VWvortex Feature Car: 1996 Golf Harlequin VR6

As a 1996 Volkswagen magazine ad said, “Can’t decide on a color? Try a Harlequin Golf.” Even those who are savvy to the model’s colorful background do a quadruple-take when they catch a glimpse of Mike Thomas’ surprisingly sinister preschool-hued Mk3 Golf.

Mike didn’t set out to own one of the most festive cars in VW history, it just happened. He was growing bored with his Alpine White 1991 GTI 8v when he spotted the VR6-swapped Harlequin for sale in the winter of 2002. He was initially hesitant to consider the car because of its color scheme, but the possibility of owning such a unique vehicle began to appeal to him. From his viewpoint as an artist, the car made the perfect eye-catching backdrop for more modifications.

“If it didn’t grow on me, I wouldn’t have gotten it,” Mike says. “I wanted to do something in the Mk3 world that hadn’t really been done before.”

Mike managed to convince his reluctant family to give the car a chance (“they thought I was crazy, but they’re starting to come around”). Within a few weeks, the Harlequin was loaded on a truck and shipped from Atlanta up to Mike’s college campus in northern Vermont.

Initially, Mike’s Golf appears chaotic—people often assume it’s the half-assed result of a few too many junkyard raids—but there’s a method to the madness. All Harlequin Golf body panel colors are deliberately symmetrical, and the color scheme has been carefully retained throughout Mike’s tinkering. Harlequins are registered and titled according to each car’s unibody color (Chagall Blue, Winflower Yellow, Pistachio Green, and Tornado Red). Believe it or not, Mike’s multicolored masterpiece is, legally speaking, plain ol’ blue.

From the most reliable reports, there were 264 Harlequin Golfs built, all of which came from the factory as 2-liter 8-valves. Mike’s is believed to be the only one with a VR6 swap. Another interesting tidbit of trivia is that Mike’s car was first used as a courtesy car by two members of the International Olympic Committee during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. After the Games rolled out of town, the car landed at a local VW dealership and was sold to its first enthusiast owner, marking the beginning of almost a decade of modifications, car shows, and magazine appearances.

With a history that interesting, who can blame Mike for going all out to keep the Harlequin’s legacy strong? It might not seem like he has taken a “less is more” approach, but the truth is that the car is clean and simple. Although the modifications aren’t strictly OEM+, Mike’s goal has been to retain the Harlequin’s aesthetic integrity while improving performance, akin to an innocent-looking clown with a few mischievous tricks up its sleeve.

“I just wanted to make the car more my own, something that reflected my taste in Mk3s,” Mike says. “It already had the VR6 in it, and I wanted to take it to the next level, so to speak.”

Not all the attention this car attracts has been positive. It’s easy to see the reasons why the Harlequin is a favorite target of police officers, none the least of which is Mike’s spirited, self-described “drive with the Force” style.

“Police officers usually ask why the car is painted like it is, or make some wise-ass remark about it being a junkyard car,” he says.

But differing opinions are a matter of course. Other ignorant actions are a bit more difficult to overlook. By far, the biggest setback Mike has encountered occurred in April of 2003, just a few short months after taking delivery. During an annual spring festival held at his college, the Harlequin was keyed on each body panel.

Not one to be held back for long, Mike quickly put in a call to have the paint repaired by Donny Michaud, a family friend who is known for his work restoring Porsches and painting custom hot rods in Yarmouth, ME. Unfortunately, the shop was booked solid and the paintwork was put off for over a year, during which Mike rolled the fenders out about an inch and drove around with black primered flares. Plans for the car were coming together, but the condition of the body prevented him from making his competitive debut at Waterfest 2003. However, he received a warm welcome in the show’s exhibition area. It seemed that people were ready to embrace this colorful car’s re-entry to the show scene.

While Mike eagerly waited for the bodywork to be complete, he passed his time by researching and sourcing new parts. He procured Weitec coilovers to complement the Neuspeed front strut and sway bars that were already installed. Magnaflow’s stainless steel catback exhaust was added to give the clown car a distinct growl, and more power came courtesy of a TT chip and Turn2 intake. A set of Borbet Type T wheels seemed the perfect finishing touch; sophisticated enough to be suitable for a thoughtfully modified tuner car, but understated enough to keep the focus where it belongs.

The Harlequin finally rolled out of the body shop in July 2004. In addition to the fresh paint and widened flares, Mike chose to remove the mid-hatch wing installed by the previous owner as well as shave the rear wiper and hatch lock. Other smooth touches included modified body lines to follow the new contour of the fenders, color-coded door handles, and shaved washer nozzles replaced with hidden Chevy truck nozzles. The Kamei mesh badgeless grille was swapped out in favor of the stock 3-bar to emphasize the factory look.

The performance and aesthetic features were near complete, but a few more touches were necessary to keep up the Harlequin’s jovial appearance, such as a color-coordinated MOMO steering wheel and a clown-face antenna topper. In keeping with the “evil clown” theme, a washer nozzle was mounted above the rear license plate to fend off Hondas who sneak up from behind, looking to play.

Overall, Mike is satisfied with the direction his project has taken, despite nay-sayers’ derision.

“I’m a huge fan of the VR6,” he says, “but it’s also a lot of fun to see the reactions from the people on the road. There have been many critics and comments on this car since I owned it, but I think I have been the most critical. I had a very well defined image of what I wanted the car to look like in my head, and it has come out very, very close to that image.”

The Harlequin’s past and present may be interesting, but Mike plans to make its future just as exciting. He has been discussing sponsorship possibilities with Chris at C2motorsports and the focus of their talk has been boosting the car to squeeze some more power out of the VR6. A turbo kit is in the works, which Mike hopes to have installed in time for spring cruising. A beefed-up transmission might be necessary to handle the increased power, and an upgraded stereo and interior are also possibilities for those long summer days when Mike likes to roll down all four windows and just drive.

“I knew I had something special when I got the car,” Mike says. “I just had to give it my own style.”

People seem to get a great deal of joy from Mike’s car, and isn’t that what owning a clown car is all about? Still, it’s worth noting that some people are afraid of clowns…

Vehicle Information:

Year- 1996

Make- Volkswagen

Model- Harlequin Golf

Mileage- 108,133 miles on the engine and transmission, body mileage unknown

Color- Chagall Blue, Winflower Yellow, Pistachio Green, Tornado Red

Engine- VR6 2.8L

Engine Modifications- VR6 conversion, Techtonics chip, Unorthodox racing pulleys, Turn2 cold air intake

Transmission- Stock 5 speed

Exhaust Modifications- Magnaflow stainless steel

Suspension Modifications- Weitec non-dampening adjustable coilovers, Neuspeed upper strut bar, Neuspeed front sway bar

Brake Modifications- Front brakes were upgraded to 11″ Corrado units, with ATE rotors, Mintex pads, and braided stainless steel lines

Wheels and Tires- Borbet Type T wheels, 30mm offset up front (with 8mm spacers) and 15mm offset out back (with 10mm spacers) wrapped in 215/40/16 Toyo Proxes T1s

Exterior/Body Modifications- Shaved hatch wiper and lock, shaved front washer nozzles, pulled fenders, shaved bumper line, rear tailgate squirter

Interior Modifications- MOMO multi-colored steering wheel

Audio/Video/I.C.E.- Stock tape deck with the addition of a factory 6-disc changer, and an 8″ bass tube.

Thanks/Props- My family for the support, Andy Loscavio for buying the car back in ’96 and starting it on the path to my doorstep, Tim for selling me such a clean and well-kept car, and our good family friend Donny for the amazing paint job. Thanks everyone.

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