Ross Cupples has been chasing down Golf Harlequin vehicles for decades. Ever since the Volkswagen enthusiast first spotted the color-blocked hatchback in 1996, he has made it his mission to own a complete set of the limited-run car in all four base colors.
“I think a lot of people who are into them really like the head-turning aspect of them. It takes a certain kind of person to own one,” says Cupples, a used-car dealer in Belmont, N.H. “When you drive a Harlequin, nobody doesn’t look at you and smile. You’re driving something that makes people really happy.”
If you have ever wondered what it would be like to drive in a car that looks like a funky patchwork quilt, look no further than the Golf Harlequin. The elusive car is one of the silliest, strangest, smile-inducing cars in the history of Volkswagen.
The idea for the Harlequin drew inspiration from a 1964 Volkswagen Beetle ad that depicted a multi-colored Beetle, touting its easily interchangeable parts over many model years. To demonstrate the colors available for the European launch of the Volkswagen Polo city car in 1995, Volkswagen created a model with multiple paint colors for an auto-show display, dubbed “Harlekin.”
Originally slotted for a small production run, the colorful hatch created enough demand on its own that around 3,100 units were ultimately built. Due to the buzz it generated in Europe, Volkswagen decided to manufacture a limited batch of Harlequin-inspired Golf vehicles for the North American market in 1996.
The Golf featured one single base color with four swapped multi-color body panels that always appeared in a specific order – a car with a certain base color always had a certain-colored front passenger door and hood. The series had four base colors: Pistachio Green, Ginster Yellow, Tornado Red and Chagall Blue. The green and blue shades were never available as a single-color Golf paint options in North America.
While popular, the Harlequin production process was highly labor intensive. The doors, hatches, hoods and fenders had to be bolted in manually from other Golf models. Fans could identify the car’s original color by looking at one of three elements – the roof, C-pillar and rocker panel – which were formed of a single welded piece and thus impossible to switch out. The grey, speckled, “Joker” interior, which featured the car’s four body colors, was also exclusive to the car.
Demand from dealerships was small but intense, and Volkswagen decided to produce an additional run of Golf Harlequin vehicles, bringing the grand total to about 264. The big, bold blocks of color have prompted a large subset of Harlequin-inspired DIY paint jobs and treatments on other Volkswagen models. The Harlequin Registry, an online account managed by Cupples, has 118 original Golf Harlequin vehicles accounted for as of 2015.
Cupples’ first find – a manual, green-based Harlequin – was in 1997. “I drove the car throughout high school and college,” says Cupples. “I met my wife with that car! She worked for the UNH [the University of New Hampshire] parking services … and remembers, before we even met, seeing my multicolored car in the lot.”
Since then, he has achieved his goal and acquired four additional Harlequin vehicles, thanks to relentless online sleuthing. He has begun to slowly offload them, selling them to other devoted Harlequin fans and admirers.
With manual transmission, an original Harlequin would have been priced around $13,000. The 23-year-old car in mint condition still fetches over $10,000 – far more than a monochrome Golf of the same era. Cupples thinks it’s because the weird and wonderful car appeals to young and old alike.
“There are 70-to-80-year-olds on the registry, and 20-year-olds, who are younger than the Harlequin vehicles themselves and are excited these cars are returning to the market,” he says. “They are definitely multi-generational.”