Through the long and complicated history of Harley-Davidson, there have been several infamous yet well-loved engines.
Among the most infamous and yet the most sought after today is the Harley-Davidson shovelhead. Name for its unique head design that looks like an old coal shovel flipped upside down, the shovelhead represented a troubling time for Harley-Davidson. Despite the challenges, Harley-Davidson sold motorcycles with the shovelhead engine from 1966 to 1984 and enjoyed an ever-increasing market share.
Whether riders are looking to build a custom chopper, or just looking for a vintage Harley-Davidson as a first bike, the shovelhead is a popular choice for Harley enthusiasts all over the country. One trip to any bike gathering around the country will show you just how popular this old-school Harley still is today.
So, how did the shovelhead come into existence and why was it such a challenging era for Harley-Davidson? Read on to find out more.
Big Competition & Family Drama
One of the most difficult things for a legacy company to do is to keep up with the times and that's exactly where Harley-Davidson was in the early 1960s. In fact, Harley-Davidson found themselves in an era of increasingly more powerful and increasingly more reliable Japanese competition and their owners wanted a slice of this new era of motorcycles. How Harley decided to go about with these major changes is where the real problems came in.
Following a brush with the U.S Tariff Commission in the 1950s, when the family-run company emerged into the 1960s, the internal drama and bad business decisions just kept on coming. In 1961, Harley bought Italian company Aermacchi in hopes of taking a slice of the small bike market that continued to elude them over the years. This was an utter failure, and the Japanese bikes of the era wiped the floor with these fake Harleys until the company pulled out of the market in 1978.
In 1965, Harley-Davidson went public on the US stock exchange but again, it was another failure due to poorly run business decisions occurring within the company. By 1966, Harley-Davidson was on the brink of bankruptcy, and the offers were flying in from huge companies all over the world. The struggling company was purchased by American Machine and Foundry, better known as AMF. Yes, the company that makes bowling equipment. Think this sounds like a match made it heaven? Think again.
Quality during the 12-year run of AMF owned Harley-Davidson went downhill gradually year after year, making this generation one of the most infamous for all of Harley-Davidson's history. On the good side, Willie G. (The grandson of Harley-Davidson founder William A. Davidson) designed the iconic 71 FX Super Glide which went hand in hand with the unbelievable success of the Easy Rider movie. This cult movie hit starring Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda essentially saved Harley-Davidson and allowed them to crawl their way out of the 1970s and into the insane 1980s.
Throughout all of this drama, corporate schilling, and lore - there was the Harley - Davidson shovelhead.
Sticking to your laurels is an admirable decision, but when it comes at the price of innovation, it can often lead to the near demise of a brand.
Designed as a successor to the legendary Panhead engine, the shovelhead utilized several interesting engineering choices to achieve better power throughout the power band. As bikes became ever heavier with features such as electric starters leading the way, the need for more power was demanded by Harley-Davidson riders and the shovelhead was supposed to be the answer. The shovelhead was installed on all of Harley-Davidson's big twin motorcycles throughout the nearly 20-year production run and had many changes over this time.
Most of the shovelhead engine is almost an exact clone of the Panhead that came before it, with the exception of the head that gave the shovel its unique name. The shovels were not just a head cover, as on the Panhead, but were actually heads that an integrated rocker arm pivot points building right into the casing. Inside, the combustion chamber design was more shallow with a larger valve drop for both the exhaust and intake, a better porting design, and stronger engine internals. Harley stuck with a generator until 1970 when an alternator was finally designed and installed on the shovelhead. In 1971, Zenith-Bendix carburetors were used to increase flow and overall reliability.
1979 and 1980 saw the biggest changes to the shovelhead engine, with a new (troubled) electronic ignition system, rubber mounts for the engine, a 5-speed transmission, and the switch from chain drive to a belt drive. In 1981, Harley - Davidson bought their shares back from AMF and added in a new oil pump, improved valve guides, and lowered the compression for additional reliability.
By 1984, the shovelhead was ready to be sent to pasture and it was replaced by the Evolution engine.
Issues and Complaints
It’s easy to talk about the nostalgia of the shovelhead but we can’t have a true discussion about the Shovelhead without talking about the huge range of problems that plagued this motor over its long production run.
First off, the shovelhead only had 10 fins for cooling on each cyliner, which led to persistent issues with overheating. Continuing with the issues, the shovelhead’s head design allowed oil to pool in the cylinder heads, and sneak past the valves where it would burn with a plume of smoke out of the pipes. Further complicating the oiling issues, oil would also pool in the crankcase, and starve the internal components of vital oil. This, of course, led to overheating and potential engine damage.
Once the oil embargo of the mid-70’s hit, shovelhead motors suffered massively due to the lower quality of fuel available across the United States. Engine knock, caused by low octane fuels, caused issues with the shovelhead that ranged from engine overheating to blown head gaskets and even damaged head bolts. Once electronic ignition came to pass in 1979, owners also encountered rather persistent issues with the fussy electronic control unit.
AMF Harley’s really suffered during this time and were it not for their iconic design, there’s no doubt that the brand could have been lost to the ether.
The Shovelhead Still Rules
Despite all these issues throughout the early years, today, the shovelhead is well-loved by Harley-Davidson enthusiasts all over the country.
Once companies like S & S Cycles started offering upgraded parts for the shovelhead, the issues that once plagued these motors were basically a moot point. In fact, shovelheads are very easy to work on with only basic hand tools and can provide a great introduction to the world of vintage Harley-Davidson bikes. Many fans say that the shovelhead was the last “true” Harley, able to be wrenched on by the average joe while still providing that unique look and characteristic Harley rumble.
What can we say? It’s just a damned cool engine, in a damned cool bike