Flathead. Knucklehead. Panhead. Shovelhead. Ironhead. Blockhead. The insults keep flying but nobody seems to be getting angry. The reason is because those using these colourful words are merely speaking Harley. From the earliest times, Harley enthusiasts have given a nickname to every new reincarnation of the Harley V twin engine. The names originate from the shape of the rocker boxes or the top of each cylinder which resembles a pan or shovel etc. A favourite topic of discussion is always which engine type is or was the best. The choice is usually an emotional one, not based on any reference to actual proven facts. The latest Twin Cam “Fathead” motor is regarded by many older Harley fans to not even be worthy of the Harley Davidson name, even though it is by far the most advanced and reliable of all the engines. I can almost hear the Evolution “Blockhead” engine fans shouting their words of derision at me for making my previous statement.
The truth is that traditional Harley fans do not like or see the need for change. Every new generation of engine is always met with suspicion and resistance from riders of the current generation of engine, no matter how good the reason is for the new design. One of the strengths of the Harley brand was always the simplicity of the engines which allowed the owner to work on the motorcycle himself. Pressure from environmentalists and competition meant that Harley had to make the engines more efficient and therefore more complex. The Porsche designed Evolution or Blockhead engine was introduced in 1984 to replace the less reliable Shovelhead. It took years for the Evo to gain the respect it deserved and when it was replaced in 1999 by the Twin Cam, true to tradition, the Evo fans did not accept this new intruder easily. We can be sure that the day the Twin Cam engine is replaced by another engine the new pretender to the throne will receive a lukewarm response.
Many of the choppers built currently in the old school style utilise more modern Evo or Twin Cam engines. These engines are freely available and do not have the reliability quirks of the older but more period correct engine designs. Louis, owner of The Wrench in Centurion, built our featured Old School chopper around a first generation 1966 Shovelhead 1200cc engine. The Shovels were available from 1966 until 1984. Although Louis works on customers’ Evo and Twin Cam powered motorcycles every day, he is a sucker for a shovelhead engine and likes to use them in his own custom chopper creations.
Never one to follow fad or fashion, the choppers built by Louis are traditionally understated but always reflect his particular style. The only modern aspects on this rigid chop are the disc brakes and the 200mm wide rear tyre, all in the name of safety. The long springer front end, custom made petrol tank, sprung solo seat and ape-hanger handlebars are pure 1960s. The classy Performance Machine foot and hand controls add a subtle but classy touch to this motorcycle.
The older, more maintenance hungry Harley engines may not be most modern Harley owner’s ideal. There is however a surprisingly large group of Harley riders who detest riding a motorcycle which can only be repaired by the dealer. These owners see maintaining and repairing their own machine as part of their lifestyle and not as an unnecessary inconvenience. When I see the camaraderie reflected in many of David Mann’s legendary paintings of guys working together on their Harleys in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I can almost see their point.