Home / Blog / Retrospective: Harley

Retrospective: Harley

Jul 22, 2023Jul 22, 2023

(This Retrospective article was published in the November 2008 issue of Rider.)

The Harley-Davidson buffs among us know full well what a “Shovelhead” is, but it remains a minor mystery to many of the uninitiated.

Somebody with a large glass of Jack Daniels’ in his hand, his second or third, must have come up with that name, because for the life of me I have never seen the resemblance between that particular cylinder-head design and a shovel. And I have shoveled out quite a few ditches in my lifetime. But there’s no point arguing about it 40 years down the line.

The Shovelhead was the third rendition of Harley’s OHV V-twin, following the Knucklehead and the Panhead. When the first Harley OHV twin appeared in 1936 nobody called it a Knuckle, it was just the E-model, or the 61—for cubic inches. Followed in 1941 by the 74-inch F-model. The nickname, according to historians, had to wait until 1948 when the next generation came along and people wanted to differentiate between the two. Squint your eyes and that early Harley iron cylinder-head looked vaguely knuckle-ish, while the subsequent one had shiny chrome rocker-arm covers which did indeed resemble the pans one might find in a kitchen. The Pan enjoyed the maintenance-free aspect of hydraulic valve-lifters, a necessary advancement since it took a while for the iron cylinders to heat up and match the expansion of the new aluminum heads.

The Harley engineering department had always been ploddingly methodical, taking care of problems as they arose, never rushing to be the firstest with the mostest. As the Pan got heavier with changes in suspension and the addition of an electric starter, the factory decision to increase power was in order. Nothing drastic, but in 1966 the 74-incher got new aluminum-alloy “Power Pac” heads, which Harley claimed gave an increase of 10 horses …and looked vaguely like the back end of a shovel. Instead of just being a cover, the new Shovel design was the actual cylinder head, with rocker-arm pivot-points engineered into the casting. The FLH engine, the hotter version, was rated at 60 horses at 5,500 rpm.

The head was the only really new piece to this motor, as the company kept the iron barrels and bottom end of the previous Pan, as well as the generator. In 1970 the generator gave way to an alternator, with the points in the old-fashioned distributor disappearing inside the new timing case.

More changes were going on within the company structure than in R&D. Harley had invested in the Italian Aermacchi company in 1961, hoping to get its share of the small-bike market. That had not gone too well, as the influx of Japanese models underpriced and outperformed these pseudo-Harleys. In an effort to bring in more cash Harley went public in 1965, though not very successfully; apparently the family style of management could have used a hard-nosed MBA to sort things out. The company was struggling financially and executives were talking with possible buyers, notably American Machine & Foundry, which decided to buy in. The public stock was bought back, and the factory began a dozen years with the AMF label on the tank, a mixture of good and bad years.

Good because young Willie G., the grandson of H-D founder William A. Davidson, took charge of the styling department and designed the factory’s first “custom” motorcycle, the 1971 FX Super Glide, essentially a Shovel FLH with a Sportster front end. Some attribute this new “look” to the success of the Easy Rider movie, with two disaffected young men taking off on a cross-country trip on a pair of customized Harleys. In 1977 the Low Rider appeared, another sales hit.

The bagger types (those who liked the King of the Highway touring package, with batwing fairing and saddlebags) still had their FLHs, but now the market was expanding. Slowly.

Too slowly, for the likes of AMF. They were realizing that they were stuck with some distinctly outdated technology and tried to push the factory into a modernization program. The AMF futurists began a program to build a motorcycle that would compete with the Japanese, while the Harley traditionalists wanted to continue developing the pushrod V-twin. The quality of Harley motorcycles deteriorated in the late 1970s, which management blamed on disaffected employees—sales drooped.

Poor sales? Give the Shovel more power! For 1978 the 74-inch engine was bored and stroked to 80 inches (81.7 in reality) and first offered in the FLH model, with the number 80 written conspicuously across the air cleaner. The only visible difference between the 74 and the 80 was in the number of fins on each cylinder—the 74 had 10, the 80, due to a thicker base, only nine. The new V-Fire ignition was now controlled by electronics, which made many a purist weep with rage and frustration. What could a rider do if his spark went away?

Next on the Shovel agenda were two variations in 1980, the FLT and the Sturgis. The FLT had a brand-new chassis, the 80-inch motor, and a new five-speed gearbox. The biggest difference was that the engine/transmission package was rubber-mounted, taking away the dreaded V-twin vibes. Behind the frame-mounted fairing an interesting steering arrangement was hidden, with the steering head actually behind the fork tubes, which created a relatively agile 750-pound motorcycle. Not so popular was the fully enclosed final chain drive, which made changing rear tires an absolutely hateful job.

On the FXB (B for Belt) Sturgis that rear-chain problem was resolved by using a belt drive. And a belt on the primary drive as well. Harley had long used a dry clutch, carefully isolated from the oil-bathed primary chain, so a dry primary belt was a natural. Unfortunately the primary worked far better in theory than in reality, where the heat affected the rubber damping blocks or “compensators” on the crankshaft pulley—causing deterioration and requiring replacement. The belt primary notion was eventually trashed, returning to the duplex chain.

In 1981 a dozen Harley executives bought the company back from AMF, and the traditionalists were in charge. The Shovelhead soldiered on until 1984, when the Evolution engine—essentially new aluminum head and barrels on the old crankcases—began to take over. A serious effort was made to call it the Blockhead, but the factory wanted a little more elegance and their constant reference to the “Evo” motor won out.

The Shovel got a bad rap in the 1970s, but is now considered quite desirable. This one in the photos is decked out with a lot of Harley chrome accessories, from luggage rack to disc guard, and a Corbin saddle and Big Bertha saddlebags.