Here's the story behind the naming of the Harley-Davidson Shovelhead Engine

Although Harley-Davidson is renowned for its high-quality motorcycles, the company often doesn't receive enough recognition for its creative engine names. Harley-Davidson developed an entire series of "head"-themed engines, including the Knucklehead, Panhead, and Shovelhead. Some of these engines are featured in the rarest Harley-Davidson motorcycles ever built. The Shovelhead, in particular, stands out in popularity—even Elvis Presley owned one. But how did it get its name?

The Shovelhead engine was introduced in the mid-1960s in response to increasing demand for a more powerful engine to handle modern, heavier motorcycles. As the successor to the Panhead (which followed the Knucklehead), Harley-Davidson needed to continue the naming trend, leading to the birth of the Shovelhead.

Like its predecessors, the Shovelhead engine got its name from the shape of its rocker covers, also known as valve covers. The new design of these parts resembled the blade of a coal shovel, hence the name. Similarly, the Knucklehead and Panhead were named for the shapes of their rocker covers. Although the Shovelhead's valve covers now resemble a V or U shape, their original shovel-like appearance provided Harley-Davidson with an apt name to continue its head-themed engine line.

What Happened to the Shovelhead Engine?

The Shovelhead engine isn't Harley-Davidson's most powerful, but it had a successful run from 1966 to 1982. Its reign ended not due to a lack of strength like the Panhead but because of geopolitical factors.

In 1974, the ongoing oil crisis led to fuel scarcity and lower octane fuel, which was less stable and consistent, causing engine problems worldwide. For the Shovelhead, the low-quality fuel led to engine knocking and overheating. As the engine overheated, the aluminum expanded, causing oil leaks. Despite these issues, American Machine and Foundry, the owners of Harley-Davidson at the time, continued production without addressing the engine's problems.

Oil leaks quickly became a significant issue for the Shovelhead, overshadowing the engine's accomplishments and earning it a notorious reputation. Eventually, it was replaced by the Evolution engine. Today, the Shovelhead is best known for its oil leak problems.