Shovelhead Savvy

The newest Harley-Davidson Shovelhead is now 35 years old. In those nearly four decades they’ve moved from cheap used sleds to collectible – or near-collectable – status, and not without reason. As we’ll see, the faults that led to the nickname ‘Troublehead’ have mostly been (or can be) sorted out over the years, as the legacy of these engines boils down to the fact that they are the last of the ‘built to be rebuilt’ Big Twins. 

The trick is to ensure that they don’t have to be. So let’s start at the top:

Tame Top End 

Early models have the reputation of wearing out top ends in just 20,000 miles. I’m of the opinion this had to do with sloppy OEM quality control, Do It Yourself servicing, crap ignition advance mechanisms and thick oil. 

Sound, crack-free heads rebuilt with modern ‘unleaded’ seats, late-style stelite/nitrided valves and guides, valve stem seals and 8:1 (or so) hypereutectic pistons with Evo-style rings, should go 50,000 miles or more. Use 20w/50 viscosity oil and ’82 and later ‘restricted’ oil-feed sleeve nuts in the proper locations. Mild cams, quality hydraulic lifters and modern high-voltage ignition coils will help, too. Make sure gasket surfaces are flat! Shim the rocker arms to a thou or so, but only after you’re sure the boxes aren’t worn or warped. 

As soon as production stopped, H-D dropped spare parts for Shovels like a hot potato. Ironic, in that the best of the Shovel engines were built post-AMF by the very same management that kept Evo pieces coming decades after its demise. If you can manage to find the factory good stuff…use it. If not, S&S (among others) has continued development of the Shovel engine and its components for decades. Excellent spare parts are available! Do it right and you won’t have to do it over.

Bulletproof Bottom End

Check stock crankcases for cracks using a dye penetrant. Use S&S (steel flywheel) cranks with Evo-type rods, double-checked to be properly trued and balanced to pistons. Straight and smooth are the goals here and getting there is not for amateurs! Don’t be shy about getting this sort of work done by Shovel-experts.

Factory oil pumps changed over the life of the Shovel engine, and the latest alloy version delivers a third more lube in terms of circulation. Still not great, and harder to find these days, so use an S&S pump assembly. Assemble the whole thing with modern gaskets, minimal sealants (Hylomar and Three Bond), a torque wrench and plenty of patience. 

Then add your choice of electronic ignitions, my favorite being single-fire with adjustment capability for each cylinder. If you don’t already have one, install a spin-on oil filter, as the “horse hair” cartridge-type for most stock oil tanks ain’t gonna cut it. Filtration is on the return side of the oiling system; flush and clean the oil tank and replace the oil lines! 

So-called ‘generator’ shovelhead engines (1965-1969) are an aesthetic favorite, but updated internals are practically mandatory for daily use in the 21st century. Externally, carbs and oil pumps top the list of useful improvements. Strong, reliable sparks are a plus, as well, especially on kick-start bikes. Aftermarket sources exist for virtually all needs you might have, but quality speaks louder than quantity, so shop carefully.

Tidbits And Transitions

In many instances you are only the custodian of a Shovel! Someone probably owned yours before you, and someone will almost surely own it after you. Since Shovels can be rebuilt almost indefinitely they never get thrown away. That’s how it is with old Harleys. Please keep that in mind as we wrap this up.

The long and unfortunate Shovel saga has been to build ’em with too much cam, too much carb and too much compression. Most of ’em have been owner-amateur ‘maintained’ for decades. Getting one with any sort of legit service history (or any history at all, for that matter) is slim to none. Net result? If you can’t trust the past, you probably won’t have the power or reliability you hope for in the future…unless you do a proper rebuild. 

For instance, there’s the ‘tradition’ of solid lifters and big cams. Not a good plan, and mostly fancy rather than fact when it comes to performance. Factory hydraulic set-ups are gentle to the valve train, and provide a cushion that keeps things long-lasting and quiet. Solid lifters and radical cams are the total opposite! 

Then there’s the timed breather issue. All Shovelheads are ‘case breathers’ and as such benefit hugely from some attention to internal air flow, along the same lines discussed in earlier columns (Motorhead November and December 2018).

We’ve not gone into Shovelhead transmissions, but four-speeds mostly need oil changes as often as engines while five-speeds offer no trouble. And clutches? Well, both the dry clutch and the early wet clutch should be tossed in favor of a Rivera-Primo Pro Clutch. It’s the best favor a Shovelhead rider can do for himself and his machine.

Carburetors on Shovels (all years) are another item destined for the dumpster if one plans to really ride their bikes. CVs or flat-slide Mikunis transform Shovel behavior on the road (and in traffic) like no other mod.

Ride-anywhere-at-anytime reliability and real-world power are entirely possible with Shovelheads. Just address the issues and don’t add any of your own. Build ’em to last, not to go fast. 

Otherwise, save your pennies and buy an S&S 93-inch crate motor.

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