Home » Forget VW’s Bad April Fools’ Jokes, Because You Can Own A Real Rare Rolling Circus Of A Car

Forget VW’s Bad April Fools’ Jokes, Because You Can Own A Real Rare Rolling Circus Of A Car

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I don’t know what it is with brands and April Fools’ Day lately. April 1st is supposed to be a silly day, one where you present ideas that are either clearly jokes or so absurd they come back to being plausible again. Some brands don’t get that, and tease their fans with genuinely awesome things without a tinge of humor. Volkswagen has done that twice already, most recently by teasing an awesome Harlequin car, and then failing to deliver a car or a good punchline. But fear not, dear reader, because if you want a goofy clown car, you can still buy one! This 1996 Volkswagen Golf Harlequin is an outrageously rare example of when Volkswagen was innovative and fun, and it’s for sale right now.

A Volkswagen Golf normally isn’t a remarkable car, but here’s one you’ll want. Volkswagen built just 264 Volkswagen Golf Harlequins for America and these multi-colored masterpieces somewhat rarely show up for sale. Perhaps weirder than a car painted in four colors is why Volkswagen did it and how the cars were produced.

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Most people would avoid a car with so many colors that it would cause an American Homeowners Association to go into DEFCON 1. However, when was the last time you saw a car this bold from the factory? In a world where most cars are grayscale, a Harlequin is a burst of needed color.

Created Almost By Accident

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The story of how these cars were created is fascinating from its inspiration to production. We should start at the beginning, where you’ll learn that these cars weren’t even originally intended for production.

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Depending on who you ask, there are two origin stories for the Polo Harlekin, the later Golf Harlequin, and the super rare Beetle Harlequin. As a note, “Harlequin” is spelled with a “k” in Germany, hence the model name differences in the previous sentence. Either way, the name refers to the comic performers of the past, who often dressed in colorful garb.

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It started with the third generation of the Volkswagen Polo supermini, which was entering production in 1994. One of the advancements brought on by the Polo was Volkswagen’s Baukastensystem, a modular system that cut the Polo into four categories. Customers configured their Polos through a color-coded system to select the desired drivetrain, interior, special equipment, and paint color. The green block symbolized paint color while blue was for the engine and chassis, yellow for the interior, and red for options.

Where retrospectives on the Polo Harlekin divert is how Volkswagen came up with the color coding.

A story sometimes reported is that Volkswagen was inspired by a 1964 Len Sirowitz-designed advertisement for the Beetle. That advertisement proudly showed off the fact that you could fit several parts from different model years onto your Beetle. This was illustrated with a Beetle wearing a blue hood, a green fender, a beige fender, a red roof, and a turquoise door.

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It seems plausible that Volkswagen got the Polo Harlekin’s color coding from that vintage ad.

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However, as the Polo Harlekin Registry and Car and Driver note, the Harlekins and Harlequins were creations of their own. The Polo Harlekin Registry notes that the four colors very likely originated from within VW. Reportedly, 10 multi-colored Polos were created in 1994 and 10 more were built in 1995. These cars were built to advertise the Baukastensystem in brochures and were rolled into dealers for the Polo MkIII’s launch.

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Customers loved these cars–which were painted in Chagall Blue, Flash Red, Ginster Yellow, and Pistachio Green–enough to begin asking where they could buy one. The car was also shown at the Frankfurt Auto Show, where more people fell in love. The strong public response convinced Volkswagen to produce a run of 1,000 Volkswagen Polo Harlekins. Then, demand was still high enough that VW produced a second run of 2,806 units.

Production Polo Harlekins looked largely similar to the early cars with some small changes. Volkswagen also didn’t limit the circus to the exterior, either, as the Polos got “Joker” plaid interior fabrics, a Harlekin shift knob, and bold color steering wheels.

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If you really wanted to amplify your Polo Harlekin drive, you had to obtain a set of color-tinted Hella taillights. Have you ever seen cooler ’90s taillights?

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The Harlekin craze in Europe was a big enough deal that McDonald’s decided to celebrate 25 years in Germany by raffling off 500 cars. These were regular production Polo Harlekins from the second run and there’s proof that people did win their colorful Polo Harlekins from Germany’s McDonald’s outfit.

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Given the popularity of the Harlekin in Europe, Volkswagen thought it could spark another craze in North America. Of course, we didn’t have the Polo here, but Volkswagen was able to give us the next best thing by applying the Harlekin treatment to four Golf MkIII show cars displayed in 1995. Once again, Volkswagen got a public reception that was positive enough to justify putting the Golf version of the Harlekin into limited production.

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In 1996 and just for that year, North America got two Harlequins. You’ve probably already heard of the Golf Harlequin before, but Mexico would also get its own Harlequin. The country was still producing the Beetle and a scant 141 Beetle 1600is would get the Harlequin treatment. The only listing I could find for a Beetle Harlequin (below) was for a car imported into Germany from Mexico.

The Golf and Beetle Harlequins would be similar to their Polo counterparts, only the red used here was Tornado Red rather than Flash Red. The cars were also built in the same way, which might not be how you would expect.

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Matthias Zech Automobile

See, every Harlekin and Harlequin was built in a base color. You could identify this base color by looking at the car’s rear quarters, rockers, and roof. If you have hood access, you’ll see the base color in the engine bay, too. These cars started lives in a single color. Then, factory workers in Germany or Mexico (for the North American cars) would physically remove panels and doors and swap them around cars, creating four different color patterns with the four colors.

Sadly, the American Golf Harlequin looked the part on the outside and did get snazzy interior fabrics, but we missed out on the finer details like the colored steering wheels, special shift knobs, and the numbered keychains that ended up in the hands of the first 1,000 Polo Harlekin owners.

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Perhaps even sadder was the fact that Americans just didn’t buy many Golf Harlequins. People were excited at the auto shows, sure, but few actually showed up to the dealer to buy one. Perhaps it was as I said earlier and people knew they couldn’t be seen by their HOA driving a car that looked like it was cobbled together at the local junkyard.

Volkswagen of America had a hard time selling the Golf Harlequin through 1996 and reportedly, the car was dropped before it could even be sold for a full year. Reportedly, Jim Ellis Volkswagen of Atlanta struggled so hard to sell its Golf Harlequins that the dealer reassembled its stock into Golfs of singular colors. Presumably, this means that there are a very small number of single-color Golfs out there sporting the Joker interior.

This 1996 Volkswagen Golf Harlequin

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That brings us to the Golf Harlequin for sale today. It’s up for grabs in a Bring a Trailer auction that ends in a day. Bidding is currently at $15,120, which would normally be far too much money for an Mk3 Golf. However, there are just 264 of these out there, so you’re not looking at any normal Golf.

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If you aren’t a Golf fan, I’ll let Volkswagen explain why you might care about the third-generation Golf:

From August 1991, Volkswagen kick-started a new era of safety with the third generation of the Golf. Firstly, the Mk3 Golf was the product line’s first model available with front airbags from 1992 and secondly, great progress within the context of body design also led to significantly improved crash properties. Volkswagen revolutionised passive safety as this improved protection benefited millions of car drivers around the globe. However, several more product line milestones are linked to the Mk3 Golf: the first six-cylinder engine (VR6), the cruise control system, the first oxidising catalytic converter for diesel engines, the first diesel direct injection engine and the first side airbags. In May 1994, Volkswagen celebrated 15 million produced Golf vehicles. In 1997, the third generation was phased out after 4.83 million produced vehicles.

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Sadly, the Golf Harlequins weren’t that special under the hood. All of them came with a 2.0-liter four making 115 horsepower and 122 lb-ft of torque. Americans should count their lucky stars because the strongest engine offered in the Polo Harlekin pumped out just 75 horses. The other good news is a five-speed manual transaxle, so you could still get some fun engagement behind the wheel.

Reportedly, this example was sold new from Jeff Sikes Volkswagen in Huntsville, Alabama, and went on to live what appears to be an easy life. The car resided in Georgia and Ohio before eventually finding its way into Illinois, where it is now. Along the way, it’s racked up just 79,000 miles. I love that. Clearly, it wasn’t daily driven into the ground, but the Golf Harlequin gets driven.

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Now, this is a mid-1990s Volkswagen we’re talking about here, so don’t expect to be blown away by features. This Golf Harlequin features such luxuries as an alarm, a height-adjustable driver seat, a premium AM/FM/cassette stereo, power locks, and floor mats. Obviously, this is a car you want to buy because you want to own your own rolling circus, not for its performance or luxury. These cars are so rare that the last time I remember seeing one was 12 years ago in Chicago.

Still, the automotive landscape is a sea of gray today and this car, even in its crazy state of four colors, could be more welcome now than ever before. But, leave it to VW to disappoint us again. If you have the kind of cash this car will command, rush over to Bring a Trailer and drop a bid before the auction ends. Let the clown show begin!

(Images: Enthusiast Spec for TheAutobarnStables, VW)

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Myk El
Myk El
2 months ago

I just introduced these to my mother after seeing someone who had a DIY Beetle harlequin at a car show recently. She loves it, but wouldn’t own a VW. Wants it on a different car.

Fred Fedurch
Fred Fedurch
2 months ago

Always wondered what was on their registrations.

Colour: yes?

Mars
Mars
2 months ago
Reply to  Fred Fedurch

As noted right under the Beetle picture, the color reported was the car’s base color, with no mention of the rest of the body panels. To the DMV they were just normal red/yellow/green/blue VWs.

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
2 months ago

It has been more than fifteen years since I last saw a Polo Harlekin loose on the street in Germany. Same with the body-coloured taillamps.

BubbaX
BubbaX
2 months ago

I wanted a VW Harlequin, but ended up with an Oldsmobile Pierrot.

Mars
Mars
2 months ago
Reply to  BubbaX

I was like “Huh. Never heard of those” and googled. And there was nothing. And then it clicked.

Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
2 months ago

I’ve always wanted to see if I could get out of a parking ticket on a technicality with one of these. IIRC they are sometimes dismissed if any info is filled out incorrectly, so color will never be ‘right’. I guess that goes for those color-shifting wraps, too?

Mars
Mars
2 months ago

Scrap that “presumably”, solid-color Harlequins were found and documented by both The Drive and the awesome Harlequin Registry!

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
2 months ago
Reply to  Mars

I wonder if any solid-color Harlequin owners have thought of meeting up and swapping body panels to make them multicolored again?

Mars
Mars
2 months ago
Reply to  Austin Vail

I’ve heard of no such thing, but that would actually, genuinely be the coolest thing ever.
It would be tough, tho.
The Drive article shows a blue one, which its original dealer claims to be the only one ever made (though he may just refer to the ones he made himself and there may be other dealers that did it).
As far as the ones found in the registry (which accounts for almost half of them all), there’s one for red (which the owner was already planning on repainting Harlequin when the info was sent many years ago), and two for yellow and turquoise… though we’re not to know if any of these were panel unswaps (or just nonswaps) or repaints – hell, some could even have been brought back to solid color by owners down the line.
However, if there is anyone out there willing to put the work in to find one for each color that eluded scrapyard, DIY re-harlequining, and stuck up VW bros that consider solid color harlequins worth preserving, feel free to hit me up. I’d be most glad to assist in the Autopian version of Dragon Ball.

Jonus Grumby
Jonus Grumby
2 months ago

I was a tech when these were new. It was an Audi, VW, Porsche dealership. We had a few of these as loaners and a few A6s and an S8 as well. The harlequins went to the dickhead VW owners that didn’t realize that they did not own a finely engineered German automobile. They owned basically a German Ford pinto. It the pinto was built by AMC.

I know people get nostalgic for something they thought was awesome, or something they remember from their youth.

But these things were turds (at least in the US where they only got the base engine). Put a few in a museum and crush the rest

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
2 months ago

I have always found the seats in these neat, and are probably my second favorite behind the checkered GTI seats. I had an acquaintance back in the 90s who had a set of the Harlequin seats in his Corrado. The guy was sort of a tool, but his Corrado was awesome.

Spikedlemon
Spikedlemon
2 months ago
Reply to  Squirrelmaster

The seats remind me of ‘nice’ bus seat fabric.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
2 months ago
Reply to  Spikedlemon

I suppose it does have an “airport shuttle” vibe to it, but I still like it. Then again, I also like climbing into an airport shuttles and transit buses and finding fun fabrics, so my opinion may be slightly suspect.

Hangover Grenade
Hangover Grenade
2 months ago

Like those auto show attendees, I appreciate and love that it exists but also would never, ever, ever own one.

Iain Tunmore
Iain Tunmore
2 months ago

I regularly pass a house with a harlequin T25 (Vanagon) on the drive. I assume it’s aftermarket paint job, but it really suits the boxy looks.

T.B.A.
T.B.A.
2 months ago
Reply to  Iain Tunmore

As a former T25 owner, it makes me happy to hear that this exists.

Iain Tunmore
Iain Tunmore
2 months ago
Reply to  T.B.A.

I’ll try to get a photo next time I’m passing, it looks pretty clean. My ex wife has a very clean powder blue T25 day van. I think they’re cooler than the older buses these days.

T.B.A.
T.B.A.
2 months ago
Reply to  Iain Tunmore

Oh, why thank you, I’d love to see it.

Drew
Drew
2 months ago

A VW dealer local to me had one on the lot just a few years back. I meant to go check it out to see if it was legit and check the condition, but never got around to it. I think I’d actually consider an ID.4 if they made a Harlekin version.

Timbales
Timbales
2 months ago

I’d think if this was an aesthetic you really loved, you could just get a VW and have it wrapped in the same mix of colors.

Then when the novelty wears off, you can go back to the original paint.

N Warmouth
N Warmouth
2 months ago
Reply to  Timbales

My local VW dealer has an ID.4 in a harlequin wrap that is used to shuttle people around while their cars are getting serviced. Always puts a smile on my face.

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
2 months ago
Reply to  Timbales

I’d also think a large enough VW dealership could probably order 5 Golfs and swap the body panels themselves to make their own Harlequins. Now that the Harlequin is old and cool, there’s probably more demand for new ones.

Mars
Mars
2 months ago
Reply to  Austin Vail

Unfortunately, ordering Golfs from the current color range would probably result in a Harlequin more like this

Sklooner
Sklooner
2 months ago

Wife always wanted one but everyone I found was either rusty or trashed or both- thought of painting one up myself but sat down until that idea went away. Talked to an owner and found that the colour it is registered under is the roof

Carbon Fiber Sasquatch
Carbon Fiber Sasquatch
2 months ago

The only thing that disappointed me more than the cruel April Fool’s joke was all of the negative comments form people who had never seen one before.

If I could get a Harlequin Mk8 or Mk7 GTI I’d jump on it, crappy climate controls be damned!

I wonder what kind of money it would take to put a combination of Pomelo Yellow, Atlantic Blue, Kings Red and Reflex Silver panels together on a Mk8 GTI

Last edited 2 months ago by Carbon Fiber Sasquatch
Attila the Hatchback
Attila the Hatchback
2 months ago

I bet you could get a vinyl wrap done in those colors for $2k in a lower cost of living part of the US.

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
2 months ago

Just gotta buy 5 Golfs and swap the body panels around, then sell the ones you don’t want to other VW enthusiasts 😉

Comet_65cali
Comet_65cali
2 months ago

I mean, I’ve always wanted one of these with a 1.8T swap, leaving most of it stock except the wheels.

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
2 months ago

I have seen one in person and I would love one as a grocery getter. I do not even have a HOA to piss off.

DialMforMiata
DialMforMiata
2 months ago

“Chagall Blue” is my new favorite paint color name. Digging the Mondrian-inspired interior fabric as well.

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