serve to enhance the beauty of this Jeepney-inspired Popemobile.

Interestingly, we might not have seen the Popemobile in this form at all. While it may not surprise many to learn that Pope Francis refused to ride in a bullet-proof version so he could interact with the people, the first design was actually rejected.

I understand that it already had the shape of a jeepney, but like many found plying the streets, the first proposal was filled with adornments. Being a simple man himself, Pope Frances wanted something equally simple.

So ECTK, the manufacturer of this and past Popemobiles, came up with a simplified one. And while it is certainly tame, when compared to what we see on the road, it is nothing less than an elegant work of art. Proudly Filipino made for the People’s Pope.

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