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.