Retrospective: Harley-Davidson Shovelhead: 1966-1984

(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.

1978 Harley-Davidson 74-inch FLH Shovelhead.
1978 Harley-Davidson 74-inch FLH Shovelhead.

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.

1978 Harley-Davidson 74-inch FLH Shovelhead.
1978 Harley-Davidson 74-inch FLH Shovelhead.

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.

1978 Harley-Davidson 74-inch FLH Shovelhead.
1978 Harley-Davidson 74-inch FLH Shovelhead.

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?

1978 Harley-Davidson 74-inch FLH Shovelhead.
1978 Harley-Davidson 74-inch FLH Shovelhead.

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.

1978 Harley-Davidson 74-inch FLH Shovelhead.
1978 Harley-Davidson 74-inch FLH Shovelhead.

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.

28 COMMENTS

  1. I own a 1980 flt tour guide classic that the compensator went and the bike only has 24.000 miles on it. She’s not even broken in yet and now I have to do an upgrade on the compensator along with everything else in my primary. What made this happen? I had the bike shipped from Arizona to Pa. You wouldn’t believe the damage that was done and can’t help but to think was my compensator problems part of bad shipping.

  2. My 1983 wide glide shovel head keeps back firing and the plugs foul after I leave it sitting for awhile. I was told that if I don’t turn off the gas after parking it the gas could continue to run into the engine and settle. What are your thoughts.

  3. I know for a fact that if you don’t turn off the gas it will eventually find its way into your primary and crankcase. Happened with my 76 FXE 3 years ago. Simple fix, drain the gas, drain the oil tank, new oil in both….run the bike for 10-20secs. Shut it off, drain it all, and repeat the process 3-4 times. Mine is running great now and the petcock is the first thing I shut off now.

  4. xD Ever see the backside of a Spade Shovel ? Looks just like a top-down view of a Shovelhead rocker cover. @the author Clement Salvadori

  5. Article in incorrect on noting that the lower end was the same for the pan and early shovels until 1970 , there were improvements made during those years

  6. Got oil in crankcase? Undo return oil hose kick or crank until all oil is gone pour in some 30 weight. Do it allover again 3 times at least or till you don’t see gas in oil it’ll be good to clean any sludge in crankcase too don’t forget to pull plug wires so it doesn’t run dry

  7. Yes shut the gas off every time. I also have a 1983 FX Wide Glide with 9,000 original miles my brother bought it new although it only has done that to me one time with the gas leaking down another thing that happens is the oil leaks passed the check valve leaving your oil tank empty but you’ll know it when that happens because it will be blowing out of the crankcase breather all over your floor. It’s called ..dry sumping Welcome to our world. Everyday I’m shovelin..

  8. I have a 1980 fxef with a little over 39 k on him. I love the guy, I’ve own many of Harleys , but shovelheads has always been the one I go back to. there is not a another Harley like them, so if you own a Harley shovelhead love the bike because always he’ll love you back. I’m 67 been riding since I was 12, so never get to old to enjoy the ride guys.

  9. Sixty seven, me too, my only fear is the day I can’t ride. My ’69 shovel is the best, greatest ever. Great day to ‘ya

  10. I own 3 now
    78 FXE SG 93″
    79 FXE SG 74″
    83 FLH 1340
    And since have started a Shovelhead service, along with my KZ big four service.
    I love them all. Build from the frame up.

    • I’m looking at a 1983 Shovelhead. Guy is only asking $3k for it. I know it starts and runs. What should I be looking for in terms of value!?

  11. Shovel head Sunny! Riding a 1978 FLH Anniversary AMF great ride and don’t mind wrenching, rewired entire bike 73 and really enjoying that chain slap, when I bought the bike the ignition switch was upside down, looked at it and looked at it, and it finally dawned on me why the wiring was so messed up. Still a few parts on order. But getting their.

  12. don’t fear that day stone. Do like I’m going to do, When I get to that point I can’t ride my shovel anymore because of age I’m going to get a trike and ride it and when I get to the point I can’t ride the trike ill have one of my kids push me up and down the street on it like a big kid on a big wheel. The point is ride with your head up and ride proud and stay in the wind.

  13. Great info Griff…. Since we know Griff and he has helped us twice with my 79 Shovel, that by the way marks her territory everywhere I drop my kick stand. I can tell you that keeping a Shovel up to speed mechanically is some
    times frustrating but it is an easy fix, RIDE YOUR SHOVEL!! If you do not ride her at least three times a week, everyone is right oil settles in the bottom of the pan and it will “dump” a quart when you turn her over. If you like your driveway start her in the street, preferably not in front of your driveway…down hill is the best! That way when it rains you are not slipping in the oil every time you bring one of your Scoots out for a ride. Harley has made a clamp for the over flow line, $6, well worth it!! Roll your scoot out to where your going to start her, (buy a cheap cake pan at the dollar store) remove the clamp from the overflow ..about two to three seconds NO LONGER! Let your scoot dump, then shut it off and use a funnel to pour that good oil back in the scoot. Our mechanic at North Wood Cycles told us this trick! Saves us a lot of oil, and a hell of a lot of mess in the road. I keep a different cake pan with cat litter in it under the over flow while it sits in the garage screaming to be ridden. This keeps ANY fluid from dripping on the floor of the garage. I just sold my 57 Pan and the two were a lot alike when it comes to maintenance and mechanical issues. The best advise is keep up with your scoot. Don’t let her sit then expect her to run so you can ride her like you stole her! Grief has one that he-rides four or five days a week in decent weather, and one sitting on a scizzor lift that he is rebuilding from the frame up. He is very smart when it comes to our engine on the Pan / Flat / or Shovel!! Don’t neglect the style of engine…that is when you start dropping a lot of HD in repairs.
    Cindi Indian

  14. 1978 fxe 12000 miles on bike. sat for years changed oil put new gasket on primary cover. do i add some oil in primary or will engine lube it? tom

  15. I like shovels and have had a few. I own two 81s currently. I want to buy this shovel in a flt frame (rubber mounted) I have not looked into it yet so- my question is “Can I just remove the rubber mounts from the cases and bolt it in the Tried an true four speed frame I have” I do know the 5 sod tranny will have to go along with the primary stuff because I will use a 4 speed tranny. The short question I guess is: isn’t the Shovelhead motor the same in the flt as any other shovel? Meaning I can put it in the swing arm frame or even in a rigid (hard tail) frame? Thanks as any info will be appreciated.

  16. Yes the rubber mounted motor is the same except there is a couple extra holes for mounting brackets to hold different exhaust . I have

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