Rare Vehicle Sighting: 1996 Volkswagen Golf Harlequin
By Chris Haak
During my college years, I remember passing the local Volkswagen dealer and seeing a very odd-looking four-door Golf on the lot for sale. It didn’t have any kind of special wheels, special performance features, or special colors. The thing was, it had multiple colors – the unibody (including the roof and thick C-pillar) is one color. The front doors are another color, the rear doors are a third color, and the bumpers, rear hatch, and hood each have different colors than the body panels adjacent to them. It sounds weird-looking, and it kind of is. The cars look like a bad custom job, or a low-budget collision repair that didn’t allow money for repainting body panels from the donor car. However, I eventually learned that the special Golf I had seen back in the mid-1990s was a Volkswagen Golf Harlequin.
I hadn’t seen a Harlequin in the metal in over a dozen years, but when I spotted one this week on US Rt. 1 in Kennett Square, PA, I knew right away what I was looking at (though I had forgotten the name, of course), and the car’s appearance made me smile. You see, the only thing to make the Golf Harlequin look more like a clown car would have been to remove the car’s seats and allow 20-some clowns to step out of the car at a red light. That’s kind of the idea behind the Golf Harlequin anyway – after all, a harlequin is defined as a “comic character.” I can think of a few comic characters – but clowns and medieval court jesters are the first two that come to mind. Incidentally, please forgive the poor quality of the camera phone photo below; you can see the car, but you can clearly see why I’m a writer and not a spy photographer.
There isn’t a ton of information on the Golf Harlequin available online, but I learned that there were only 264 of them built, all in the 1996 model year. The cars are not repainted and individual body panels were not taped and painted separately at the factory. Instead, the production process worked normally, but the body panels were swapped before installation on a car. There are four colors – Chagall Blue, Pistachio Green, Tornado Red, and Winflower Yellow. The cars are registered and titled based on the color on the rocker panels, C-pillar, and roof. (Thinking about just what color the Golf Harlequin is reminds me of the Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant). Body panels are installed so that there is symmetry to the color scheme; that is, if one front door is yellow, the other one will be too. Although a magazine advertisement for the Golf Harlequin from 1996 indicated that it was extremely unlikely you’d see two identically-configured cars, some photos I found seem to indicate otherwise.
While the appearance of the Golf Harlequin is somewhat familiar to me, I also learned tonight that Volkswagen also sold a Polo Harlequin in Europe, also in 1996 (shown below). Additionally, it appears that VW has sold Beetle Harlequins in Central and South America from time to time. The photo below appears to be of a 1996 Beetle from Mexico (the Germans must have been feeling festive in 1996), and it has the exact same paint scheme as the Golf Harlequin and Polo Harlequin did.
All 1996 Golf Harlequins featured 2.0 liter, 8-valve four cylinder engines. They were available with either a manual or automatic transmission.
While I enjoyed being the center of attention when driving a Hemi Orange 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 last summer, I think the goofy paint scheme of the Golf Harlequin would be just a little too attention-grabbing for my taste. That being said, I feel somewhat privileged to have seen such a rare car twice in the past week; with an original production run of just 246 examples, the Golf Harlequin is more rare than the 414 Rolls-Royces sold in the US in 2008. Still, it’s not as rare as the 119 Maybachs that found new homes in the US last year – and I used to occasionally see a Maybach tooling around the area near my office. Perhaps with such a rare car sighting, I should have played the lottery this week. Nah.
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