Rob Smith’s colourful modified Harlequin VW Polo is rewriting the rules of the ’90s – he’s fusing period-correct mods with 21st-century tech, and it’s taking a lot of people by surprise…
The ‘fashion cycle’ is an industry term that roughly measures the amount of time a trend or fad will take to emerge, pass into the mainstream, then fall out of style. Of course, the obvious thing about cycles is that they go round and round, so things that have long been out of fashion can build their own momentum and become popular again – just look at how people are clamouring for three-spoke alloys and window louvres these days. A decade ago you’d have been laughed off the showground; a decade before that, you’d have been top dog. And so the wheels keep turning.
It’s for this reason that you’re seeing a car wearing TSW Venoms here, without the slightest hint of irony or tongue-in-cheek mischief. Venoms are cool again, in the way that quite a lot of random 1990s stuff is. (Have you seen the price of Nintendo 64 consoles recently…?)
The Venoms, however, probably aren’t the first thing you noticed. You’re gawping at the paint, aren’t you? It is pretty extraordinary.
Those in the know will have immediately clocked this as a Harlequin – it’s not just a peculiar mish-mash of panels. This special edition Polo (finished in Flash Red, Ginster Yellow, Pistachio Green and Chagall Blue) appeared in 1995; originally limited to 1,000 examples, they proved sufficiently popular that VW ended up churning out 3,800 of ’em, with the UK being the keenest market. A Harlequin on Venoms, then, is a perfect slice of retro ’90s nostalgia.
“One of my oldest memories of cars is as a six-year-old, seeing a Harlequin with my dad and him explaining what it was,” recalls owner Rob Smith. “As I’d always wanted one, I guess that makes it my dream car – so I made it my mission last year to locate and buy one!”
Prior to this car, Rob had run a white 6N Polo for many years which was well-known on the scene, but with rust forcing its demise, he flogged his BBS rims and used the cash to fulfil his long-held multi-coloured yearnings. “After talking to a few people, I heard a rumour of this Harlequin sat on a drive about six miles away from where I work,” Rob explains.
“I made contact with the owner, and a few days later I went down with cash in my pocket to view it. It had sat unmoved in the same spot on his driveway for four years; I did the deal without hearing it start or even properly looking at it. But I had to have it! My long-suffering other half wasn’t impressed that I’d bought a car when I didn’t even know if it’d start…”
Ah, such is the nature of dreams. They can’t be explained by rational measures. And so our hero cheerfully hauled his dream car home with a smile on his lips and a song in his heart. A dream car that, obscured by inch-thick rose tints, was in pretty wonky shape – covered in moss, mould, dents and scrapes, suffering from a sizable infestation of tinworm, and emanating some genuinely troubling smells. The perfect blank canvas, then? “Yeah, it was pretty smelly,” Rob grins. “But I threw in a fresh battery and it fired on the second turn of the key – I knew from that point that things were going to be OK.”
What followed was a true labour of love, an endeavour fuelled by a passion for rekindling the past and reimagining it for today’s modified car scene. Rob scoured the globe for obscure period aftermarket accessories, all the while keeping his sleeves rolled up and his eyes on the prize.
“It’s a real self-build,” he says, justifiably proud. “I like to do as much as I can, and those who have done work on it are people I’ve known for years and are local to me. I’m all for supporting local companies. I spent every Saturday and most nights after work getting it to where it is now; I work in a bodyshop doing high end classic car restorations – I’m a prepper and painter – so all the bodywork and paint was done by me. My boss, Alex, was good enough to carry out all the welding work and mechanics.”
The transformation from mouldy heap to streamlined butterfly began in earnest September 2015, with the goal being completion by Ultimate Dubs 2016, which is ambitious to say the least, and the fact that Rob and his network pulled it off is testament to his diligence and tenacity.
Starting with a full mechanical refresh to get the thing running as it should, Rob then stripped the whole car back to first principles, making copious notes of what could be kept, what needed repair or replacement, and what would be modified. He’s a meticulous thinker. New sills and rear arches were duly sourced and welded in, and to futureproof the Harlequin against corrosion he even stonechipped and painted inside the sills before fitting. The front and rear bumpers, mirrors, handles, tailgate, headlights, bonnet, and grille were harvested from his old white Polo, which had now become a handy parts donor, and a local scrappie yielded the rear doors and front wings.
“The only original panels on the car are the front doors!” Rob laughs. “And once I had it all together, everything was prepped, filled and sanded to get it perfect – including the roof, which was quite badly dented. Over the Christmas holidays I finally got it in colour… I was still hard at work in the spray booth at 7pm on Christmas Eve, which didn’t impress the other half! And over the next few weeks it got panelled back up and refitted; once watertight, the car then went to James Shelvey at CEVL Automotive, where he fitted the air-ride suspension and carried out the chassis notch.”
This detail is where the car deviates impressively from the retro 1990s template, as the notion of a bagged ride would have been completely alien in the era of Britpop and New Labour. Sure, air-ride’s been around for generations, but on road cars? The ’90s were as much about -60mm springs on standard shocks as they were about Peco Big Bore 4s and red caliper paint. Rob’s rewriting history here, and making a damn fine job of it too.
“The interior was mostly thrown away due to the smell and mould,” he continues. “It was replaced with new doorcards, headlining and pillars from the same car that donated the rear doors and wings. The doorcards went to Ed Alridge for trimming, while me and the missus did the suede headlining and pillars ourselves one afternoon. The seats and parcel shelf were removed from my old white car. With the Ultimate Dubs deadline getting closer, brand new brakes were fitted all round and the doorcards were collected. It all got put together in time, met the deadline and went down a storm – but it’s safe to say the build definitely put pressure on our relationship!”
It’s is a bold and risky game when you’re balancing the subjects of your affections like this, but it all seems to have paid off rather neatly for Rob. He and his ineffably understanding companion take the car to a lot of shows together, scooping up trophies along the way, and it’s all exactly as heartwarming as it seems. “I use it as a daily driver too, of course,” he’s keen to assure us. “Look at it, why wouldn’t you?! And I love the response it gets from people; kids’ reactions are the best, tugging at their parents’ sleeves to go and look at the colourful clown car.” It sounds like Rob’s inspiring a whole new generation of Harlequin enthusiasts – after all, these things move in cycles, don’t they?
OWNER: ROB SMITH
TECH SPEC: VW HARLEQUIN POLO
Original Harlequin colours, custom front bumper, Abt splitters, Abt spoilers, Oettinger grill, Hofele Design headlights, Hofele Design rear light covers, JDM tailgate, Dietrich RS2 rear bumper, Hella magic indicators (blue) and rear lights (green), custom door handles, DTM cup mirrors, 6N2 gutter strips, smoothed wings
Stock 1.6-litre 8v, stock transmission
7×15” TSW Venoms, 165/45 Nankang AS-1 tyres, 4-way manual air-ride, custom shortened front struts, NOS bottle air tank, new (stock) brakes
Alfa Romeo 147 red leather seats (front and rear), red leather diamond-stitched parcel shelf and yellow leather diamond-stitched doorcards (colour-coded stitching to match exterior colours), blue suede headlining, pistachio dash trim, Nardi Torino wood steering wheel, Mk3 Golf black sun visors, matte black grab handles
First and foremost, I’d like to thank my good lady Grace for putting up with me doing long hours and throwing money at the car. I can’t thank her enough for the support and sticking with me. Also, my boss Alex for the welding and mechanical work he did and letting me use the workshop and spray booth (Body Beautiful Cars Ltd ), Ed Aldridge for the trimming, James Shelvey for the air and chassis notch (CEVL Automotive), my good friend Jon Gallant for lending a hand where he can and providing constant motivation, and my sponsors and the rest of the team at Madcow.
Words Daniel Bevis Photos Jon Davies