How the most colorful Volkswagen came to be: the Harlequin/Harlekin story
#automotiveHow the most colorful Volkswagen came to be: the Harlequin/Harlekin story

Since its first production run in 1975, the Volkswagen Polo has not been a car that you could write home about, especially if it is not the GTI or the even rarer G40 model. It did its job as a small-town hatchback, carrying groceries and the odd passenger, or becoming the go-to car for businesses that have needed to send managers on the road, as the Polo’s balance between cost and quality made it a great more budget-friendly car, especially when compared to its bigger cousin, the Golf.

But in the 90s, everything changed – at least for a tiny fraction amount of time. With the third generation of the Polo, or as the official Volkswagen designation names it Mark III, the Wolfsburg-based automaker looked to promote the newest iteration of the hatchback. The target market was the United Kingdom, where the third-generation Polo was set to make inroads against its competition, and Volkswagen looked for a way to make sure consumers across the island got the message that it is coming.

And a brilliant idea resulted in a campaign that, while no evidence of direct correlation, allowed the Volkswagen Polo to be the runner-up of the European Car of The Year in 1995.

Inspired by an old campaign

Navigating through Volkswagen’s archives would result in someone finding two eerily similar campaigns to promote the manufacturer’s products. Back in the ‘60s when the Volkswagen Beetle was still looking like its nostalgia-inducing self, and the Volkswagen print texts were being their sassy selves, one poster caught the attention of Volkswagen’s team in the 1990s.

While the car maker’s adverts from the early second half of the 20th century have been recognized mostly due to the “Think Small” campaign associated with the Beetle, one poster stood out to them from 1964. The poster, which portrayed a Beetle with no two same body panel colors – a hyperbole, a bit – said that the “green fender off a ‘58; the blue hood came off a ’59; the beige fender came off a ’64; the turquoise came off a ’62,” on an exemplary Beetle.

“Most VW parts are interchangeable from one year to the next. That’s why parts are so easy to get.”

Mixed Harlequin fortunes

The attempt to punch into the UK market was fairly successful, at least in terms of how the Harlequin Polo sold. Out of the planned 1,000 cars, the German automaker responded to the demand and sold a total of 3,100 models, according to Volkswagen’s official website. The small hatchback with its four-color body never made it across the pond to the United States. 

However, the MK3 Golf did – with a reversed fortune. Reportedly, the Puebla, Mexico-based factory, where US-destined cars were built and assembled, churned out 264 Harlequin-themed Golfs. Consumers did not respond well to seeing the funky paint jobs and apparently, dealers in the US either conjoined several Harlequins to get them to look ‘normal’ or re-painted the whole surface of the car just to ship them off their parking lots.

If you are looking to own a Harlekin – the German spelling of the word, which originally means a comic servant during a theater performance – you might have to splash your cash. Just last August, one of the most popular auction sites in the United States hosted a sale of a 79,000-mile (approximately 127 100 kilometers) MK3 Golf in the original Harlequin paint scheme going for $25,500. Much like every other Harlequin, it had its base color, Tornado Red, complemented by body panels varying between Ginster Yellow, Pistachio Green, and Chagall Blue. The roof and the C-pillars, as well as the sills (rocker panels), hinted at the original color of the car, while other body panels were mixed with three other pigments.

And while the hopes of owning a newly-built and funky-colored car were temporarily lit up in January 2021, as Volkswagen introduced a sixth-generation Polo that was dabbed in the four colors of the original Harlequin three generations prior, it was a one-off car. The marketing trick was introduced on Blue Monday in 2021 – ironically, another marketing trick – to seemingly cheer up enthusiasts of the brand and the specific model on what has been called the saddest day of the year.