By on March 13, 2013

 

A discussion about Volkswagen’s strangest ideas would be a long and potentially heated one. Not selling the latest Scirocco here, for example, but offering the Touareg V10 TDI. Producing the Phaeton W12 at all. Creating new sales volume goals by multiplying previous ones together. But to me, one bizarre Volkswagen creation stands tall above the rest: the 1996 Golf Harlequin Edition.

What was it?

At its core, the Golf Harlequin was, quite simply, a multi-colored Volkswagen Golf manufactured only for the 1996 model year. But, like most things in the car world – and everything in the Volkswagen world – there’s a lot more to it than that.

 

We begin, as usual, with some history. I believe the Golf Harlequin’s heritage can be traced back to this 1960s Beetle ad, which shows a multi-colored Beetle and touts one of its principal flaws (unchanging design) as a feature (interchangeable parts). Years later, Land Rover would employ the “flaw is a feature” strategy to explain virtually every problem on the Series I Discovery (“of course the rear wiper only works when the dome light is on… that’s how they want it on safari!”).

At some point during the early 1990s, a Volkswagen executive in Germany must’ve seen this ad and said “This is a great idea!” Presumably, he said this only to himself, as anyone listening would’ve surely tried to halt further development. The exception, of course, is if the idea man was actually Ferdinand Piech, who probably would’ve received an enthusiastic response from his staff even if he had proposed including a dead rat in each car.

The initial result was a “Harlequin” version of the 1995 Volkswagen Polo, a slightly smaller Volkswagen hatchback that wasn’t offered in North America. Originally intended for a production run of 1,000, the car’s immense popularity eventually convinced Volkswagen to build more than 3,800 units. However, likely to the great detriment of late adopters, only the first thousand got an individually-numbered keychain.

 

To this day, you still see the occasional Polo Harlequin brightening German roads, which otherwise mostly contain BMW 118d hatchbacks riding on hubcap-devoid steel wheels.

Following Up the Polo

Because of the surprising popularity of the Polo Harlequin, Volkswagen’s crack executive team had another idea. No, it wasn’t something drastic, like developing a car whose brake lights worked for more than eight weeks at a time. Instead, they decided to create a Harlequin for the Americans. And so, for the 1996 model year, a total of 264 Golf GL five-doors left Volkswagen’s factory in Puebla, Mexico, a little crazier than the rest.

 

Here’s how it worked. Each Golf Harlequin went down the production line finished in one of four colors: Chagall Blue, Ginster Yellow, Pistachio Green or Tornado Red. The color swap occurred only once each car was completely assembled. In other words, every bolt-on exterior panel was switched to a different car. This suited the Puebla factory workers, who were probably no stranger to swapping around body panels on finished vehicles.

In theory, Volkswagen made 66 vehicles in each “base color,” which can be identified from the fixed parts: the C-pillars, the roof and the rocker panels. Of course, no one can verify this number to be true, since – being mid-90s Volkswagens – about half succumbed to massive engine failure around the time the Drudge Report was breaking a story about a chubby White House intern with bangs. Those that survived are documented on a rather thorough registry located here.

There are a few other interesting trivia nuggets about the Harlequin’s paint process. One is that the arrangement of the panels was, in true German fashion, completely not random. On the contrary, there was a rather complicated color chart shown below (and lifted from Wikipedia), which detailed precisely which panel was to go on which car, so that no color ever bordered itself.

The Harlequin’s other paint-related fun fact is that two of the colors – Chagall Blue and Pistachio Green – were Euro-only hues that weren’t offered on any other US Golf models. As if having a multi-colored car wasn’t special enough.

Selling the Harlequin

This was, of course, the hard part. Nearly all Volkswagen dealers got between zero and two Harlequins, with the dealers getting two immensely jealous of the dealers who got zero. In many cases, Harlequins were purchased – likely with an immense discount, or in 1998 – by local businesses looking to stand out. Many more went to suburb-dwelling piano teachers who wanted to try something kooky.

But while other dealers struggled to sell just one or two, one dealer got far more. That store was Jim Ellis Volkswagen in Atlanta, Georgia, which – in the days before Gunther – was among the largest Volkswagen dealers in the US. The reason Jim Ellis got so many Harlequin Golfs is still unclear, though I find it more than slightly coincidental that a second Jim Ellis Volkswagen point in nearby Marietta, Georgia, was established just a few months earlier. A manufacturer using an under-the-table quid-pro-quo to move unwanted inventory? In the car business? Never!

 

Either way, one thing about the Jim Ellis Harlequins is very clear: they saw some use during the 1996 Olympic Games, which were held in Atlanta and disrupted by a bomb that went off in the city’s Centennial Olympic Park. The bomber then drove to his local Blockbuster, rented a movie, and hid out in the forest for nearly a decade. This actually happened. But still, the Harlequins were probably the craziest thing in Atlanta that year.

The Harlequins were so crazy, in fact, that even their participation in the Olympics couldn’t help Jim Ellis sell them all. According to a friend who works at the dealer, the last few Harlequins went to the Jim Ellis body shop, where the panels were swapped back to recreate single-color cars. While this story almost sounds too good to be true, it’s partially verified in the aforementioned Harlequin registry, which notes at least two solid-color cars – one of which is finished in the Harlequin-only Pistachio Green.

The Harlequin Today

The Harlequin Registry is currently tracking around 107 cars, which accounts for less than half of the production run. Some of the entries haven’t been updated since 2006 or 2007. But that’s still pretty impressive, when you consider this isn’t exactly the Porsche 356 Registry and the Harlequin is no Porsche 356. For a 17-year-old car based on the Golf GL, it’s stunning they’ve found 107.

 

On the used market, Harlequins only pop up occasionally. When they do surface, they tend to pull a slight premium over their blander contemporaries, proving that maybe – just maybe – this wasn’t such a strange idea after all.

Doug DeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, roadtripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute laptime on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.

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46 Comments on “Volkswagen Golf Harlequin: VW’s Strangest Idea?...”


  • avatar
    mikedt

    I think it was a great idea in that it probably cost them almost nothing incremental over the “normal” Golf to produce- all those colored parts already existed. And sure, they didn’t sell a lot of them, but it probably created quite a buzz around release time and for Golf lovers it was a cheap thank you.

    • 0 avatar
      Thinkin...

      Absolutely. I certainly remember one in a neighboring town, and many times it would lead to discussions when I drove or walked past it. The whole “any press is good press” thing – the car was generating interest in VWs as quirky, individualistic cars. (Even though that would probably be more appropriately applied to Saabs at the time.) I never particularly wanted one, but the owner sure did get a lot of smiles.

      Funny enough, years later I saw a Jetta that was colored identically. Based on this article, it sounds like the Jetta was never offered in this trim – I wonder if the owner totalled an old Gold Harlequin and then had the replacement painted accordingly?

  • avatar
    gearhead77

    The Germans and their by the book wackiness! I have never seen one of these and probably never will, but at least if I do, I know it’s supposed to be like that. This sounds like a job for Murilee, find a harlequin edition in the junkyard that isn’t just a patchwork of different Golfs.

  • avatar
    forraymond

    The weirdest decision by VW is the attempt at world domination. It didn’t work for Hitler and will not work for VW.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Given that VW is already in the top three automakers in the world, I would say their domination is pretty much complete. The US market is not the center of the automotive universe anymore.

      Harlequins were quite popular here in Maine, still see a couple around. Our local dealer got a lot more than two, they had a whole line of them when they first came out. There were Harlequin Vanagons too. People down South just have no sense of humor evidently.

  • avatar
    ott

    It looks a lot better on the Beetle.

  • avatar
    yvrjonesey

    Just saw one of these while driving to Point Roberts yesterday. Saw one in downtown Vancouver a few months ago. I always thought that more were made, as I saw alot of them on Toronto roads in the late 90’s.
    Maybe I just keep seeing the same one!!

  • avatar
    k9H20

    I remember one of these rolling around town in the late ’90s. It was a curiosity at the time. Not something I wanted then (or now) but its fun and I’m glad they made it. I don’t see them doing anything like that now, they seem to be taking themselves pretty seriously.

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    If VW’s goal was to produce an extremely ugly and extremely unreliable piece of junk, they succeeded.

  • avatar
    Synchromesh

    I remember seeing one in Somerville, MA circa 2000. At that point I thought that it’s normal for that place as it borders Cambridge which is a well known place of residence for weirdos and artsy wackjobs. Only later did I found out that it was a factory car.

  • avatar
    jecht

    Lots of good stories on rosswvw. One of them was about people who saw one in South Dakota, and then a few days later, saw the same one in North Dakota.

    I knew a man named Craig who had the Harlequin. His ’84 Bus/Vanagon is in the last photo and I was introduced to them in ’00 when he bought his ’96 Harlequin used. Most were automatics, but his was a 5-speed with Momo wheels.

  • avatar
    Ian

    I was stuck in traffic next to one of these in Tacoma about 4 years ago. Pretty interesting. I would never own one, but as was said above, glad something so weird was made!

  • avatar
    ronhawk62

    I worked across the street from Jim Ellis VW, at the Lincoln- Mecury store, when these cars were new. It looked like they had fifty of those things parked in their storage lot. It was suprising that VW made so few when I had the misfortune of having to see so many.

    • 0 avatar
      conswirloo

      I actually cross shopped them at Jim Ellis back in the day, but they were a hair out of my price range, so I wound up buying a purple saturn from across the street. Worked with a guy that had one for years, and loved it, but he replaced it with a 540i.

  • avatar
    raph

    There used to be a few around my AO, must’ve succumbed to that reliability factor which I suppose is a better fate than the 1st gen M3 I watched degenerate as it switched owners from pristine to a clapped out primered mess of a car sporting those god awful hammer wheels with the inverted spoke that thickened as it approached the barrel on the rim.

  • avatar
    econobiker

    It seems that the Volkswagen Golf Harlequin was about 10 years too late to the “Memphis” design and color ethic…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memphis_Group

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Memphis-Milano_Movement.jpg

  • avatar
    jerseydevil

    Was in Vencice Italy for Carnevale in 1996, this car was all over he place as a sponsor. It played nicely with the Harlequin mask, the official mask of the festival. I sill have Carnevale posters with the VW on it. Dont know if it was because of this, but the next year, i bought a Golf in tornado red. Still got it.

  • avatar
    EquipmentJunkie

    When I bought my ’97 Jetta TDI, my VW dealer had a Harlequin as a service loaner (probably because they couldn’t sell it). I drove this colorful Golf once while the TDI was getting routine service completed. I don’t know if I ever drove anything that garnered more attention!

  • avatar
    Pinzgauer

    Ok this is definetely uglier than the Juke.

  • avatar
    fredtal

    I have only seen one of these, but a couple of old Beetles done like this. I thought it was something the individual did, not the factory.

  • avatar
    cargogh

    There were two of these in Louisville a few years ago.

  • avatar

    This was great! Living in Germany, I have seen more than a few of the Harlequin Polos and I was always puzzled by them. Thanks for the background and the wonderful account of how the Germans “engineered” the colour changes on the Golf.

  • avatar
    Willyam

    Love this article, thank you! Having subscribed to the print rags since I was a car-crazed kid, what we all missed were the stories behind actual cars, that were in plain sight, yet almost too weird to be true. Yeah, Ferrari’s and Lambo’s are fascinating, but I love how something so incredibly strange ever made it to production, and that there are those who care enough to track them all down.

  • avatar
    BecauseBowTie

    This is probably the best Harlequin Golf out there: http://www.vwvortex.com/artman/publish/article_1291.shtml because VR6.

  • avatar
    GTX141

    My LeMons team very successfully ran the HarleQuantum for a few years

    http://jalopnik.com/5520010/and-the-real-winner-is

    http://jalopnik.com/5519820/miracle-in-michigan-vw-quantrum-syncro-contending-at-american-irony-lemons

  • avatar
    Nico

    It wasn’t just the Polo and the Golf. There was a multi colored version of the south american Gol, called the Gol Top. At least in Argentina. Marcelo can probably tell if it made it to Brazil too.

    http://www.cosasdeautos.com.ar/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/vw-gol-top.jpg

  • avatar
    zeus01

    Never driven one (or even wanted to for that matter), but it musta felt like driving a Rubiks cube.

  • avatar
    Piston Slap Yo Momma

    Don’t ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER accidentally Google the other Harlequin (Ichthyosis). Next time I’ll make sure I specify the marquee.

  • avatar
    cgjeep

    I see one of these in the Maryland suburbs of the DC area. I always thought it was someone just trying to get attention. I mean I guess it still is but now I know it was a factory effort.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    This guy owned an E63 wag??? Legitimacy confirmed!!!

    No but seriously I like the Harlequinns. Shame nobody else did.

  • avatar
    bills79jeep

    I’ve seen one rolling around Columbus, I can only imagine it’s Baruth’s.

    I used to drive by a house on my way to high school that was making their own Harlequin Ford Escort, one wrecked/rusted out body panel at a time. I’m sure their neighbors appreciated getting to see the donor cars sit in the side yard.

  • avatar
    niky

    Cool things. And trust VW to overcomplicate the simple process of painting every panel a different color. Mad genius.

  • avatar
    baggins

    Fun story.

    I have lived in the SF Bay area during the period since 1996 and have never seen one that I can recall. Perhaps i did and thought it was just someone being “different”

    Good to know the real story

  • avatar
    tim850csi

    Great story. I actually never knew that the Harlequin was sold in the United States. My only knowledge of them existing comes from the summer I spent in Germany (Wolfsburg and Berlin respectively) in 1998. It was crazy then and it’s crazy now. Still though, seeing the first Harlequin bombing down the Autobahn is something I won’t forget.

    More interesting to me was the special editions that were NEVER sold here, like the European Tour cars (Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Bon Jovi, etc).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:VWGolfPinkFloydCloseup.jpg

    T

  • avatar
    John

    I sat in one of these harlequins at the dealer, back in 1996. I thought the car was super cool, as it had model specific interior fabric in addition to the paint scheme. No I wouldn’t want to be seen in such a car on a daily basis but the whole thing came off as creative and whimsical.

    As a long time owner of a VW from that era, I can tell you that the Golf and Jetta 3’s (mkIII) from 1993-98 are very reliable cars. The comments about these being junk are not accurate.

  • avatar

    What a great story! We (Jim Ellis VW Atlanta) have three guys here now that were here then. Turns out that Mr. Ellis was in Germany at the Motor Show when these cars rolled out. He planned on using them as loaner cars during the Atlanta Olympics. After selling all but a dozen or so, the now-GM, Rodney Woods, had the idea to revert the remaining units back to solid colors. Our last two were sold by Phil Coleman (still here) to a leasing company. Maybe the most memorable sale was one of these to some folks with two Great Danes.

    I hear a rumor that the Harlequin was the result of an auto show not having enough room to show all of the colorways. Anyone know about that?

    As for the Marietta store- no under-the-table dealings for taking delivery of these er, unique cars. We actually purchased that franchise.

    • 0 avatar

      Great comment! Thanks for some more background info. I heard the same rumor about the origination of the Harlequin idea, but couldn’t substantiate it, so I didn’t include it in the story.

      Tell Phil hello for me!

  • avatar
    Marko

    A VW dealer in my area (Scott, East Providence, RI) used to have at least one of these as a loaner. Last time I saw it was 2006 or 2007.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    Seems like the owner of one of these would have an unconventional color on their old/historical neighborhood house, with sculptures in the back yard, and lots of doo-dads in the front. Golf parked proudly in the driveway.

    And their neighbors hate them for it.

  • avatar
    rpn453

    It seemed about perfect as a “Fuddrucker’s Fun Center” car. I didn’t know it came from the factory like that.


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