Once upon a time, Filipinos used to drive “right-hand-drive” cars

By | 07/05/2016

One interesting detail caught my eye as I browsed through black-and-white photographs of pre-war Manila.

Sitting in the front seat of what appeared to be an early model of Ford automobile is a man. At first look, you’d think it’s just another photograph from a bygone era. A closer inspection, however, reveals why it looks a bit strange: the driver’s seat of that car is on the right side.

Also Read: Rare Color Photos of the Philippines in the 1940s

In the early 20th century, when automobiles were first introduced to the world, no strict rules existed that required anyone to choose either right- or left-side driving. Cars were few and far between, and a lot of roads remain unpaved. Hence, choosing which side to drive was just a matter of custom.

Plaza Moraga in 1935

Plaza Moraga in 1935. Photographer: Clarence Woodrow Sorenses, 1907-1982. © Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.

When the technology reached the Philippines, we didn’t start as a left-hand-drive country right off the bat. In fact, we were the exact opposite: Early automobiles in the country, as seen in various peacetime photographs, initially adopted left-side driving, which means you drive your car to the left side of the road while the driver (or the steering wheel) is on the opposite side of the vehicle.

Frank Carpenter, Hadji Butu and the Sultan of Sulu Kiram II riding an early 20th century automobile

Frank Carpenter, the first civilian and last American Governor of Moro Province (wearing skimmer) in 1914. flanked by Hadji Butu and the Sultan of Sulu Kiram II. Source: morolandhistory.com

WWII changed everything–and that included the way how we drive cars.

The Americans who took part in the war also brought with them motor vehicles that were different from what Filipinos used to drive. These vehicles, which would later become part of war surplus that gave birth to Philippine jeepneys, had its driver’s seat on the left side (for right-side driving). It is said that the Americans first adopted this system after Henry Ford designed and released his Model T.

Three ladies riding an automobile in Intramuros, 1930s

3 ladies enjoying themselves as they are leaving Intramuros through the Santa Lucia Gate, Intramuros, Manila, Philippines, 1930s. Photographer: Clarence Woodrow Sorenses, 1907-1982. © Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.

Apparently, the American vehicles were in conflict with the system that was in place in the Philippines at that time. To facilitate movement of the American troops, uniformity had to be established.

Joseph H. Rauh, Jr. was a first lieutenant who joined General Douglas MacArthur’s army in the Philippines. In an interview with Studs Terkel for the latter’s book “The Good War: An Oral History of World War II,” Rauh recalled the difficulty of changing the status quo (i.e. reorienting people in the Philippines to start driving on the right side of the road). He said:

“I… was on General MacArthur’s staff… I was sort of mayor of Manila… You have no idea of the problems you face. One night we get an order. From now on, everybody will drive on the right side. The Philippines is one of those places where it’s on the left. Try that sometime, brother, to figure out in three days how you’re gonna move people from the left side to the right. Tell that Filipino guy with his carabao to go on the other side of the road. {Laughs)”

Also Read: 10 Facts About World War II That Never Made It To Your Philippine History Books

A permanent change was finally implemented when President Sergio Osmeña signed Executive Order No. 34 on March 10, 1945. The said EO justified the changes made by citing two reasons. It said that the system “would reduce the price of motor vehicles imported into the Philippines from the United States.” The other reason, of course, was to accommodate the motor vehicles of the United States Army that were already plying Manila roads. (You can view the original copy of the EO here).

And that, my friend, is how we became a left-hand-drive country, joining 75% of countries around the world today with the same way of driving.
For more interesting stories, please check out our latest book, “FilipiKnow: Amazing Facts & Figures Every Pinoy Must Know.”

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Joseph L. Rauh, Jr.. American National Biography Online. Retrieved 5 July 2016, from http://goo.gl/1DawO1

Manila Reborn. Google Arts & Culture. Retrieved 5 July 2016, from https://goo.gl/yXO1yw

Stone, D. (2013). The Right (and Left) Stuff: Why Countries Drive on Different Sides of the Road.National Geographic. Retrieved 5 July 2016, from http://goo.gl/qVE7A2

Terkel, S. (2013). The Good War: An Oral History of World War II. The New Press.