Easy Rider and Chopperguy

Thoughts on Easy Rider, biker cinema, and riding and working on a vintage chopper.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Know Your Harleys: A PSA

A coworker was very excited last night. Last year he had picked up a Suzuki Ninja as his first motorcycle and learned to ride. He had spent $900 for it, fixed it up, and sold it for $3,000. He then spent $3,500 on a Harley that has been sitting in a shed for three years. He shows me the pictures with excitement. "Check it out, man. A '78 Shovelhead."

I looked over the pictures and had to be the one to rain on his parade. "That's an Ironhead."

There was a look of desperation on his face. "No. It's a Shovel. Look at the heads."

"Nope. That's an Ironhead. I own two of them. Great bikes." But it didn't matter how much I talked up the bike, his bubble had been burst. The deal of the decade had turned out to be a fair price for a decent bike.

The first time I saw a wild turkey I made the comment, "Damn! That is the ugliest pheasant I have ever seen." When confronted with something new, you make the best guess you can. For those just getting into the Harley-Davidson crowd, the different engine types can be a bit of a mystery. So here's a pictorial rundown so you don't end up calling a turkey a pheasant.

This is an Ironhead. It's my 1965 Ironhead, actually. The head design is similar to that of a Shovel. The two quick giveaways are the elongated case cover, kind of like a bullet with a bubble growing on it, and the position of the pushrod tubes due to the quad cam design. Mine also happens to have a big bite taken out of the cover from a chain break incident. Most will not have that. Do not confuse a Sportster cover with a kidney cover. They are two very different things as you will see in a bit.

Here is an Evo Sportster. It has a similar case and pushrod configuration to the Ironhead, but has the blocky heads of Harley-Davidsons late models. Also notice the oval air cleaner on the carb. While this is not strictly a Sportster thing, you won't find many big twins choosing to run the stock Sportster style filter cover. In fact, I have never seen one. That doesn't mean they don't exist. But if you see that cover, it is more likely than not a Sportster.

That's it for the Sportsters.

Here is a Harley 45, commonly called a Flathead. It is a cousin to the Sportsters. While it still features the quad cam design, it has a kidney style cover. Unlike the Sportsters, a Flathead has a separate case for the crank and transmission like the big twins. It's called a Flathead because of the flat fins on the heads.

Now for the big twins.

This is a Knucklehead, so called for the head design that looks like the knuckle joints on a fist. Just consider it a cartoon fist since it seems to have only three knuckles. These feature the single cam design that makes the pushrods come to a taper overlapping at the case and flanging at the heads. This combined with the separate crank and transmission cases are the earmarks of a big twin. Note that it has a kidney crankcase cover like the Flathead.

Now for the Panhead. This is the engine style used on Captain America and the Billy Bike. While it still features the kidney cover and similar single cam pushrod configuration as seen on the Knuckle, the heads look like bread pans. Wherever did they come up with these names?

Shovelheads get a bit trickier. Here is the early Shovel with the kidney cover. It's easy to see how the inexperienced can get Shovelheads and Ironheads confused. If you're looking only at the heads, here's the clue. The Shovel will have a smooth curved top edge. The Ironhead has a bit of a notch between the bolts.

On the later shovels they changed crankcase design. Instead of a kidney shaped cover it will have something more like a cone. It's still a Shovelhead, though.

In the mid 1980's Harley-Davidson made a big comeback with the introduction of the Evolution engine. Most of the Harleys you will see on the street are this design generation. While a few will refer to these as Blockheads, they are most commonly referred to as Evos. The Evo features the same pushrod configuration as all of the big twins, a similar crankcase to the late model Shovels, and a simple, blocky head design.

The new Twin Cam Evos are nearly identical to their early model progenitors at a glance. If you look closely, you can detect a slight difference in the pushrod positions compared to the single cam models.

This is not an end-all-be-all guide. There are plenty of other designs that have been used especially in HD's earlier days with a few bastard step-children back in the late 1960's and 1970's (that many of us would like to forget). Custom bike builders have done all manner of crazy things as well. I've seen Pan heads on a Sportser case. The Pan/Shovel combo is very popular. Replica Knuckle and Pan covers are available for the Evo. One of the more radical designs I've seen linked up two Sportster motors, one in front of the other, with a transmission from a Shovel. Some bikes out there you just can't quite categorize. So this is just meant as a novice guide. That way when you see my Ironhead you don't embarrass yourself and offend me by calling it a Shovel. And I'm sure you Shovelhead owners don't want anyone calling your bike an Ironhead.


thanks for the info.
i always feel like i'm naming an engine wrong, so generally i dont try.

Great info, thanks. BTW you might also want to know your foriegn bikes. Suzuki does not make a Ninja.
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