The History Of The Shovelhead

Article By: Roadside Marty

Originally Published In The March 2017 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine

When Chris first asked me to write my perspective on the history of the Shovelhead I have to admit I was both excited and a little nervous. I mean, trying to define the scope of influence that motor has had on this culture is kind of a tall order. I can’t think of any other engine in the Motor Company’s history that brought multiple changes, some groundbreaking at that, during some of this great nation’s most turbulent and trying times. For those of you reading this that might not know, the Shovelhead was in production from 1966 to 1984. That’s a solid 18 years, definitely a major achievement for any manufacturer but especially true for the Factory. This was the beginning of a new era. The first year marked only the second year of electric start as well as a new carburetor instead of the proven Linkert as well as a few other small changes. The 67,68 and 69 were virtually the same except the front drum brake was changed to the right side in 1969.

Beginning in 1970 the alternator charging system as well as the “cone” cam chest were the major changes and would be the only changes until 1973 when disc brakes were added to the front and rear which were certainly an improvement. Before I get too far ahead I have to mention the first milestone of the Shovel, in my opinion, and that was the Super Glide aka the boat tail introduction in 1971. Before the Super Glide the only choice of models you had were the full dressers and Sportsters, that was it. Willie G. Davidson created the Super Glide and personally I think it’s one of his greatest accomplishments. For the most part this is where the entire custom industry really took hold. Even though guys had been customizing Pans and Knuckles before this, the Super Glide launched the custom revolution. From this new platform, you could build a dozen or so different styles of motorcycle, and the market took over. Parts companies were born, bike shows popped up everywhere and even the motor company itself started to take styling cues for future models based on the flurry of activity that all began with what some still refer to as Willie G’s red headed step child.

I also need to mention that the company known as AMF which stood for American Machine and Foundry purchased Harley in 1969 and the 1970 models were the first to wear the AMF Harley Davidson tank badge’s. Now the AMF era was both a blessing and a headache for the company, employee morale hit an alltime low and quality suffered. I have to mention that the Vietnam War was in full swing so the country as a whole was divided. Now for as much as AMF did to the Factory it also helped, case in point, they actually began development on the Evolution motor in 1978 and as we all know it became the platform that brought the Motor Company back from the brink of bankruptcy. Another milestone was in 1977 when the Low Rider was first introduced and the next year that saw engine displacement go from 74 cubic inches to the fabled 80 cubic inches. This not only marked the beginning of the real understanding of these engines and their horsepower producing potential through stroking them but also helped sell a few t-shirts some of you may remember “Ladies love Eighty’s”?

Here’s something you might not know, if you own a 78 motor it could either be a 74» or an 80». The difference at least verbally was if you had a 78 1/2 motor that was an 80” while a 78 was a 74”… get it? It is confusing, I know, but back then it was very common. 1980 saw the first rubber mount design released, which was the Tour Glide FLT which was actually the first incarnation of the Road Glide. R&D with the rubber mount system continued to improve and refine which ultimately led to the FXR. That’s right, in the first two years of the FXR they had Shovelhead motors. Here’s a bit of FXR history as well, the 82 models were Super Glide’s only, while the 83 mode saw the first version of the FXRT, which explains why these are some of the most sought after FXR’s today. The 4-speed swing arm frame which debuted in 1958 lasted all the way until 1985 and has proven to be one of the most popular platforms on which to build a custom bike, whether it be a rigid conversion or used in its OEM configuration. Personally, I think the stock H-D swing arm frame is going to be the Knuckle or Panhead frame of my generation. I’ve often heard various people say that the AMF era bikes are junk and I just laugh because if anything, those bikes have been built and rebuilt several times over so that any shortcoming has long been corrected.

For the record, I think the sound of a cone Shovel motor with straight drag pipes tuned properly sounds like no other. It’s just pure, raw energy and for any of you brothers that have owned these things where the fall nights get cool, tell me there’s anything that feels like a Shovelhead with cool nights’ air pouring into it! This engine family truly marked the beginning of what would give Harley that hot rod feel and attitude. The seventies motorcycle drag race scene was evidence of that for sure. Another significant milestone was the corporate buyback from AMF by 13 Harley executives including Willie G in 1981. Now at the time Harley was still struggling to stay solvent so for these men to step up and mortgage their homes and life savings was a huge risk to every one of them but they believed in themselves and the company. You may have heard or even seen some of the advertising of this historic event which went by the slogan “The Eagle soars alone” which carried over into the new 1982 models with a Eagle medallion on the front fender of every model. Thru Vietnam, Watergate, Nixon, the Iran hostage crisis, Reagan and multiple other points of history the Shovelhead was there flying down the highways here and all over the world. I personally own a 66 that was my Dad’s personal ride for many years, a 69 that I traded with Bacon from DC Choppers because that’s my birth year and a 79 that’s the heart of the Chick Magnet that I built several years ago as well as several others that I sold and now regret. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few bits and pieces but this is my best at trying to define a legend!!! Special thanks to the Harley- Davidson Museum for providing the great archival images to go along with this article.