Hey, There’s a Cool Car: 1996 Volkswagen Golf Harlequin

The same friend who first introduced me into the thrills of high-school hoonage—in a late 1970s Chevy Monza—recently bought this 1996 Volkswagen Golf Harlequin, and I was lucky enough to get some time behind the wheel. For those who haven’t read the head Savant’s own piece on the car, from 2009, the Golf Harlequin actually came that way right from the factory.

 

Based on what I’ve been able to glean online, Volkswagen built a multicolored show car for the 1996 season, using body panels from separate and differently colored Golfs, then displayed it at “the Los Angeles, Chicago, Montreal, New York and Toronto Auto Shows.” The concept behind this concept—“a harlequin Golf as it were”—was to solve the “minor domestic crisis” that could ensue if he and she preferred different-colored Golfs. That’s all from an ad from the February 1996 issue of the U.K.’s VW Driver Magazine, posted at the RossVW.com Harlequin Registry, where I also discovered that the base price for these beauties was $13,510, with a $150 premium for the “Special Harlequin Multi-Color Paint.” That compares to today’s five-door Golf, now starting at $19,795.

Other matchups between the two Golfs:

  1996 Golf 2012 Golf
Length 160.4 inches 165.4 inches
Width 66.7 inches 70.3 inches
Height 56.2 inches 58.2 inches
Curb Weight 2,577 lbs. 3,102 lbs.
Engine 2.0-liter I4 2.5-liter I5
hp/lb.-ft. of torque 115/122 170/177
Fuel economy 19/26/22* 24/31/26

*Adusted; original EPA ratings: 22/28/24. From FuelEconomy.gov.

Want to compare the 1996 VW to its contemporaries? The 1996 Ford Escort five-door opened at $11,345, and the Toyota Corolla at $12,728. (Specs here, and elsewhere, are from Consumers Guide, Edmunds.com and Cars.com.)

And while not literally unique, they certainly are rare. If Wikipedia is to be believed, Volkswagen built a mere 264 Golf Harlequins and sold all of them in the North American markets, in two separate waves. (The particular one under discussion here is No. 8 of the second run of 200.) Plus, the four colors were used in different patterns, which means the number of Harlequins in each body-panel scheme is even lower than that. It’s tempting to believe there were 66 units in each pattern, but I can’t confirm that’s the case. There’s not much of an online auction history with these cars, either; I found two examples, a recent one from March on eBay that went at $3,650, and, then I found anecdotal evidence of a sale in 2006 for $10,000.

The colors: You’re looking at Ginster Yellow, Tornado Red, Chagall Blue and Pistachio Green, which is considered the “base color” of this one: It’s the color of the donor car, so to speak; the one to which all the other body panels were added.

As you can see, the seats were Harlequin-ized as well, all in the same pattern, and that silver-faced gauge plate also is an upgrade over the regular Golf GL, the model on which the Harlequin is based. The interior dimensions of the latter are very close to those of the modern-day Golf, with all typical measures being within about an inch of each other, and the older model offering more front headroom and rear shoulder-room.  Well, there is one exception, and that’s in the back row. This is where the Harlequin’s somewhat smaller dimensions show up, as it has four fewer inches of rear seat legroom: 31.5 inches vs. the 2012 model’s 35.5 inches.

This particular one rocked VW’s 2.0-liter inline I4, worth about 115 hp and 122 lb.-ft. of torque, along with a four-speed automatic; going by the seat of my pants here, I’d say it could go from 0-60 in … a very strong tailwind. The car feels fairly well planted, too, although I imagine it would be hard to really put that to a test because of its powertrain. The driving experience was a lot like that of the Ford Fiesta, but with much heavier steering and a less confining cabin.

But I suppose performance wasn’t meant to be the Harlequin’s strong suit. What it is good at is attracting attention. I first started taking pictures at the dealership where my friend works, but I encountered competition and I decided to finish up while I was out on my drive. It no doubt helps that the car is in very nice condition, with only 15,226 miles on the odometer and surprisingly few rattles and squeaks for a car that’s 20 years old. The all-original interior has held up very well, and the car, overall, still exhibited the kind of fit and finish that would put some of today’s new-style Jettas to shame.

And of course, you’re not likely to see one of those get the Harlequin treatment, either. But, in a timely coincidence, I just saw a Jetta GL from the same generation as the Harlequin, so I posted that pic, too. 

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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1 Comment

  1. Cool! And fun, VW should do stuff like this now.

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